The appointment of Rocco Landesman (not yet confirmed) as head of the National Endowment for the Arts has been widely praised, and I agree; Landesman is a smart, appealing character. $50 million for the arts was added to the stimulus package, and right nows it looks like the NEA's budget will be increased. The administration requested $161 million ($6 million up from the current level), and the House Appropriations Subcommittee has thrown a figure of $170 onto the table.
Whatever the final amount, however, it will still represent tokenism. Positive tokenism is better than negative tokenism, if there is such a thing. But after all the flurry of excitement (at least in some parochial arts quarters) about Quincy Jones's proposal for a cabinet-level Secretary of the Arts, and the high-profile arts evenings at the White House, it hardly looks like Obama is putting much political muscle behind a serious increase in the Federal government's involvement in the arts. Especially when you consider the minuscule level of a $155 NEA million budget, itself up from the recent past.
Yes, we have the tax-deductible contributions (which have declined in the recession and which Obama suggested might be trimmed back) that are supposed to compensate for shrunken national public support, even as the states eliminate or zero out their own state arts councils. Yes, even though our system gives disproportionate influence to rich people, the actuality of national culture bureaucrats controlling every aspect of the arts from top to bottom, as in France, has its downside. Maybe, as some have perhaps naively hoped, Landesman only accepted the NEA job in return for a promise of a significant budgetary increase down the line.
Still, Obama has not exactly made the arts a priority, even if he did have an arts component in his platform. Lord knows he has a lot on his plate. Maybe serious attention to the arts will have to wait until the economy recovers or until a lame-duck second term. But so far, it seems to be arts business as usual in Washington, which is precious little business at all.