Through a studiously diverse performance series, President Barack Obama has made the arts an important part of White House life.
Last year, when President Barack Obama was inaugurated, hopes were running high across America.
Few had more reason to be excited than those of us who view our culture — music, film, theater, books — as central to our national character.
The inaugural ceremony included Aretha Franklin’s gospel take on “My Country ’Tis of Thee” and a new work composed by John Williams that was performed by a classical supergroup that included cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Itzhak Perlman.
At the Lincoln Memorial “We Are One” concert, televised the day before the inauguration on HBO, there were performances by Beyonce, Bruce Springsteen, will.i.am and Pete Seeger, plus two compositions by Aaron Copland.
“As arts organizations around the country face economic hard times and an uncertain future, it’s reassuring to think we have an engaged, culturally astute patron-in-chief,” I wrote last year.
“Some think we may see White House recitals — I know that if I had Yo-Yo Ma on speed dial, I’d be asking for concerts as often as he’d be willing to perform.”
In the past 20 months, the White House has hosted musical performances by a studiously diverse array of artists: Smokey Robinson, Jennifer Hudson, Joan Baez, John Mellencamp, Natalie Cole, Brad Paisley and Joshua Bell, to name a few.
Last year, there was an “Evening of Poetry, Music and the Spoken Word” with the husband-wife writers Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, the spoken-word artist Mayda del Valle and actor James Earl Jones.
No doubt some people might think these performances a waste of time and money. Why should the president be hosting artists when so many people are without jobs or are facing foreclosure on their homes?
The official White House blog tried to preempt those complaints in a recent announcement of an arts event: “While the economy remains the President’s central focus, which he will discuss again tomorrow in Cleveland, the First Lady continues to celebrate America’s cultural heritage amongst her many other issues, from military families to tackling childhood obesity.”
Read as: “Economy economy economy, economy economy (arts) military, economy.”
Despite the threat of giving ammunition to political opponents, First Lady Michelle Obama this month welcomed dancers from some of America’s most prominent companies into the East Room of the White House.
The event was a tribute to Judith Jamison, the longtime (and outgoing) artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. There were performances by the Alvin Ailey group, the Paul Taylor Dance Company, Broadway’s “Billy Elliot the Musical,” the Washington Ballet, the break-dancing Super Cr3w and the New York City Ballet.
“From ballet to Broadway to hip-hop, today is a celebration of some of the most beautiful, powerful and emotional aspects of American dance,” Michelle Obama said. (The president did not attend.)
Obama said she sees the Ailey group as often as she can, and usually brings her daughters, “because I want them to witness the grace and the beauty that stirs our souls and connects us to each other like nothing else can.”
The White House has made videos of some arts events available online for streaming or download at www.whitehouse.gov/video (click "Categories," then "Music & the Arts").
I’d wager that most of the people reading this column did not know about these White House performances. The New York Times and Washington Post sent critics to cover the opening of the dance series, but most news outlets ignored it.
Unfortunately, there is only so much the president’s bully pulpit can do, whether talking about the economy, politics, the military or the arts.
When the yammering pundits’ 24-hour news maw can be stuffed with religious books to be burned or community centers to be planned and protested, coverage of the arts is lucky to get a footnote.
With the economy still in the doldrums, corporations continue to restrict spending, so donation-dependent arts organizations remain strapped.
Obama has demonstrated that the arts are an important part of his White House life. In so doing, he has reinforced the idea that the arts are an essential part of American life.
But arts organizations run on neither hope nor hype. And the future, so bright on Inauguration Day, is having a hard time finding its light.
Brian Mackey can be reached at 217-747-9587 or firstname.lastname@example.org.