A couple of weeks ago, I wrote briefly about the May 12th White House Briefing on Art, Community, Social Justice, National Recovery I had helped to organize. Now, a detailed report on the briefing has been released. You can download it from the Cultural Recovery page of my Web site. The report is the next best thing to having been there, summarizing all we heard from administration representatives and all we said afterwards about how to act on what we had learned.
On May 12th, we heard from 7 officials: Mike Strautmanis, Chief of Staff for the Office of Public Engagement; Buffy Wicks, Deputy Director, Office of Public Engagement; Joseph Reinstein, Deputy Social Secretary, Trooper Sanders, Deputy Director of Policy and Projects, Office of the First Lady; Mario Garcia Durham, Director of Presenting at the National Endowment for the Arts; Tina Tchen, Director of Public Engagement; and Kareem Dale, Special Assistant to the President, who serves as liaison for both disability and arts.
It was an extremely interesting event. As I wrote immediately after, most of us were buoyed up just by being there. Having been dissed for so long by the Bush administration (and many of its predecessors), being invited to enter what those who briefed us called “The People’s House” seemed a remarkable indication of the potential for change. As the report explains,
Overall, we came away feeling that there would be room at the table for artists and creative organizers to take part in conversations about relevant policies and programs; and that we were being challenged to come up with promising and attractive ideas about how artists can work for the administration’s agenda and how artists’ work can be integral to national recovery.
I don’t underestimate the challenge. People who understand community cultural development work firsthand know the remarkable power of well-prepared and skilled community artists to contribute to any public initiative that needs to engage people deeply and help them see themselves as part of positive change. We were hoping this knowledge would precede us to the White House, that we would be met there by key policy people in community development, green jobs, rural and urban affairs, and so on. But the prevailing definition of art was far narrower: as it turned out, the longest presentation (and the most sophisticated in terms of understanding culture as a crucible for change) came from the White House Social Secretary’s office, the people who create parties, ceremonies and celebrations.
This is not negligible. The White House figures large in the symbolism of our cultural life. The air of Camelot that gathered around the Kennedy administration nearly fifty years ago was due in no small part to the appearance of stellar high arts figures such as cellist and conductor Pablo Casals at state dinners. The evening after our briefing, the White House hosted its first-ever poetry jam, with spoken-word and musical performances unlike anything those hallowed halls had previously experienced. During the briefing, some participants suggested that such events could resonate with allied local activities explicitly linked to the White House (e.g., a national poetry jam timed for the same night), creating a symbolic cascade. I’m even planning to write to the Social Secretary to suggest an event!
But in comparison with what we know we can do, even in the Obama administration, the dominant idea of the public interest in culture is underdeveloped, and now is our opportunity to enlarge it. There’s always a fine line between ambition and grandiosity (I keep driving over it myself, feeling the bump as I cross the white line). But whichever side of the line you place the current mood among activist artists, we are feeling the moment. Here are the final lines of a poem Carlton Turner read to bring our day to a close:
In the womb of the mother spirit of creation we gestate
On this occasion of engagement she gives birth to us
the evolution of possibility
We are the ones we’ve been waiting for
Movers in the spirit
Lovers of justice
We, the soul stirrers
The magic makers
The pulse takers of an ailing nation
This is our charge