He may have titled his 1987 book “Trump: The Art of the Deal,” but there was never much evidence that Donald Trump valued the arts during his presidency, except as a convenient punching bag.
Even before he was inaugurated, Trump got into a Twitter spat with the cast of “Hamilton,” and for the ensuing four years the relationship between the former president and the cultural sector was defined by mutual antipathy.
Trump repeatedly tried to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and routinely skipped the Kennedy Center Honors. Of the two dozen recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom during his presidency, only one was a cultural figure: Elvis Presley, who is long dead (though there’s some dispute about that).
Now, after an inaugural day and night that amply showcased singers, actors, and a young poet, Joe Biden has assumed the presidency amid a desperate fight by arts organizations to survive the financial crisis brought on by the pandemic. What could it mean in this perilous moment to have someone in the Oval Office who views culture as essential and takes steps to address the specific nature of the challenges faced by the performing arts?
The short answer is: potentially everything.
“This is the real shift between Biden and Trump,” said Harvey Young, dean of the College of Fine Arts at Boston University and a prominent cultural historian. “What I anticipate we’ll see is a celebration of the importance and the power of the arts. I imagine it will go back to the way that Barack Obama and Michelle Obama welcomed the arts into the White House, to show it is the arts that defines who we are.”
Young admits, though, that it’s not 100 percent clear how deep Biden’s commitment to the arts goes. The depth of that commitment will be revealed in whether or not the new president takes concrete steps to aid in the recovery of the pandemic-battered cultural sector. One vital step, Young said, would be forgiveness of the federal Paycheck Protection Program loans to arts organizations, which would “allow them to survive.” Courtney O’Connor, artistic director of Lyric Stage Company of Boston, which received funds during the first round of PPP loans, agreed that loan forgiveness “would be so tremendously helpful” to theaters and other performing arts institutions that have been shuttered for nearly a year.
“The biggest challenge the arts are facing is the fact that their doors are closed,” said BU’s Young. “As vaccines roll out, there needs to be a strategy to reopen and reestablish the live performing arts. The biggest mistake the Biden administration could make would be delaying too long the reopening of arts organizations.”
While Young says he expects Biden to increase the budgets of the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities — a task that should be easier with Democratic control of both houses of Congress — he also hopes Biden will “follow the Marty Walsh playbook and appoint a Cabinet-level arts leader.” The Boston mayor, who is Biden’s pick for US labor secretary, elevated the position of arts and culture leader early in his tenure. Accelerated by the current crisis, sentiment has been building recently in the cultural sector nationwide for the creation of a similarly high-powered post in the federal government.
“On a practical level, Biden, unlike Trump, will ensure the health of the NEA as opposed to trying to eliminate it,” said Robert J. Orchard, founder of Boston’s ArtsEmerson. “He talks about wanting to restore the soul of the country. I’d like to see arts, culture, and creativity rise to a Cabinet level. We need to encourage an active civic dialogue, and the arts can play a central role in that.”
To Lyric Stage’s O’Connor, a leader with a portfolio dedicated to culture is especially vital now, when Biden is juggling so many public-health and economic issues. “I can’t imagine everything that he is looking at every day, trying to get this pandemic under control and get things back open,” she said. “My fear is the arts will be forgotten.” Even measures not directly targeted at the arts, such as making health care more accessible and housing more affordable, would make a big difference in the lives of theater workers, she said.
Pressure is building on the Biden administration to move quickly to provide relief to the embattled arts sector. In a column that ran in the Guardian a few days after the inauguration beneath the headline “American theater may not survive the coronavirus. We need help now,” playwright Jeremy O. Harris (”Slave Play”) called for a national program modeled on the New Deal-era Federal Theatre Project.
Operating as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration from 1935-39, the relief project created jobs for thousands of unemployed theater professionals by funding productions, of dramas, musicals, puppet shows, and children’s plays across the country. The productions were often free, so there was a benefit to cash-strapped audiences as well as actors, designers, and technicians. A present-day version of the Federal Theatre Project could help reduce the “economic barrier” of high ticket prices that make theater “often sadly out of reach for many Americans,” Harris wrote.
He also called for greater economic assistance to arts workers and organizations, noting that while the German government has stepped up with an aid package of billions of dollars for the cultural sector, in the United States “most initiatives to help struggling arts professionals have been ad hoc and privately led. . . . We shouldn’t have to GoFundMe an entire industry, yet we are.”
Beyond such tangible measures is the message a president — or, often, a first lady — can send to the public about how much the arts matter: as an intrinsically enriching activity, as a means of building community, as an emblem of our shared values.
During Obama’s presidency, first lady Michelle Obama saw numerous shows on Broadway, sometimes accompanied by her husband, sometimes by their daughters, underscoring the importance of theater in the development of young people. “If I’m giving those experiences to Malia and Sasha, and I think it’s important to them, then I can’t pretend it’s not important for everyone,” she said.
The Obamas made sure to include musicals and plays created by or starring Black artists: They saw a performance of August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” (boosting subsequent ticket sales) and a revival of “A Raisin in the Sun” starring Denzel Washington. Michelle Obama attended the New York production of “The Gershwins’ Porgy & Bess” by Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater, and afterward thanked Audra McDonald, Norm Lewis, and the rest of the cast for “blessing my soul.”
“The fact that President Obama and Michelle Obama made a point of going to the theater, it was saying that a well-lived life requires that one goes out, visits museums, attends the theater, buys a ticket to concerts,” said Young. “That’s what a president can do.”
Of course, manifesting a fondness for the arts can also be an exercise in presidential image-polishing, a way to bask in the reflected glow of culture. John F. Kennedy’s interest in the arts was fairly limited, but public perceptions of his presidency as a bastion of culture were bolstered by first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who had a genuine passion for music and ballet. She threw open the White House to performing artists like cellist Pablo Casals and violinist Isaac Stern, and after JFK was assassinated, the young widow turned to a Broadway musical, “Camelot,” as a metaphor for his presidency, thus enshrining JFK’s three short years in the White House within the mythic aura of “one brief shining moment.”
“Cool” was certainly not the first word the average voter would have used to describe Jimmy Carter in 1976, but Carter upped his coolness quotient by referring to Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” when accepting the Democratic nomination. Aretha Franklin and Paul Simon performed at a concert for his inauguration, and Carter had such strong personal connections to Dylan, Willie Nelson, and the Allman Brothers, among others, that a recent documentary was titled “Jimmy Carter: Rock and Roll President.”
When it comes to the very different relationships the last two presidents had with the arts, “Hamilton” alone can pretty much tell the tale.
On May 12, 2009, with a clearly delighted President Obama and Michelle Obama in the audience, a young Lin-Manuel Miranda debuted what would become the opening number from his still-in-development musical at a White House Evening of Poetry, Music, and the Spoken Word.
Fast-forward seven years, to Nov. 18, 2016. “Hamilton” had become the biggest sensation on Broadway in a generation, Trump had just been elected president, and Vice President-elect Mike Pence decided to take in a performance of Miranda’s musical. When it ended, a cast member delivered a heartfelt appeal from the stage to Pence, saying that “we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us,” adding “we truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”
Trump immediately and furiously weighed in on Twitter, declaring that the “Hamilton” cast had “harassed” Pence and had been “very rude.” Demanded the President-elect: “Apologize!”
And on that rancorous note was established the prevailing tone of the next four years. With a new president in the Oval Office, many in the arts world are looking forward to more harmony — and more help recovering from the devastation wrought by the pandemic.
“Anything an American president does sends a signal,” said Orchard. “We’ve just been through a series of signals that are the most depressing in our history. Coming out of this fraught period, we need beauty and we need community — and the arts provide both. And that’s going to need support.”