On Friday, November 21, I was fortunate to attend the National Arts Policy Roundtable at the NYU Wagner School of Public Service, hosted by SNEAC (the Student Network Exploring Arts & Culture). The early morning event featured two panelists who have served on President-elect Obama’s arts policy committee (legendary philanthropist Agnes Gund and conductor Jonathan Sheffer). Rounding out the panel were Diane Ragsdale of the Mellon Foundation and Daniel Gallant of Nyuorican Poets Cafe. The discussion between panelists and audience delved into the details of Obama’s national arts agenda and picked apart rather thoroughly its strengths and weaknesses.

While most everyone was in agreement that Obama’s administration promises to be more arts-friendly than previous editions–one panelist opined frankly that the “fact that [an arts agenda] exists is a miracle”–there seemed to be a general feeling as well that those in power could be doing more. Of particular concern are two things: first, that on the change.gov website, the arts are identified under “Additional Issues” instead of as its own policy area; and second, that the arts policy advisory committee that helped define the Obama arts agenda during the campaign appears to have no equivalent during the transition to governing mode. It seems that the original arts agenda was developed very early on in the campaign’s lifecycle and was modified only slightly in subsequent months. Sheffer noted that many seemingly excellent ideas generated by the advisory committee before his own tenure began had not been adopted by the campaign, including the creation of more local arts councils, incorporating the arts into Small Business Administration loan programs, tax credits for “cultural investors” such as real estate developers who include artists in their plans, creative community block grants through the Office of Housing and Urban Development, and more.

Sheffer also recounted a promising tale of arts support from his prior home base of Cleveland: a 30-cent per pack cigarette tax passed in 2006 with 55% of the vote will bring in nearly $20 million a year to arts organizations in Cuyahoga County. As an aside, it seems to me that many of the more successful municipal arts programs in the country rely on creative taxation schemes like this–see, for example, San Francisco’s Grants for the Arts, which is funded by a hotel tax, or Denver’s Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, which is made possible by a 0.1% retail sales tax. These initiatives have broad public support (Denver’s has been renewed twice), sound modest in scale, and yet provide significant resources for local arts activities.

Going forward, several panelists had ideas for better coordinating the various arts-related activities in the federal government (did you know that there is a National Council on the Arts, for example?) through the appointment of a “culture czar” or similar position. Sheffer felt that some of these proposals might prove unrealistic, but suggested as a starting point the creation of a position under the Office of Public Liaison to ensure that the arts have a “seat at the table” during policy discussions involving other agencies.

All in all, this was a very worthwhile event, drawing a robust audience despite the early morning time. Congratulations to SNEAC, the new-ish student organization that put this together. I wish them well and look forward to seeing what else they have in store.