"Why ask why" sign from Defenestration: an art installation in San Francisco. Photo by Lynn Friedman via Creative Commons

“Why ask why” sign from Defenestration: an art installation in San Francisco. Photo by Lynn Friedman via Creative Commons

Amidst the storm and thunder leading up to the Trump administration’s first days in office last month, The Hill reported that advisors to the president had suggested privatizing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (which supports PBS and NPR) and eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) as part of a broader effort to reduce federal spending. Coming from former staffers from the far-right Heritage Foundation and drawing heavily on past Heritage Foundation positions, the proposal was not entirely unanticipated, but it certainly met with immediate resistance. As a number of commenters have pointed out, cutting the NEA and NEH wouldn’t do much to balance the federal budget, given that they account together for just $296 million out of a four trillion dollar total. Because of this, the NEA’s contribution to national arts infrastructure has often been described as “symbolic.” Yet that description ignores the fact that the agency’s state and local partnerships create significant impact at the state level, where its policy of offering matching funds for state arts councils helps a lot of those councils stay in existence. (It doesn’t help that about a third of US states have little to no local infrastructure for arts advocacy and rely heavily on federal resources.) The NEA’s research initiatives would likewise be hard to replace if they went away, particularly core activities like the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts conducted every five years in partnership with the US Census Bureau. Losing the NEA and NEH is far from a done deal: Trump would need the support of Congress to make it happen, and Americans for the Arts reports that there are “about a dozen procedural steps that Congress and its committees must take” before either agency can actually be eliminated. And it’s far from clear to what extent that plan represents the actual intentions of the administration, which seems to change its mind about major policy positions from one day to the next. In the meantime, life goes on for the NEA, with the administration already having appointed representatives to liaise between the West Wing and the Endowment.

Arts advocates who are laser-focused on the survival of the NEA may be missing the forest for the trees, though. In a move some see as an even bigger threat to the arts, the president nominated Ajit Pai to head the Federal Communications Commission. Pai is an avowed foe of net neutrality and his ascendancy at the agency is almost certain to bring the controversial measure back into government consideration. Meanwhile, executive orders affecting people’s ability to travel and obtain health care are leaving many artists bewildered, worried, and angry. As much as losing the Endowment would be a loss, the sad irony is that if we had a stronger agency to begin with, our arts infrastructure would presumably be under even more direct threat right now.

South Korean artists face consequences amidst controversy. Concerns are growing about artistic freedom in South Korea as the scandal surrounding President Park Geun-hye continues to unfold. Park’s questionable friendship with the daughter of a cult leader named Choi Tae-min resulted in corruption charges and Park’s impeachment. Now, the New York Times reports that government aides have blacklisted thousands of artists, quietly collecting information and threatening legal action against those whose work is critical of their recently ousted leader. The moves only deepen the scandal in South Korea, which when compared to its neighbors to the north and west — North Korea and China — is considered a mecca of artistic freedom and opportunity. South Korea is one of only a few countries to increase arts and culture spending in the last decade and its artists earn roughly 77% of the country’s average income. The state-funded Artist Welfare Act of 2012 insures nearly 60,000 artists with a form of workers’ compensation. Despite these promising stats, there’s a clear agenda for promoting nationalism and prioritizing positive depictions of South Korea in arts and culture, an ongoing effort since the end of the Korean War. The emergence of this situation in a country as democratically-oriented as South Korea indicates the tension between artists’ (and citizens’) rights to freedom of speech and expression and countries’ desire to control the narrative observes fewer national boundaries than we might have hoped.

A crack in art’s black market. An investigation involving 18 countries has resulted in the arrest of 75 people allegedly affiliated with an international crime ring smuggling historical artifacts and other pieces of art out of Middle Eastern countries under siege by ISIS. The investigation found that items from Syria, Iraq, and Libya, among other countries, were systematically transferred to Western countries and resold on the black market, very likely helping to finance the Islamic State’s reign of terror. Authorities say many of the 3,500 items recently recovered were found in Spain and Greece. In a landmark case last September, jihadist Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi was convicted and sentenced by the International Criminal Court to at least nine years in prison for war crimes after ordering the destruction of shrines in Timbuktu, Mali. It could be a precedent for what lies ahead in this latest investigation. Historians, archaeologists, and artists are attempting to retrieve and restore, and in some cases, recreate the important artifacts that have been recovered or destroyed in the conflicts. A team at St. Petersburg’s State Hemitage Museum is developing a 3-D model of Palmyra, Syria, and a 25-square-meter replica of an authentic Syrian home sits in the middle of Norway’s flagship IKEA store. Last year, the Roman Colosseum featured reproductions of Palmyra’s archive room of Ebla and the Temple of Bel. And last month it was reported the National Archives of Finland has taken custody of digital copies of key Syrian documents for safekeeping in case the originals don’t survive the country’s civil war.

The Lucas Museum finds a home in LALA Land. The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art is expected to open in Exhibition Park in Los Angeles by 2021. More than a Star Wars museum, the $1 billion project will house items from George Lucas’s extensive personal art collection and Hollywood artifacts. The Marin County native’s museum was initially meant for San Francisco, but met strong opposition to the proposed site near the Presidio. The project then looked toward Chicago, where Lucas became embroiled in two years of negotiations over prime real estate on the city’s lakefront. A community group called Friends of the Parks filed suit — much to the dismay of Mayor Rahm Emanuel — contesting the notion that Chicago’s lakefront is public property, despite the fact that the site Lucas wanted (and on which he refused to budge) is currently occupied by a parking lot. The filmmaker eventually gave up on the idea, looking again to the West Coast at new locations in San Francisco and LA. LA won the sweepstakes, and area residents and local officials appear to be anxious for the project’s completion.

Apple wants what Netflix is having. Apple says it plans to begin creating movies and TV, hoping to capitalize on consumers’ hunger for streamed original series. The technology giant is experiencing a slump in sales for the first time in 15 years, back when Netflix was still primarily a mail-in-your-DVDs model. Netflix’s massive investment in original content ($5 billion last year) is paying off in spades, yielding the company’s biggest quarter in history last month amid hit after hit. Others are scrambling for a piece of the action and estimates indicate the number of original scripted television shows may soon surpass 500. Netflix remains the leader, but Hulu, Apple, AT&T (via Amazon), and Sony are all in hot pursuit. In an unusual twist, the satirical news giant The Onion signed a deal with Lionsgate to develop three feature films in partnership with Serious Business, an affiliate of Comedy Central. The move follows the lead of a recent Buzzfeed partnership with Warner Bros. to produce the film Brother Orange.

MUSICAL CHAIRS / COOL JOBS

  • The Rockefeller Foundation named board member Rajiv J. Shah as the foundation’s next president.
  • Writer and historian Tristram Hunt has resigned his seat in the British parliament to lead the Victoria and Albert Museum.
  • Andrea Noble-Pelant has been named executive director of the Alaska State Council on the Arts, consolidating the position with her role as the visual and literary arts program director.
  • After 24 years with the agency, Nevada’s Department of Tourism and Cultural Affairs Administrator Susan Boskoff is retiring this March.
  • Deana Haggag is leaving The Contemporary to lead United States Artists, a Chicago-based granting organization.
  • The Barack Obama Presidential Center on Chicago’s south side is hiring a museum director.

NEW RESEARCH OF NOTE