Tag: government arts funding

Diversity, Inclusion, and Funding New Music in the ’90s

In May 1989, the Republican Senator Alfonse D’Amato took to the floor of the senate chambers to angrily denounce the artist Andres Serrano’s photograph Piss Christ—which depicted a crucifix submerged in urine—as what he called a “deplorable, despicable display of vulgarity.” What made D’Amato particularly furious, and what led to his protests along with those of his fellow Senator Jesse Helms, was the fact that Serrano’s photograph had been touring as part of an exhibit indirectly funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. “This is not a question of free speech,” D’Amato proclaimed, as he waved a reproduction of the exhibit’s catalog. “This is a question of abuse of taxpayers’ money.” And then, unceremoniously, he tore the catalog in half, threw it on the floor, and declared, “What a disgrace.”

Worried about similar controversies, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington preemptively cancelled a large-scale exhibit of photographs by artist Robert Mapplethorpe, who had died of AIDS earlier that year, which included several explicit depictions of gay sex acts as well as nude children. Serrano and Mapplethorpe became the scapegoats for an uproar among Republicans in Congress, who debated whether the Endowment should be defunded or significantly restricted, as well as a newly galvanized evangelical movement, who accused the Endowment of promoting profanity and pornography. Avant-garde art, and its government funding, was conscripted into the sweeping referendum on post-’60s society, waged between left and right, known as the Culture Wars.

American composers, however, seemed to have little to fear: the focus of right-wing anger was directed towards the radical photography of Serrano and Mapplethorpe, as well as the performance art of figures like Karen Finley. The music that became subject to Culture Wars controversy––such as the rock and hip-hop targeted by the PMRC and Christian fundamentalist organizations––seemed far from the world of contemporary composition. Indeed, in an October 1989 article, the young composer David Lang expounded on the apparent lack of significance of the so-called “Helms amendment”––an attempt by the right-wing senator Jesse Helms to restrict federal funding to art that was deemed obscene or indecent––for the world of new music. “Artists like to feel that their work is challenging enough to be controversial,” he wrote. “Photographers, painters, filmmakers and the like can imagine victimization at the hands of Congress as a badge of honor. They are Art-martyrs to the First Amendment.”

“With all of the excitement,” Lang fretted, “it is disturbing that so little of this controversy is aimed at composers. Are we not controversial? Why isn’t Congress rushing to censor the subversive power of modern music? It is possible that we are doing something wrong.” Later in the article, Lang ultimately singled out one central culprit, what he called “A colossal loss of nerve.” As the academic avant-garde faded, Lang wrote, composers were looking to work with mainstream institutions and reach large audiences, and thus “there are a lot of people we can’t afford to offend.” Lang’s principal scapegoat was “polite music,” music “designed to impress an audience, not to provoke it. “Congress says we are dangerous,” he concluded. “It is up to us to prove it.”

David Lang fretted, “Why isn’t Congress rushing to censor the subversive power of modern music?”

But in utilizing the Culture Wars as a backdrop for making a perennial argument––that composers needed to make their music more aesthetically adventurous, to re-embrace avant-garde impulses––Lang may have overlooked the very real consequences of the Culture Wars on contemporary music. New music was not only swept up in the decimated public funding landscape that Helms and the religious right set into motion. Its institutions were also the subject of their own specific controversy, within the press and among granting panels, that centered on attempts to enact multicultural arts policy and promote the work of women and composers of color.

This three-decade-old episode of an attempt to diversify the world of contemporary composition––amidst a landscape of increasing arts austerity, loud Congressional battles over avant-garde art, and public backlash from prominent composers––has much to offer today’s attempts at fostering inclusion. It is one of many stories from my recent book, Industry: Bang on a Can and New Music in the Marketplace, which draws on interviews and archival research to reconstruct a crucial, turbulent, and oft-overlooked moment in American music.

The cover for Will Robin's book Industry

In the late 1980s, “multiculturalism” was a buzzword in the American arts world: promoted by foundation and government administrators, detested by conservatives, and made an explicit if only partly realized goal for arts institutions. In these contexts, multiculturalism was typically understood to signify the advocacy for art created by minority groups as well as outreach programs by traditional institutions to minority communities.

Multiculturalism became a lightning rod for debates on how NYSCA should adjudicate its funding.

And multiculturalism became a lightning rod for debates on how the New York State Council on the Arts (hereafter NYSCA) should adjudicate its funding. Established in 1960 as a public funding body for the arts in New York State, NYSCA preceded the NEA and served as a model for some of its programs. Under the direction of James Jordan—the cousin and longtime manager of Ornette Coleman—NYSCA’s Music Program increasingly supported new music, including adding a priority for programming living composers to its guidelines in 1985, and running a statewide touring program intended to grow audiences for new work. Jordan maintained a strong commitment to funding experimental jazz and the work of Black composers, and also viewed public funding as a means for new music to reach new listeners. “Can you sell experimental music?” he asked in a 1991 interview with EAR Magazine. “I think you can. But you have to sell its humanity, its spirituality…It’s the marketing that sells, whether it’s experimental or not.”

In this period, NYSCA attempted to address the issue of multiculturalism, partly in response to political pressure. In 1987, it launched a program to diversify audiences for large cultural institutions like the New York Philharmonic via funding for outreach programs. But in a series of public hearings conducted by the New York State Black and Puerto Rican Legislative Caucus, the “new audiences” programs were critiqued for subsidizing established institutions at the expense of smaller organizations within minority communities. The caucus organized a task force which produced a 1989 report, “Towards Cultural Democracy,” lambasting NYSCA for excluding people of color from its staff and panels, and for awarding grants primarily to “Eurocentric” institutions; its minority-aimed Special Arts Service Division, for example, was continuously underfunded and required lobbying simply to stay afloat. NYSCA’s panel review system was itself suspect, as its “experts” were typically only familiar with Eurocentric art forms and perspectives: “People of color are always outnumbered on panels and have little or no input in that decision-making process.”

“This is not a purely symbolic debate,” sociologist Samuel Gilmore wrote of multicultural arts funding in 1993. “Rather it is a battle over the current and future allocation of scarce artistic resources.” Public agencies were continually and rightfully pressured by their constituents to wrestle with how to allocate arts funding across different ethnic and racial demographics. As they attempted to do so—often poorly and unfairly, as the critics in “Towards Cultural Democracy” argued—they also faced critique from conservatives who felt that the organizations were abandoning the “permanent values” of the supposed canon of high art in favor of serving political interests.

The terms of this debate mirrored contemporaneous political battles over affirmative action, in which liberals argued for the necessity of acknowledging racial difference and conservatives instead made a case for purportedly “meritocratic” colorblindness. And what unfolded at NYSCA reflected national trends in arts funding; in the final years of the 1980s, as Gilmore points out, NEA programs in multiple categories steadily increased grants awarded to minority-based initiatives (though, in proportion to the agency’s total budget, such efforts still remained paltry). In 1990, President Bush’s NEA chairman described multiculturalism as an NEA priority, and language around it was incorporated into grant making guidelines.

Some of NYSCA’s new policies led to an uproar in the world of contemporary music, most vociferously voiced by the composer Charles Wuorinen. With the composer and flutist Harvey Sollberger, Wuorinen had co-founded the Group for Contemporary Music in 1962, among the earliest American ensembles specializing in contemporary composition. It was initially housed at Columbia University and received significant early funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, which had been seeding ensembles and electronic music studios at universities across the country. (Michael Uy’s fascinating new book Ask the Experts tells the full story of this moment.) The Group participated in a broader network of emergent Cold War institutions, including Princeton’s PhD program in composition, the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, and the journal Perspectives of New Music, which codified a new support system for contemporary music, strongly underscored scientific expertise, and were backed by university and foundation patronage.

A paradigmatic modernist Cold Warrior, Wuorinen had a forbidding reputation as an advocate for serial composition. And through the 1980s, he increasingly articulated a pessimistic, neoconservative worldview, expressing concerns about populism, pluralism, and the decline of “serious culture.” In a 1988 profile in The New York Times, on the occasion of Wuorinen’s fiftieth birthday, writer Joan Peyser focused on the composer’s concerns that minimalism was overtaking twelve-tone music, driven by institutions such as NYSCA prioritizing audiences over art. Like the neocon art critics who filled the pages of The New Criterion such as Samuel Lipman and Hilton Kramer, Wuorinen traced the plight of the present moment to the late ’60s: “That was the turning point. Art became capitalized, a Good Thing, something to be brought to everyone. With that came the promoting, the merchandising, the marketing––the change from art to entertainment.”

And Wuorinen apparently told the Times that the Group for Contemporary Music’s next season might be scrapped in part because of NYSCA: the composer “says the council’s money is going to organizations specializing in Minimalist music and that members of its music committee have told him of their wish to help promote the work of women and blacks.” The composer attempted to resist such efforts, steadfastly refusing to take any such considerations into account when programming his ensemble’s repertoire.

Grant application materials, held in the New York State Archives, further clarify both NYSCA and the Group’s positions. Reviewing the ensemble’s 1986–87 NYSCA grant application, a Council administrator noted concerns about its failure to program women and minority composers. In the preceding years, the Group programmed no music by women composers, and only one work by a Black composer. Wuorinen and the Group’s staff met with James Jordan in fall 1986. In a response to NYSCA that November, the ensemble’s executive director wrote that the Group had received few scores by women or minority composers in the past, but it would issue a public call, emphasizing that women and minorities would be encouraged to apply. Still, he noted, “We will continue to select the most worthy ones for performance without respect to gender or ethnic background.”

Reviewing the ensemble’s 1986–87 NYSCA grant application, a Council administrator noted concerns about the Group for Contemporary Music’s failure to program women and minority composers.

NYSCA was set up in a similar fashion to the National Endowment for the Arts: an internal staff helped adjudicate grants, in dialogue with independent panels of peer artists. And the peer panel that voted on the Group’s funding application later that month was not convinced: “That the Group has received only one score from a woman and none from minorities in the past two seasons had more to do with the history of not performing the works of women and minorities, creating an unwelcome atmosphere.” Its annual funding was cut substantially, from $16,000 to $10,000. Other ensembles faced similar scrutiny: reviewing an application from another group, Speculum Musicae, panelists discussed the “insularity of its programming, and the lack of evidence of any real effort to include women and minorities,” and its funding was cut by $3,000. In a 1985 review meeting, administrators from the downtown venue Experimental Intermedia told a NYSCA officer that they would feature more women and minority composers going forward.

Still, the Group refused to play ball. In June 1987, the ensemble held a board meeting in which it decided that “affirmative action programs had no place in artistic endeavors,” and “agreed that The Group must continue to maintain the integrity of its programming, despite the consequences of NYSCA funding or lack of it.” Its NEA funding had been cut back, too, and its New York seasons shrunk; the Group did, however, program music by two women, Michelle Ekizian and Barbara Kolb, in 1987 and 1989.

Beginning with its 1990 handbook, NYSCA’s guidelines included a new section stating that “The Council is particularly interested in offering assistance to worthy artistic activities that serve traditionally underserved communities or populations.”  The policy advocated for applicants to increase the diversity of their staff and program for culturally diverse audiences. To evaluate these new criteria, NYSCA asked questions of applicants “relating to participation in and service to traditionally underserved populations.” There were no pre-determined answers it sought, but it wanted to see a given applicant demonstrate good-faith effort. “We don’t punish those who don’t program women, minority, and American composers,” Jordan told EAR in 1991. “We reward those who do.”

After skipping applying for NYSCA funding for two years, the Group applied again in 1990 for a modest $5,500 for a three-concert, free series comprising music by Wuorinen, Milton Babbitt, Olivier Messiaen, and other composers––all of whom were white men. Responding to one of the new application questions––“Do you include artists who are representatives of minorities and special constituencies in your programming?”––the Group reiterated what had now become familiar rhetoric, that it was interested in programming minority composers “of merit” and that its artists “are selected on the basis of ability.” The peer panel reviewing the application debated whether to reduce requested funding based on its failure to address past concerns over diversity, and the state ultimately awarded $5,000. But the Group only presented one of its three proposed programs and in 1991–92, the ensemble’s thirtieth season, it ended its live concert series entirely, instead dedicating its resources exclusively to recording.

“The State Council of New York attempted to tell me what I should program,” Wuorinen told the scholar Richard Douglas Burbank around this time. “That’s why the Group for Contemporary Music doesn’t exist anymore, except on paper. The Arts Council wanted affirmative action.” He added that “They were taking artistic control from us and I wouldn’t have it.”

One peer organization in new music had no issues complying with NYSCA’s requests. Founded in 1987 by the composers David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe, the freewheeling Bang on a Can festival brought together rock-inflected postminimalism, uptown serialism, downtown experimentalism, and world music. They had easy answers to the questions that the Group had protested. In a 1990 NYSCA application, Bang on a Can described in detail its marketing and publicity work to reach diverse audiences, and noted that “our commitment to women and minorities has been, and remains, very strong,” providing a list of more than twenty women and minority composers featured in the past four years.

Back in 1988, Lang had actually written a letter to the Times rebuking their profile of Wuorinen, in which he accused the composer and his uptown compatriots of “rooting out dissent with the ardor of holy warriors on a serial jihad.” He added, “Only by encouraging diversity can music hope to stay vital.”

These priorities also made Bang on a Can an appealing candidate to foundations that supported diversity-focused initiatives. In 1990, it successfully applied for funding from the Meet the Composer/Reader’s Digest Commissioning Program to commission three new string quartets written by women, which the organization pitched as helping rectify the fact that “women composers are under-represented” in standard repertoire. (In terms of gender, an average of around 22% of works presented on the Bang on a Can marathons between 1987 and 1993 were by women composers—not representative numbers, but better than many peer organizations.)

An average of around 22% of works presented on the Bang on a Can marathons between 1987 and 1993 were by women composers—not representative numbers, but better than many peer organizations.

In a 1991 funding request to the Jerome Foundation, Gordon wrote that “In the past five years we have presented on our marathon concerts works by 82 emerging composers, of which 34 were by women and composers of color,” and that all of its commissioned works for 1992 were by women and people of color. He further noted that during its process for evaluating works submitted for performance at its marathons, following an initial blind review to see if the music fit the “artistic vision of the Festival,” there was a second review with a number of considerations including “whether the composer is an emerging, woman, or minority composer.” This clear acknowledgement that the organization took gender, race, and ethnicity into account in its programming would have been anathema to Wuorinen, who saw such efforts as a form of social engineering that jeopardized his notions of a modernist, individualist meritocracy.

And NYSCA program reviews and panel comments on Bang on a Can applications were consistently positive. “It is rare to find an organization which programs the works of women and minorities in representative numbers in a way that is natural to the goals of the organization,” a NYSCA staffer wrote in his evaluation of a 1991 funding proposal. As NYSCA funding for the Group for Contemporary Music was cut, Bang on a Can’s increased.

Ultimately, though, state program reviews were not what jeopardized new music in the 1990s. The decade began with massive reductions to NYSCA’s allocations, in response to the 1990 economic recession, which caused a deficit crisis in New York State. In 1991, Governor Mario Cuomo requested a 56 percent cut in NYSCA’s budget, prompting outrage in the arts community. James Jordan told EAR Magazine that the proposed cuts were the “worst shape we’ve been in during the last 20 years.” The budget was ultimately cut by 44 percent and, by 1992–93, the state arts budget was at its lowest level since the early 1970s. And new-music organizations across the board faced major state cutbacks, to which Bang on a Can was not exempt.

But some prominent composers would remember the culprit of this moment not as the recession, or a state government that deployed arts cutbacks to balance its budget, or even the paleoconservatives like Jesse Helms fighting at the national level. Invited by The Musical Times in 1994 to respond to the question “Music: the next 150 years?” Milton Babbitt took a bleak outlook, lambasting “pervasive and invasive populism” that endangered the future of what he perennially called “serious music.”

According to Babbitt, the National Endowment for the Arts “has imposed through its appointed panels a censorship of egalitarianism, regionalism, sexism (some may wish to term this ‘reverse sexism’) and racism (some may wish to term this ‘reverse racism’) which has had far broader and harsher effect than the publicized attacks and threat of censorship by a yahoo legislator and his fellow protectors of the public morality.” (“Yahoo legislator” was a reference to Helms.)

Arguing that the “NEA’s ideological correctness has trickled down to other public and private benefactors”—likely referring to NYSCA, although Babbitt does not name the Council—the composer recapped the Group for Contemporary Music’s funding woes and its cessation of live performance. And he repeated Wuorinen’s claims that the ensemble’s funding had been threatened by its failure to program music by minority composers. Instead, Babbitt argued, “There is apparently little concern that the most threatened minority groups are the composers and performers who have been on the programs and on the stage.” New music itself, in other words—rather than new music by composers from underrepresented groups—deserved affirmative action.

Like Wuorinen, Babbitt wrongly believed that Helms and his yahoos were less of a threat to serious music than liberal multiculturalism. His claims of the NEA’s reverse racism and reverse sexism in panel adjudication echoed conservatism’s “colorblind” opposition to affirmative action and other social programs that attempted to address inequality. Babbitt and Wuorinen had both benefited from Cold War–era foundation and university patronage, and their approach towards modernist music’s individuality, and distaste for what they saw as a politically correct government bureaucracy that threatened it, was steeped in the rhetoric of that time. If they saw themselves as heroically embattled figures during the Cold War, they assumed an even more embattled position during the Culture Wars.

Like Wuorinen, Babbitt wrongly believed that Helms and his yahoos were less of a threat to serious music than liberal multiculturalism.

And by no means did Babbitt accurately capture the state of public funding. Conservatives inflated what they disliked about the arts bureaucracy into a grand critique that assumed that the NEA and NYSCA exclusively funded the multicultural, the populist, and the obscene. At the federal level, “multicultural” arts funding was more rhetoric than reality: federal support for minority artists was largely concentrated in NEA programs like Expansion Arts, which had a much smaller budget than the Music Program.

And NEA granting for composers was indeed sexist, but in the more conventional, non-reverse fashion. In 1987, for example, composers Sylvia Glickman and Tina Davidson launched an official complaint after their Endowment proposal for a consortium commission of all-female composers was denied funding; in researching their case, they found that women had received only 9% of Composer Fellowships over the past eleven years, and that in 1987 only 3.26% of Endowment funding for the consortium and fellowship categories was awarded to female composers (a total of two grants). They noted that very few peer panelists were women, and even fewer were women composers. “The Endowment, by ignoring women composers’ excellence, effectively bars them from other funding sources, performances and continued artistic growth,” they wrote.

By 1996, the National Endowment for the Arts’ budget shrunk drastically from $162 million to $99.5 million and it eliminated nearly all fellowships awarded to individual artists.

But the granting programs would not have much time to take these critiques into account––to become actually multicultural, as Babbitt and Wuorinen feared. The “yahoo legislators” soon had their say: a year after the 1994 midterm elections, when Republicans won House and Senate majorities by campaigning on Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” Congress slashed NEA funding by 40%. By 1996, the Endowment’s budget shrunk drastically from $162 million to $99.5 million, it cut almost half of its staff, and it eliminated nearly all fellowships awarded to individual artists. By the early 2000s, public funding had been decimated at both state and federal levels.

What David Lang wrote in 1989 was not wrong: no senators took to the floor to tear up scores by Philip Glass or John Cage. New music was ultimately collateral damage in the Culture Wars, not directly targeted by congressional Republicans but still subject to the same devastating public funding cuts that the controversies over Serrano and Mapplethorpe inaugurated. But the controversies over NYSCA’s funding of new-music organizations—relatively tame in comparison to what unfolded on the floor of the senate—tapped into the same partisan rhetoric as the more famous ones that played out on the national stage, and did in fact conscript American composers into the battles of the Culture Wars.

Equally significant was what this tumultuous moment in culture indexed for American composition. When paleoconservative Pat Buchanan—who frequently railed against the NEA—ran against George H.W. Bush in the 1992 Republican primary, he declared in his convention speech that he was launching a “war for the soul of America,” one “as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.” As the Cold War ended and the Culture Wars began, the world of scientific, university-based modernist composition that had flourished among institutions like the Group for Contemporary Music gave way to the market-friendly postmodern eclecticism of organizations like Bang on a Can—a transformation facilitated by the shifting priorities of funding agencies who reflected a new national climate.

As the Cold War ended and the Culture Wars began, the world of scientific, university-based modernist composition gave way to the market-friendly postmodern eclecticism of organizations like Bang on a Can.

This story is part of what I call new music’s “marketplace turn,” a period in the 1980s and ‘90s in which presenters, funders, advocacy organizations, record labels, and upstart festivals pushed for American new music to reach a broad, non-specialist audience. Bang on a Can is one of the most significant victors from this period: today, with its touring ensemble, record label, and summer festival, it commands significant influence in the world of contemporary music, not to mention a multi-million dollar budget.

In her book On Being Included, Sara Ahmed cogently identifies pernicious gaps between how diversity is advertised and promoted and how it is actually enacted and exercised in practice. Here we see the enaction of relatively tame state policies to promote a more diverse world of new music inciting vehement pushback. For those currently engaged in such efforts at their own universities or within their own ensembles, the fearmongering of Wuorinen and Babbitt may not be all that surprising. Even long after the Cold War, many musicians still perpetuate ideologies of autonomy that view even the mildest forms of affirmative action as a pernicious encroachment on artistic independence.

One of the principal problems that Ahmed and others have identified is that the work of diversity—and ultimately, and more importantly, the work of anti-racism and anti-sexism—is that it is continually under-resourced, often serving as tokenistic PR instead of actual redistributive justice. The story of NYSCA in the 1980s and ’90s is thus prescient, or at least unsurprising, in this regard. Just as public granting agencies began to enact multicultural arts policies, their funding was massively cut, and, as the Babbitt essay demonstrates, some even blamed the policies themselves for those cuts.

“If you’re giving an organization $10,000, you can say, ‘In return to that we expect you to have a social face,’” David Lang recalled in a conversation we had in 2019. “If you’re cutting them from $10,000 to $1,000, you can’t say, ‘Oh by the way for this $1,000 we’d like you to change your organization’ . . . That social action, at least from government organizations, was ascendant as the funding was ascendant, and when the funding got cut a lot of steam went out.”

Similarly, in a 1996 NYSCA grant application, when asked how its programming reflected “efforts to broaden and diversify its audience,” the venue Experimental Intermedia did not mince words: “Frankly, we have to state that continued federal, state, corporate and foundation arts funding cuts have stripped most organizations to the bone. We continue our open invitation to and interest in minority artists, but there are no funds with which to explicitly address these issues beyond what it possible in regular programming.” James Jordan had claimed that NYSCA would reward organizations that programmed women and minority composers, but they were left with few resources with which to undertake new projects. Budget cuts compromised transformative change.

Today, renewed and necessary advocacy for diversity and inclusion—whether in the petitioning of major institutions to program works by underrepresented composers, the crucial labor of organizations such as Castle of our Skins, or the proliferation of equity committees—can only go so far on the limited resources of our neoliberal landscape.

Instead of petitioning a robustly funded NEA to enact policy that advocates for BIPOC composers, we instead understandably find ourselves yelling at orchestras on Twitter.

In an era of public arts austerity, these diversity efforts often represent individual, entrepreneurial projects rather than broad social endeavors sustained by government support. Which is to say that, instead of petitioning a robustly funded National Endowment for the Arts to enact policy that advocates for BIPOC composers, we instead understandably find ourselves yelling at orchestras on Twitter. As we continue to talk about diversity, the American people need to put our money—and, especially and crucially, our public money—where our mouths are.

Speak Now: D.C. Dispatch—Arts in the Time of Trump

Almost four years ago my family moved to Washington, D.C. This city is everything you think it is, and yet it’s not. Like any big metro area, Washington is made up of multiple layers and identities, with government being only one dimension. Yes, we are interrupted by motorcades—a lot of them—and we do see many political players. We have monuments and large legal and lobbying firm HQs. But Washington is far more than Capitol Hill. It’s an actual city with native Washingtonians, hipsters in Adams Morgan, a complex international diplomatic and NGO community, tech companies, universities, a heavy military and intelligence population (not to mention… spies!), corporate headquarters, important non-profits, and—of course—a thriving and growing arts community. In so many ways, from restaurants to music, D.C. is no longer just a tourist stopover on Amtrak. It is a unique and complex mix of its varied community elements; it is a destination. We are also unique in that our political voice does not count in the national conversation. More on that later.

The military employs some of the best instrumentalists, singers, and arrangers in the country.

One of the many fascinating intersections between D.C. communities involves the military’s music population. If you aren’t aware, the military employs some of the best instrumentalists, singers, and arrangers in the country. Certainly it helps to have the National Symphony and Opera here, but a lot of musical activity is scaffolded by the military, creating a first-rate, thriving, local group of musicians. They make up a sizable percentage of the many flourishing mid-budget ensembles and organizations. It probably isn’t well known that these military ensembles premiere new work, play contemporary music, and work with local presenters (e.g. last year’s collaboration between Washington Performing Arts and the U.S. Air Force Band to perform John Luther Adams’s SILA).

It is a bit surreal to live in Washington, D.C. now, not just during the changeover of administrations but during a transition that is so “unprecedented.” Friends tell us of their past experiences with changes in administration—the changing of the political guard, real estate swaps, questions of budgetary impact, and so on. But this administration has everyone stumped and guessing. Among the many pressing issues is: what might happen to the arts in the Age of Trump?

There is unease and uncertainty in the air here. While “federal government” is abstract in many parts of the country, here it is very real. It is people and lives, flesh and blood. We know people who had to take out loans to pay their mortgage when the government shut down in 2013. We know people working for the NIH, the NEA, NEH, the Smithsonian, and other government departments, like Defense, State, Justice, or the Consumer Protection Finance Bureau. And we certainly know many people in the arts, including many of those military musicians.

The last two decades have seen immense growth in population, culture, and gentrification in the DMV (DC-Maryland-Virginia area). A more broad-based economy that is very “local” has developed. Still, our ecosystem is dependent in profound “trickledown ways” on the federal government. Cutting “waste, fraud, and abuse” translates into actually cutting or doing away with agencies, departments, and programs. And, if these are all cut… people are let go. This effects not only those individuals, but local businesses large and small, the tax base, and then artistic activities and support. Many of the programs currently being floated for cuts or elimination are crucial to citizens across our country, but they are also critical locally. This is a cost that is neither talked about nor tallied up, when the usual arguments about cutting government spending are offered. The potential for a negative “knock-on effect” is huge.

One thing that has not grown over many decades is the power of our political voice.  As we focus on the possible impacts of these budget cuts we are cognizant there is little we can actually do to stop them. Over six hundred thousand people currently live in this federal District of Columbia but not one of us have congressional voting rights. We are a district, not a state, and therefore are governed by Congress, which still denies D.C. fully-fledged voting members in the House or the Senate, or the Electoral College. No vote, no voice. Even with the rights to vote in popular presidential elections (1961) and for our own mayor and city council (1973), Congress still has ultimate authority over the District and can overturn any mayoral or council decisions. This is why our license plates say “Taxation Without Representation.” If cuts are coming our way there is not much we can do but protest.

Music, like politics, is local.

During our current tumultuous times, D.C. has seen its share of public protest and demonstration. Certainly the recent Arts Advocacy Days were a very public example of the wide and deep support the arts have, as many took to Capitol Hill to meet and advocate. And it has been interesting to witness the “rallying to the flag” response the mere mention of the NEA has been eliciting of late—spontaneous, big, loud, sustained, and heartfelt ovations; always on cue in public events these days. But much of the real action—organizing and working—is behind the scenes and behind closed doors.

Protesters assembled outside the United States Congress in Washington DC

The election has been a moment of clarifying purpose and mission for many. Some non-profits (both arts-focused and not) have reported a surge in support and donations, and they are reaching out and coordinating with each other like never before. By coincidence, the Shift Festival of American Orchestras, the first-ever collaboration between the Kennedy Center and Washington Performing Arts, was launched at this most opportune time here in D.C. Suddenly, the city saw invasions from Colorado, Georgia, North Carolina, and New York, complete with their local orchestra boards and supporters, media, local delegations and representatives—and a lot of local pride. One of the main takeaways from the festival was a clear reminder that excellent music making occurs across the country with strong local support. Washington is the obvious choice to showcase such a platform. It ends up that music, like politics, is local.

Art and its institutions are among the few avenues left for meeting and setting aside differences.

It’s also important to understand that many right now are not overtly protesting proposed arts funding changes, but they are paying attention. In some cases more progress can be made through quiet, diplomatic backchannels, assuming they still exist. Not too long ago even major players from the various political factions still frequented the same social events, coached each other’s kids on sports teams, carpooled at the same schools, and generally mingled. Sadly, this is not that case anymore. Many locals attribute this decline to the trend of representatives refusing to move their families to D.C., treating their time here as a stay at a hotel, not a home. Bridges are also being deliberately dismantled between the sides. This leads to even more polarization. Art and its institutions are among the few avenues left for meeting and setting aside differences, even if only for a few hours. Many boards still have members from both sides of the aisle. We don’t want to lose that. Please don’t confuse a lack of visible signs, including protest, for lack of motion and effort.

It is ironic that we Washingtonians have ringside seats at this epic battle, but we have no real voice ourselves. We live here, pay taxes, fight in our nation’s wars, but do so without true national representation. You can call your full-voting representatives, but we in the District cannot. At least we can show up, demonstratively and loudly, in the arts.

Joel Friedman, in a suit; the White House can be seen in the background.

Joel Friedman is a composer of concert, theater, dance, and film music who is now based in Washington D.C. He is a speaker/host/writer on various musical topics and teaches composition at Catholic University. Upcoming commissions include a double concerto for violin and viola and chamber orchestra (for Ariel Horowitz, Lauren Siess, and Barbara Day Turner of the San José Chamber Orchestra), a vocal work based on the writings of Hildegard of Bingen for the vocal trio ModernMedieval, and the score to Evolve Puppets NYC’s new show Home.

Trump Budget Proposal Eliminates NEA

Last night reactions to President Trump’s proposed budget began circulating, which includes a call for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

In response to the proposal, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) underlined that the “administration makes recommendations, but Congress does budgets.” Arts groups are urging their constituents to contact their representatives.

The NEA has made the following statement via its website:

Statement from National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Jane Chu

Today we learned that the President’s FY 2018 budget blueprint proposes the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts. We are disappointed because we see our funding actively making a difference with individuals of all ages in thousands of communities, large, small, urban and rural, and in every Congressional District in the nation.

We understand that the President’s budget request is a first step in a very long budget process; as part of that process we are working with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to prepare information they have requested. At this time, the NEA continues to operate as usual and will do so until a new budget is enacted by Congress.

We expect this news to be an active topic of discussion among individuals and organizations that advocate for the arts. As a federal government agency, the NEA cannot engage in advocacy, either directly or indirectly. We will, however, continue our practice of educating about the NEA’s vital role in serving our nation’s communities.

NEA Names 2014 National Heritage Fellowships and 2015 Jazz Masters

Recently confirmed NEA Chair Jane Chu has announced the latest recipients of lifetime honors through two of its programs, the NEA Jazz Masters and the NEA National Heritage Fellowships. Three iconic jazz composers—Carla Bley, George Coleman, and Charles Lloyd—were among the honorees. An additional NEA Jazz Master award was given to jazz presenter Joe Segal, who is the founder of The Jazz Showcase, opened in 1947, which is the oldest continuously operated jazz club in Chicago. The nine 2014 NEA National Heritage Fellows include Tejano composer, singer, and bandleader Manuel “Cowboy” Donley, Omaha traditional singer and drum group leader Rufus White, blues/gospel/R&B band The Holmes Brothers, and the Singing and Praying Bands of Maryland and Delaware. Among the other recipients are masters of a wide range of traditional arts and crafts.

The 2014 NEA National Heritage Fellows will be honored at an awards ceremony on Wednesday, September 17, 2014 and at a concert at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium on Friday, September 19, 2014. The 2015 NEA Jazz Masters will be honored at an awards ceremony and concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center on Monday, April 20, 2015, to coincide with Jazz Appreciation Month. The two concerts will be streamed live on arts.gov; the Jazz Masters concert will additionally be streamed on jalc.org/live.

The NEA National Heritage Fellowships and Jazz Masters Awards were both initiated in 1982. Since their inception, the Jazz Masters program has honored over 100 leading jazz composer, instrumentalists, and vocalists, as well as important jazz advocates. The National Heritage program has recognized master artists working in 211 distinct art forms in the United States. There are more details on the NEA website.

(—from the press release)

A Federal Case for the Arts

“Science and literature are of no party or nation.”—President John Adams

Mount Rushmore

The arts patron and friend of composers, the violinist and music collector, the art critic, and the opera fan.

Presidents’ Day just passed and it got me thinking. Is the idea of government support for the arts un-American? On the contrary. It is as American as apple pie. In the early years of the republic, were our political leaders rubes when it came to music and other arts? Look again.

Our iconic founding fathers Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and many of our subsequent presidents had signal public relationships to music and the arts. Francis Hopkinson, one of the 56 signatories of the Declaration of Independence, was the first notable American art music composer, even earlier than William Billings. According to American music historian John Tasker Howard, “A study of Hopkinson’s life and writings shows that music was appreciated and enjoyed by the colonies; and that the people of that time had access to the best of contemporary music literature.” Other signers of the Declaration like Elbridge Gerry and George Clymer publicly promoted support for the arts in the newborn nation. Even Christian clergymen of the colonial era took up the arts standard: “Why may not a Republic of Letters be realized in America as well as a Republican Government? Why may there not be a Congress of Philosophers as well as of Statesmen?” asked Jeremy Belknap in 1780, adding that the new country of America ought to “shine as Mistress of the Sciences, as well as the asylum of Liberty.” Belknap (1744-1799) was a Congregationalist minister and Revolutionary War chaplain. And General Washington himself averred the following, in a letter to Lafayette in May 1788:

Men of real talents in Arms have commonly approved themselves patrons of the liberal arts and friends to the poets, of their own as well as former times. In some instances by acting reciprocally, heroes have made poets, and poets heroes.

Composer, organist, and harpsichordist Francis Hopkinson represented New Jersey in the second Continental Congress, and under President Washington he served as judge for the United States District Court in Pennsylvania. On December 11, 1781, Hopkinson’s oratorio The Temple of Minerva was performed in Philadelphia with General Washington in attendance. Hopkinson later dedicated his Seven Songs to “His Excellency George Washington, Esquire.” In return, Washington told Hopkinson that the “honor of my Country” obliged him to believe that Hopkinson’s songs could “melt the Ice of the Delaware and Potomack.”

Hopkinson Dedication

The dedication page from the original publication (1788) of Seven Songs by Francis Hopkinson. (The collection actually contains eight songs, but the final one was added after the title page had already been engraved.)

According to historian Gordon Wood, George Washington loved the theater and thought it the duty of the American president to be supportive of art and music even in cases where he himself didn’t understand it. Washington “was an active patron and friend of music. He loved the fine things of life, and as a gentleman of culture he had the rare gift of knowing how to get the most from his leisure. He was a frequent attendant at concerts, and ….heard the ballad-operas of the day. At Mount Vernon there is still preserved the harpsichord he bought for [his step-granddaughter] Nelly Custis,” wrote John Tasker Howard in Our American Music. In Philadelphia in June 1787, General Washington attended the first known American four-hand piano recital.

In the popular mythology, American presidents tend to be lumped together as tone-deaf, as per U. S. Grant’s apocryphal statement that he knew two tunes, “One is Yankee Doodle, the other isn’t,” and President Eisenhower’s remark to Leonard Bernstein at the White House in 1960: “I like music with a theme, not all those arias and barcarolles” (which phrase Bernstein lifted to title one of his last compositions). But the historical truth about our 18th and 19th century leaders is that many of them liked music and art, and political actions toward support for music and the other arts were more common than is imagined. Even Richard Nixon played the piano and wrote music.

Lest we forget: among the enumerated powers given to Congress in Article I, Section Eight of the U.S. Constitution is the power “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.” Details about the White House occupant’s attendance at the Presidential Box at Washington’s Kennedy Center are not disclosed to the public for security reasons, though the Kennedy Center acknowledges that visiting heads of state and even cabinet members (Condoleezza Rice) have occasionally taken the seats.

“Any critic who says that government support of the arts is un-American and contrary to our national tradition is not aware of the facts,” wrote theatre historian Dorothy Gillam Baker (1916?-1990) in the early 1960s, a few years before President Lyndon Johnson established the National Endowment for the Arts. (Prof. Gillam Baker, by the way, served in the military in World War II as a lieutenant in the Coast Guard.) She added, “Government responsibility for the arts was expressed in constitutions and other documents of the Colonies, prior to the Declaration of Independence. Before the close of the 18th century, government leaders of individual states recognized this responsibility and attempted to establish a government theater. It failed to pass only because of other more urgent needs of the youthful country. The movement for government support has been almost continuous since that time, parallel with our awareness of the inadequacy of our commercial theater by comparison with the state-supported artistic activity abroad.”

Even during the height of the Revolutionary War, American painters found themselves in demand, the beneficiaries of “new government commissions for commemorative works,” according to historian Kenneth Silverman. Not long after the War ended, in 1785, the Pennsylvania legislature debated a proposal for a government-supported theater. In the debate, war hero “Mad” Anthony Wayne not only asserted that “a well regulated theater was universally acknowledged to be an efficient engine for the improvement of morals,” but declared that “a theater in the hands of a republican government, regulated and directed as such, would be, instead of a dangerous instrument, a happy and efficient one.” Continental Congress delegate Cadwalader Morris was among those who seconded General Wayne’s view, warning his colleagues that “people will find out amusements for themselves unless government do it.” George Clymer, who signed both the Declaration and the Constitution, sided with Morris and Wayne. They lost the cause when an anti-theatre act was passed, but in February 1789 the act was repealed when William Temple Franklin (1760-1823), grandson of Benjamin Franklin, submitted a brief that argued that “the same authority which proscribes our amusements, may, with equal justice, dictate the shape and texture of our dress or the modes and ceremonies of our worship….[it is] contrary to the principles of a free government to deprive any of its citizens of a rational and innocent entertainment….” Other signers of Franklin’s brief included General Anthony Wayne and Robert Morris, the “financier of the American Revolution” who also signed both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, and later was a U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania. Later that same year, Elbridge Gerry, another Declaration of Independence signatory and later a U.S. vice-president and governor of Massachusetts, wrote a letter to Samuel Adams to persuade him to favor such a bill in Boston. Gerry had lived in New York, liked the theater, and expressed the opinion to Adams that establishing a theater would help in “forming the national character.”

Benjamin Franklin, as the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians notes, played the harp, the guitar, and the glass dulcimer. He wrote a short treatise on musical aesthetics and printed three books of hymn tunes in the 1730s. (A weird open-string string quartet long ascribed to Benjamin Franklin is now judged misattributed by most scholars.) But most famously, Benjamin Franklin invented a musical instrument: the glass armonica. Writes biographer Walter Isaacson,

It was based on the common practice of bored dinner guests, and some musicians, of producing a resonant tone by moving a wet finger around the rim of a glass. Franklin attended a concert in England of music performed on wineglasses, and in 1761 he perfected the idea by taking thirty-seven glass bowls of different sizes and attaching them to a spindle. He rigged up a foot pedal and flywheel to spin the contraption, which allowed him to produce various tones by pressing on the glass pieces with his wet fingers….Marie Antoinette took lessons on it, Mozart and Beethoven wrote pieces for it.…

Ben Franklin Glass Armonica

According to Benjamin Franklin, “Of all my inventions, the glass armonica has given me the greatest personal satisfaction.”

The range was a chromatic three octaves. It was pressure-sensitive, and once tuned never needed retuning. Franklin himself played it. Franklin’s invention, the nested glass harmonica, is still played today and can even be seen and heard on YouTube videos.

Thomas Jefferson “was already a competent fiddler” by the age of fourteen according to biographer Willard Randall. He taught himself to read music and could play both by ear and by sight reading. As a student at the College of William and Mary, Jefferson still found time to play the violin, sometimes with his violin-playing roommate, John Tyler, father of the U.S. president of the same name. While he was still studying law, Jefferson played violin in a consort with cello, flute, and harpsichord at weekly chamber music concerts at the Governor’s Palace of the Virginia Colony. (He was engaged to do this by the Lieutenant Governor of the Virginia Colony, Francis Fauquier, who like Jefferson was an all-around politician-intellectual who dabbled in music.) In his twenties Jefferson frequently attended plays at the playhouse of the Virginia Company of Comedians. On his many visits to the colony’s capital city of Williamsburg, according to Randall, Jefferson

paid to hear music of any kind played by a chamber orchestra or by an organ grinder or on a glass armonica….In the afternoons, in the evenings, he searched out music or played it on his fine fiddle, and according to one of his servants, when he rode or walked, he loved to hum minuets or sing. An overseer recalled, “When he was not talking, he was nearly always humming some tune or singing in a low tone to himself.” Added his manservant, Isaac, “Hardly saw him anywhere but what he was a-singing.”

In 1779 Jefferson welcomed captured Hessian prisoners of war into his Monticello home. One of them later wrote back in Germany, “As all Virginians are fond of music, [Colonel Jefferson] is particularly so. You will find in his house an elegant harpsichord, pianoforte and some violins. The latter he performs well upon himself, the former his lady touches very skillfully….” Jefferson collected a large library of music from which he and others performed. In a 1778 letter to Giovanni Fabbroni, an acquaintance in Paris, Jefferson called music “the favorite passion of my soul” and told of his grand aspiration to build a live-in band at Monticello. Ever the chronic overspender, Jefferson mused aloud to Fabbroni how he might be able to afford his passion for background music. He came up with an 18th century version of the idea of a home audio system: importing a domestic staff from Europe “to gratify his appetite as a listener”:

I retain for instance…a gardener…a weaver…a cabinet maker…and a stonecutter….In a country where like yours music is cultivated and practised by every class of men I suppose there might be found persons of those trades who could perform on the French horn, clarinet or hautboy and bassoon, so that one might have a band of two French horns, two clarinets, & hautboys & a bassoon.

John Quincy Adams, unheraldedly one of our most cultured presidents, kept a daily diary for 69 of his 80 years and was one of only two presidents who could proficiently speak or read five languages other than English (the other was Thomas Jefferson). Quincy Adams was also a devotee of both the theater and the opera. He opposed the banning of theater in Boston in the early 1790s and wrote vigorous defenses of the stage in newspaper articles. While in London in 1816 Adams and his wife attended Don Giovanni, which he thought “delicious to my ear.” On March 23, 1816, he heard a performance in London of Beethoven’s notorious orchestral potboiler Wellington’s Victory, and wrote discerningly, “Bad music, but patriotic.” After serving a single term as president, John Quincy Adams served as a congressman for 17 years. In his 1838 diary he praised a Washington D.C. production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and characterized another of Bellini’s La sonnambula as “delicious.” He also liked Norma and I Puritani (“Momento!” he wrote in his diary) and heard Norwegian violinist Ole Bull on his American tour.

Quincy Adams Flute Music

A page of flute music copied by John Quincy Adams when he was studying the flute during his student days at Harvard University (1786-87).

One of the more curious footnotes in Composers-at-the-White-House annals belongs to Anthony Philip Heinrich (1781-1861), an avant-garde (for his era) and overweeningly ambitious composer emigré to the United States. John Hill Hewitt (1801-1890), an American songwriter and journalist, knew both Heinrich and President John Tyler and wangled a White House visit for Heinrich. The composer was a kind of pioneer American Stockhausen. Perhaps seeking White House backing, he proposed to dedicate a large choral/orchestral work to the president entitled Jubilee. Hewitt later wrote of this unique meeting in his 1877 musical memoir Shadows on the Wall.

We visited the president’s Mansion, and were shown in the presence of Mr. Tyler, who received us with his usual urbanity. I introduced Mr. Heinrich as a professor of exalted talent and extraordinary genius. The President…readily consented to the dedication and commended the undertaking. Heinrich was elated to the skies, and immediately proposed to play the grand conception. The composer labored hard to give full effect to his weird production…occasionally explaining some incomprehensible passage, representing, as he said, the breaking up of the frozen river Niagara…the thunder of our naval war-dogs and the rattle of our army musketry. The inspired composer had got about half way through his wonderful production when Mr. Tyler arose from his chair, and, placing his hand gently on Heinrich’s shoulder, said: ‘That may all be very fine, sir, but can’t you play us a good old Virginia reel?’

James Buchanan may be a near-unanimous choice for history’s worst president, though he had the most extensive resume of government service of any candidate ever elected to the job. Still, he in 1859 became the first president ever to appoint an NEA-like organization, the National Commission of Fine Arts, based on a petition signed by 127 American artists. The Commission was abolished a year later because Congress regarded its request for appropriations to carry out its plans exorbitant (and untimely perhaps, given the impending national crisis of the Civil War). The hostess of the unmarried Buchanan’s White House was his niece, Harriet Lane, who was dubbed the “First Lady” (the first time that sobriquet was applied in our history). The young and vivacious Lane was the Jacqueline Kennedy of her time, frequently inviting artists and glitterati to White House events, and she surely must take a share of the credit for her dour uncle’s arts activism.

Yet even with the Civil War raging, Abraham Lincoln went to concerts, theater, and the opera during his White House years. According to biographer David Herbert Donald, “After 1863, when New York opera companies began offering a special Washington season, the Lincolns were regular patrons. They attended performances of Gounod’s Faust, Weber’s Der Freischutz, and Flotow’s Martha, [and The Magic Flute] among others.” Creepy fact: on at least one other occasion before April 14, 1865, Lincoln attended a play featuring John Wilkes Booth in the cast.

Government arts activism only increased during the postbellum Gilded Age, according to Dorothy Gillam Baker: “Mild, perennial agitations in Congress for a National Conservatory of Music, which should make our country musically independent of the rest of the world, began about 1879. In some instances, legislative bills for a National Department of Fine Arts accompanied the Conservatory bills. By 1891 the Conservatory lobbyists succeeded in putting through Congress an act providing for the incorporation (as a National Conservatory) of a music school, founded a few years earlier in N.Y. by Jeannette Thurber. The bill became law with the support of President Benjamin Harrison. In 1897, the Public Art League of the U.S., with some 500 members, was formed for the express purpose of sponsoring a bill for the creation of a national office of the arts. Presented that year, the bill did not come to a vote in Congress; neither did McKinley’s 1896 campaign promise to back the establishment of a national theater.” After endowing what became Carnegie Hall, many Americans expected that Andrew Carnegie would similarly endow a national theater. Carnegie’s reply: “On the continent of Europe many theaters are subsidized by the government….It would be an experiment here, and, if to be made, should be by the government, as in Europe. It does not seem a proper field for a private gift.”


Music critic and William Howard Taft look-alike Henry Krehbiel

During the 1890s William Howard Taft and his culturally climbing wife Nellie established the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Later Taft, a “severely conservative” Republican president, kept a Victrola in the Blue Room of the White House and frequently played 78 rpm Enrico Caruso records and, according to his son Charles, also enjoyed ragtime. The Pianola Company sent Nellie Taft a piano which she put in the Blue Room. Taft apparently knew Henry Krehbiel, dean of American music critics at the turn of the century. As I wrote in my 1998 book Maestros of the Pen: A History of Classical Music Criticism in America:

In the popular iconography of the day Krehbiel was regarded as a ringer for President William Howard Taft. Both were of immense girth, especially seen in profile. A 1910 article in the New York Telegraph reporting a personal meeting between President Taft and Krehbiel described the pair as the “two Dreadnaughts.” The “separated at birth” connection helped make Krehbiel a national celebrity: both men were natives of Cincinnati and about the same age. When President Taft spoke at the Yale commencement in 1909, where Krehbiel was given an honorary Master of Arts degree, Taft said, “I say, we know music in Cincinnati,” and added that Krehbiel in his career there had “never feared to tell people whether some of their efforts in the musical line were up to the proper standard, even if he had to flee for his life because of it.” According to the New York Telegram of February 17, 1912, the two men were so similar looking that patrons at the Metropolitan Opera frequently tipped their hats upon seeing Krehbiel and greeted him aloud as “The President”; Krehbiel was in the habit of dutifully returning the salutation “with characteristic good nature and a keen sense of humor.”

Although Taft’s predecessor Teddy Roosevelt was less interested in classical music, Roosevelt’s wife Edith brought Casals, Paderewski, and other such musicians to perform at the White House. According to Dorothy Gillam Baker, “in 1901 a new bill was introduced into Congress, again for the creation of a national office of the arts. It did not pass, but the movement helped to lead eventually toward the 1909 establishment of the National Commission of Fine Arts–the first official connection between the government and the arts. The limitation of its functions caused President Theodore Roosevelt to set up (additionally) a Fine Arts Council. President Taft was obliged to abolish the Council shortly after his inauguration because Congress refused to appropriate funds for its maintenance.”

Famed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens remarked that Roosevelt was “probably the only president with any knowledge of art and artists.” Roosevelt asked Congress in 1904 to create a National Gallery of Art. In his post-presidential years Roosevelt visited the famously avant-garde 1913 Armory Show in New York City.

[At the 1913 Armory Show, John] Quinn ushered TR around rooms filled with paintings by European modernists including Paul Cezanne and Paul Gauguin and Americans Arthur B. Davies, Walt Kuhn, and John Sloan, and sculpture by Gutzon Borglum. Roosevelt thought much of the show was “Bully!,” especially the American art which depicted scenes of American subjects. He was not yet ready to endorse wholesale a modernist revolt against stilted traditions.

Quinn urged the ex-President to write about the show, which he did “with surprising sympathy,” in a magazine article entitled “A Layman’s Views of an Art Exhibition.”

Bacall Truman

Just two months before becoming President of the United States as a result of the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Vice President Harry S. Truman accompanied Lauren Bacall at the National Press Club Canteen.

In Post-World War I days, shortly after the Armistice, the creation of a Fine Arts Department was promoted as a “reconstruction measure” and endorsed by Joseph Pennell, the National Federation of Art, and the College Art Association. In 1925 three Fine Arts bills were introduced into the 68th Congress. Of course, Franklin Roosevelt’s administration saw the creation of the WPA and other government-financed arts agencies, a subject too large to cover here.

While the American public knew that Harry Truman played “The Missouri Waltz” on the piano, the full extent of Truman’s involvement with music was less well known, though during his administration Life magazine did run a feature article showing the president playing classical music records on the family phonograph at the White House. In 1962 Truman told author Merle Miller:

When I was about seven or eight years old, we had a piano in the house, which wasn’t unusual at that time, although my mother played. We had a piano, and I wanted to learn how to play it. So I took a great many lessons on it and finally wound up with one of the great instructors in Kansas City. Her name was Mrs. E.C. White, and I took two lessons a week and got up every morning and practiced for two hours….Mrs. White had studied with a man, one of the great teachers of the world, a man named Leschetizsky, who was in Vienna and who was the teacher [sic] of Josef Lhevinne and Paderewski.

Paderewski was in Kansas City when I was about twelve or thirteen and Mrs. White was giving me lessons on various things, and I was studying the Chopin waltzes. Chopin’s A-Flat Opus 42 Waltz is one of the great pieces of music for the piano, maybe the greatest, and I played that, although never as well as I wished….And I was studying the Minuet by Paderewski. And when he got through with his concert—which was a wonder—he played that Chopin A-Flat Waltz, Opus 42, which has always been a favorite of mine. And he played the waltz rendition of the ‘Blue Danube,’ and so on.

When we went back behind the scenes, Mrs. White took me with her, and it almost scared me to death. She told him I didn’t know how to make ‘the turn’ in his minuet, and he said, ‘Sit down,’ and he showed me how to do it. I played it at Potsdam for old Stalin. I think he was quite impressed.

That same year TV talk show host David Susskind interviewed Truman on his program Open End and said to the ex-president, “‘Missouri Waltz’ isn’t really your favorite song, is it?” Truman replied, “No, no. My favorite number is Chopin’s A-Flat Opus 42 Waltz.”

Like Truman, Jimmy Carter was a knowledgeable classical music fan with a substantial record collection. He often commented that “as a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy, he had spent whatever extra money he had on recordings of classical music.” When Vladimir Horowitz was invited to play at the White House in 1978, the pianist noted that Carter’s conversation with him convinced him the president hadn’t been simply prompted on what to say. “The President knows his music,” said Horowitz.

Truman did not like abstract modern painting, but he did like the old masters–Frans Hals, Rubens, Leonardo da Vinci, and Holbein in particular. While he was Senator from Missouri he often visited the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. During a trip to Europe in May 1956, Truman and his wife visited the great American expatriate Renaissance art connoisseur Bernard Berenson (1865-1959) at his villa in Florence, Italy. (Berenson had done more than any other individual to educate the public about the greatness of the Renaissance painters.) “He took us all over the house and explained to us what to look for in a painting. And we got to those museums in Florence and elsewhere, we knew a little about it” commented the ex-President. Give-‘em-hell-Harry later wrote a letter to Berenson, telling him, “I wish the Powers-that-be would listen, think, and mock at things as you have.”

For his part, Berenson wrote in his diary of their meeting:

Harry Truman and his wife lunched yesterday….In my long life I have never met an individual with whom I felt so instantly at home….Ready to touch on any subject, no matter how personal….Now I feel more assured about America than in a long time. If the Truman miracle can still occur, we need not fear even the McCarthys.”

In fact, Harry Truman, exceptional as he was as a leader, was emblematic of many middle Americans at the time for whom a grounding in classical music, painting, and other arts was a staple of primary public school education. That was the all-American default mode until recently. (Biographies record that even the savagely tough baseball player Ty Cobb occasionally visited art museums.) What has happened to our political and social culture since to change this paradigm so greatly that education in the primary schools omits the classical arts entirely?

And the very notion of aid and comfort for the arts is considered vaguely un-American? Tell that to arts-loving and/or arts-supporting George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln, the next time you visit Mount Rushmore.


A compact disc of Mark N. Grant’s music will be released this spring on Albany Records and his new opera-in-progress The Human Zoo will be performed by the Center for Contemporary Opera on March 27 in New York City. Several real-life (but non-presidential) American historical figures from the 19th century are featured in the composer’s original libretto for that opera. U.S. presidents have, however, played a role in Grant’s own life story. According to him: “I have shaken hands with three U.S. presidents, all Democrats who had some affinity with music: saxophone-playing Bill Clinton (with whom I briefly discussed crossword puzzles) in 2006; Jimmy Carter, during his campaign for the office in 1976; and, as a little boy, I shook hands with Harry Truman inside New York’s Grand Central Station in 1960. He was walking through the station with his wife Bess, and nobody but my grandmother was bothering him or taking notice of him.”