03.25.09

Obama Stiffs the Arts

The arts world is fuming over Obama's dubiously qualified "arts czar," and a humanities appointee who lacks a college degree. Judith H. Dobrzynski on the latest staffing dust-up.

Memo to President Obama, from the arts world: This is not what we had in mind.

During the campaign, candidate Obama raised high hopes among artists and arts institutions: He “got” their importance, even publishing an arts-policy statement. After the election, Quincy Jones fueled expectations with a crusade to create a Cabinet-level Minister of Culture or an arts czar at the White House. Dreams of bigger budgets for, and prominent chairs of, the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities, exploded like Twitter.

The three lesser appointments Obama has so far made have been strange at best and, at worst, deflating. None has much arts expertise; what they do have are political connections.

So, far the only sign of change has been the $50 million for arts grants the NEA received in the economic stimulus program—the first time the NEA was included in a recovery bill.

But for the most part, it’s been politics as usual. With the nation’s economic woes front-and-center, no one expected Obama to focus on the arts right away. Appointments to the NEA and NEH chairs could be weeks or even months away; in the meantime, they have acting chairpeople appointed by Obama, both seen as adequate for the short-term.

But the three lesser appointments Obama has so far made in the cultural arena—a Chicago lawyer named Kareem Dale, a Hollywood fund-raiser named Jeremy Bernard, and an Obama Senate staffer named Anita Decker—have been strange at best and, at worst, deflating. None has much arts expertise; what they do have are political connections. Bernard, appointed to a key post at the academically minded NEH, never graduated from college, though he claims a bachelor’s degree on his résumé.

Take Dale’s stealth appointment as “arts czar.” While the White House has confirmed the appointment to news outlets, no formal announcement has been forthcoming. The only official word on him from the White House came in mid-February, when Dale—who is partially blind—was made special assistant to the president for disability policy. He is currently holding both positions.

Dale—who has both law and MBA degrees from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign—is no slouch, but he has limited experience in the arts: He worked as a volunteer on Obama’s Arts Policy Committee, then as a paid staffer (becoming the campaign's disability-vote director). He was president of the board of Chicago’s Black Ensemble Theatre, where he helped raise $15 million to finance a new building. His father, who owns R.J. Dale Advertising and Public Relations, preceded him on the board, as chairman. Both the father—Robert J., but known as Bob—and son are members of Chicago’s vibrant African-American network and longtime Obama donors.

(Bob Dale, the father, won some unwelcome press notice for his small firm in recent years, after winning the $20 million Illinois State Lottery general marketing account in 2004. Within the next year, the state’s inspector general started a forensic-accounting probe of the firm, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. The state auditor eventually cleared the firm of misuse or waste of funds, but said “insufficient reliable documentation and reconciliations of R.J. Dale's records” made it impossible to do the investigation properly, according to the Associated Press.)

Kareem Dale’s arts post, more a “mini-czar” than czar, surprised some people who served as arts advisers to Obama. “This came out of Valerie Jarrett’s shop, and I don’t know much about it,” said Margo Lion, the theater producer who co-chaired Obama’s Arts Policy Committee. Jarrett, one of Obama’s closest friends-advisers from Chicago, is senior adviser to the president, overseeing the Office of Public Liaison and Intergovernmental Affairs. “This is so Chicago,” said one cultural figure in the Windy City, shaking his head.

Lion says her panel didn’t write a job description for a White House post. Dale’s position will likely involve oversight of the NEA, the NEH, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, according to a source close the decision-making—but not institutions like the Smithsonian or the Library of Congress, which would be part of a real czar’s portfolio.

“It’s a start,” says William J. Ivey, who headed Obama’s arts and humanities transition team. “After looking at the situation, I personally felt that a czar or a Cabinet-level position would be a bridge too far. We have good jobs for people at NEA and NEH, and I’d be loath to throw a big official into the White House. A coordinating position is where to start.”

But how long, and under what circumstances, Dale will keep the job is unclear. An administration source implied that Dale would relinquish the arts post at some point, saying the situation would be clarified in “weeks, rather than months.”

This source declined to say why, if the post was only temporary, it was made at all.

Meanwhile, at the NEH, Bernard has been appointed to the post of director of White House and congressional affairs—a.k.a. liaison to the White House—an even stranger fit. Co-founder of B & G Associates in Los Angeles, a political fund-raising and strategic-planning firm, he raised millions of dollars for the Obama campaign with his partner, Rufus Gifford, the “G” in B & G.

Gifford was recently named finance director of the Democratic National Committee; Bernard was a superdelegate to the Democratic Convention. The pair cuts a wide path through L.A., and on March 10, the Washington Post named them “leading candidates for Washington’s new same-sex power couple.”

B & G’s website says Bernard worked in real estate and cable television before getting into politics. He also did campaign work for President Clinton, who rewarded him with an appointment to the presidential advisory committee of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and is involved with social-justice organizations. As for connections to the humanities? Zip.

The website also says that “ Jeremy holds a bachelor’s degree from Hunter College in New York.” But a Hunter spokeswoman, Meredith Helpern, said “He did not graduate from Hunter,” though he did attend. She declined to provide any further information.

At the NEH, Noel Milan, the acting director of public affairs, said, “the documents we have contain no reference to an earned degree. It says he attended Hunter College.” Milan said Bernard did not want to comment.

Decker has the same post at the NEA as Bernard at NEH. She has even less ostensible expertise in the arts, according to published reports. A graduate of the University of Arizona, Decker is from... Chicago!—and has spent her life in Illinois politics. She headed Obama’s downstate office.

Obama’s defenders say these people don’t need expertise in the arts and humanities, that it’s enough that they’re close to Obama. Decker, at least, knows something about Washington politics.

Liaisons to the White House are always political posts. They are involved with all interactions with the White House (and Congress) on things like the budget, agency priorities, and the other political appointments. They work best when the appointments are not highly politicized.

These three appointments seem to be far more politics-as-usual than was expected of the Obama administration. A White House spokesman declined to comment on that directly, but said, “President Obama recognizes that support for creative expression is an important part of who we are as a nation, and he’s committed to ensuring that the arts community has an open line to the White House.”

But, for now, at least, the high-flying arts hopes are falling back to earth. Great choices for the top NEH and NEA posts could restore them. Meantime, sorry, Quincy.

Judith H. Dobrzynski, formerly a reporter and a senior editor at the New York Times and at Business Week, as well as a senior executive at CNBC, is a writer based in New York.