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05.19.09

Obama's New Arts Czar: His Wife

Disappointed that the president hasn’t appointed a point person on arts policy? His wife—who’s surprised the art world with her involvement at events like the Met’s American Wing reopening Monday—fills the bill nicely.

Far more excitement than usual pulsed through the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York on Monday afternoon, and it was only partially sparked by the formal opening of its renovated American Wing. The cause of the real buzz was Michelle Obama.

Escorted by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to the elegant, light-filled Engelhard Courtyard, Michelle wowed a crowd of about 250, mainly big donors, trustees, curators, and others involved with the renovation. There the first lady, in a stunning purple V-neck dress—with sleeves, by the way, and a bow—designed by Isaac Mizrahi, gleefully wielded a pair of gigantic scissors to cut an equally gargantuan dark-red ribbon held by a group of schoolchildren. Then she hugged the kids, and many others in the room.

Michelle met with arts luminaries in the gallery in the Egyptian wing named for Hatshepsut, the woman who ruled as pharaoh. “We thought it would be appropriate,” says Rafferty.

It was hardly the first time Michelle surprised the art world with her involvement, and it’s looking as if it’ll be far from the last. She and the president have gone to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to watch the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. They attended the reopening of the newly renovated Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln was assassinated. She’s been spotted at Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre, for a Welcome to Washington event that included performances by the Washington Ballet, the Arena Stage, the Washington National Opera, and other groups.

When the White House hosted a poetry jam on May 12, President Obama opened the event but soon turned it over to the first lady, who said: “I have wanted to do this from day one—the notion of standing in this room and hearing some poetry and spoken word.”

And after the museum gig Monday, she went on to the opening-night gala of the American Ballet Theatre at the Metropolitan Opera House across town.

Michelle Obama is coming out strong for the arts. That’s not all that unusual for first ladies, but from her, it’s unexpected. The arts weren’t viewed as one of her priorities. When she campaigned, there was barely a mention of the arts. Her official White House biography mentions nothing about the arts. It says that the issues close to her heart, the ones she’ll work on, are supporting military families, helping working women balance career and family, and encouraging national service.

There was even an amusing moment at the Met when she admitted forgetting one old connection: Introducing her, the museum’s president, Emily Rafferty, noted that Michelle and the president went to a museum on their first date. Said Michelle, to laughter: “Thank you, Emily, for that introduction, and thank you for reminding me. You know, after 20-some-odd years of knowing a guy, you forget that your first date was at a museum. But it was, and it was obviously wonderful; it worked.”

So the sudden, sustained forays into the arts are boosting the morale of those in the arts community who’ve been disappointed by Barack Obama’s failure to appoint an “arts czar,” a point person who would coordinate arts policy across the government and promote the arts. Having Michelle as arts ambassador may just make up for it. She may be able to do for the arts what’s she’s done for interest in fashion just by showing up at the opera, the ballet, the museum, and the theater.

And her role could go further. At the Met on Monday, she toured a few galleries in the American Wing and then walked through the Temple of Dendur, the Egyptian temple that was given to the U.S. As if to inspire her, Rafferty said Michelle was told by officials at the museum the story of Jackie Kennedy’s role in seeing that the temple landed at the Met.

The museum provided another reminder of Michelle’s potential power soon thereafter, when she met with a group of about 40 New York arts leaders. Among them were Peter Gelb of the Metropolitan Opera, Ellen Futter of the American Museum of Natural History, Vishakha Desai of the Asia Society, Karen Brooks Hopkins of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and, of course, Thomas Campbell of the Met.

And where was the meeting? In the gallery in the Egyptian wing named for Hatshepsut, the woman who ruled as pharaoh, circa 1478 to 1458 B.C. “We thought it would be appropriate,” said Rafferty.

The meeting was private. But according to some who were present, Michelle repeated how important she and Barack believe that arts and culture are, and added that they are ardent believers that arts should be part of education. She made no promises, but asked for their ideas. And she stressed, as she had in the ribbon-cutting speech, that everyone should have access to the arts, and that the White House, arts institutions, and communities must work together.

“We’ve been trying to break down barriers that too often exist between major cultural establishments and the people in their immediate communities; to invite kids who are living inches away from the power and prestige and fortune and fame, we want to let those kids know that they belong here, too,” she said earlier in the Engelhard Courtyard.

It was back there, too, that Campbell, the Met’s new director, got off one of the best lines of the day—another reminder of the arts-government connection. From its beginnings in the 1920s, the American Wing has been fronted by the limestone facade of a branch bank of the United States, which was demolished in 1915. Campbell, standing before it, quipped that the Met had saved banks long before the current administration.

Judith H. Dobrzynski, formerly a reporter and a senior editor at The New York Times and at BusinessWeek, as well as a senior executive at CNBC, is a writer based in New York. She blogs about the arts at www.artsjournal.com/realcleararts.