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Behind the Scenes of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities Resignation

When the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities issued its letter of resignation on August 18 in response to the President’s reaction to the violence in Charlottesville, it was the final move in a long chess game to protect and advance the arts under a changing administration.  

The 17-member committee, including six from the Los Angeles area, was the last of the original 35 Obama appointees. Many committee members resigned immediately after the election. The actress Alfre Woodard did so after the inauguration.

“Art knows no politics, no borders. But I could not converse with an attitude antithetical to its very existence,” she said, articulating a concern shared by many former members.

President's Committee delegation arriving in Cuba with Joshua Bell playing with Cuban students. | Courtesy of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities
President's Committee delegation arriving in Cuba with Joshua Bell playing with Cuban students. The trip was one month after President Obama's historic trip to Havana. It resulted in the first government to government collaborations between Cuba and the US. | Courtesy of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities

Those who remained until last Friday had devoted energy to protect and preserve the committee’s signature programs from elimination under the new administration. That meant establishing partnerships with private entities to take over stewardship of Turnaround Arts and The National Student Poets Program. Mass resignation in a letter that contained the hidden message, “RESIST,” was determined to be the best use of the group’s remaining political capital.

“Early on there was still hope [Trump] could tack to the middle. Or that maybe Melania would take the committee up as a cause,” said Ken Solomon, chairman of Ovation TV and CEO of the Tennis Channel.

“We held on, hoping that we might be able to make a difference from within. But there was just no dialogue whatsoever with the administration,” said Fred Goldring, an entrepreneur, lawyer and Emmy-winning producer. 

Solomon had conversations with former executive director Megan Beyer, former Deputy Director John Abodeely, and committee member John Lloyd Young.

"We would encourage this administration to own this; this could be a win for them.

But every other day there would be some kind of big explosion,” Solomon said.

John Lloyd Young of Jersey Boys with students at the school he adopted | Courtesy of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities
John Lloyd Young of Jersey Boys with students at the school he adopted | Courtesy of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities

The first came in May, when the President announced a 2018 budget proposal that eliminated the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

The group’s discussions turned towards a strategy of preservation.

“At the very least, we wanted to set a template for the next generation of the committee, to ensure continuity,” said Solomon.

He produced a video primer on the committee. It didn’t contemplate a future in which the committee’s existence was threatened. It was simply intended to illustrate how it was not a drain on funds, was non-partisan, and bridged the public and private sectors. 

The group adopted a “wait and see” approach to divining how the new administration would handle the arts.

Eric Ortner, a producer, manager and principal at Ortner Group observed that the President’s fiery rhetoric wasn’t always connected to policy follow-through. No one wanted to overreact to a tweet and turn it into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Some committee members had heard that the Pences were arts-oriented.

“We did a lot of advocacy to make sure that we were ready for the transition,” the singer and actor John Lloyd Young said.

That included drafting letters to the first lady and leveraging Young’s connections at Mar-a-Lago to ensure the conversation about the committee stayed alive.

“I know for a fact Trump knew about us. The Vice President and the Second Lady absolutely knew about us. But they weren’t responding to our letters,” said Young.

He felt it was important to advocate for good by working from the inside. 

“My personal perspective was to stay on, and let’s see how much of this work we can protect. If we all left, it would all be obliterated,” Young said.

“Our red line was the [August 15] press conference. It was the shocking and vile nature of the whole thing,” said Solomon.

“When [Trump] couldn’t clearly stand against Nazis marching in the streets with torches and automatic weapons, when he equated them with peaceful protesters, his true feelings came out,” Ortner said. 

It became clear that the best use of whatever political capital the Committee had left was to let the President know what they thought.

Kal Penn was the first to broach the idea of resignation in an email.

“We went through a process. It started with emails and some phone calls amongst ourselves. We started defining our ideas and debating what to do,” said Solomon.

Initially some, like Young, advocated for a strong letter of censure but no group resignation.

Over the course of two days, the group decided it was imperative to make the point in the strongest possible way.

Penn started with a letter he had drafted in June after Mr. Trump announced a reversal of the Obama-era Cuba normalization policies. Everyone contributed ideas via email and text. Finally, they arrived at the “Resist”-themed treatise issued on Friday.

“I’ve been told we’ve written the first Anti-trump Declaration of Independence,” said Fred Goldring. 

“We are there to protect the guardians of history. And it would be nice to be on the right side of it,” Ortner said of the need for resignation.

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The President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities was established by the Reagan Administration in 1982. President Obama was the first to appoint artists to the committee.

“It reflected the President and First Lady’s ideas of bringing arts to the public, involving the public in the arts, and the arts as an expression of the people,” said Alfre Woodard. She has focused on working with the Kennedy Center on Turnaround Arts.

The Committee launched that program in 2012 in eight underperforming schools.

“Arts are a non-partisan and cost effective way to turn around schools,” said Eric Ortner.

Turnaround Arts went into schools to teach faculty to integrate the arts into every class. Forrest Whitaker, Sarah Jessica Parker, Yo-Yo Ma, Misty Copeland, Alfre Woodard, and Frank Gehry, amongst many others “adopted” individual schools as mentors.

According to a Booz Allen Hamilton study on the pilot schools, math proficiency scores went up on average 23 percent, reading, average 13 percent. Attendance and community improved. Discipline indicators went down.

In 2015, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, making funds available at the local and state level for programs that use arts to advance education reform. Turnaround Arts is active in 70 schools and under the stewardship of the Kennedy Center.

The Committee collaborated on a speech in which Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called arts education in high poverty schools “an equity and a civil rights issue.”

They hosted a Champions of Change Roundtable showcasing those working in arts education in low-income schools.

In 2012, they launched Film Forward, a film-based diplomacy program, with the Sundance Institute in 2010.

It has embarked on cultural diplomacy missions to Haiti and Cuba. The committee led the first official cultural mission to Cuba one month after the President’s visit in 2016.

Artists who came with the Committee to Cuba | Courtesy of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities
Artists who came with the committee to Cuba including Usher, Smokey Robinson, Dave Matthews and others | Courtesy of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities

After the success of the arts delegation, Ken Solomon leveraged his resources at the Tennis Channel to organize a similar one centered on sports.

“We raised the money and got the materials for ten courts on the first boat allowed into Cuba in 50 years. It begat real tangible benefits,” he said.

The committee participated in awarding National Arts and Humanities Medals and stewarding the National Student Poets Program – now partnered with the private nonprofit Alliance for Young Artists and Writers.  

The Committee’s federal partners were The White House, Department of Education, the NEA and NEH, The State Department, The National Park Services, The Institute of Museum and Library Services, Department of Commerce, and the Smithsonian Institution.

“[Trump’s] response to us, that we were a waste of money couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Mr. Ortner.

The Committee had an annual budget of $1.7 million and by law the ability to raise funds for its programs.  The NEA, NEH, and IMLS provided staff, coordinated travel and back office support.

“We raised a tremendous amount of money to create and leverage economic benefit for the country,” said Solomon. 

In 2015 in the US, nonprofit arts and culture generated $63.8 billion in spending by arts and cultural organizations, $102.5 billion in event-related expenditures by audiences. It created 4.6 million full-time jobs, $27.5 billion in federal, state, and local government revenue, and $96.1 billion in household income according to Americans For Arts.

It counted Fox Audience Strategy and Ovation amongst 26 private supporters and worked with 35 program partners across the country including Turnaround Arts: California and the Sundance Institute.

With the letter of resignation as its final act, the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities used the power of creativity to speak truth to power, said Eric Ortner.

President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities resignation letter | Kal Penn
President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities resignation letter | Kal Penn

Top Image: Resist | iStockphoto/Asurobson

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