"And the beat goes on............................"
Interview with Margo Lion and George Stevens, Jr.
Note: This interview was conducted live in Washington D.C. back in late June, and thus it may be somewhat dated. Though offered, unfortunately neither Margo nor George's schedules permitted them to review and update their responses. Still I think there are some very interesting observations by the co-chairs of the President's Committee. Having previously worked with the committee during the Clinton presidency, I know first hand how much of a bully pulpit and platform this committee has to make major contributions to the continuing dialogue both within our field, and between our sector and other sectors, and I look forward to seeing what the Committee under Obama does in the next 24 months and how it will use its considerable influence to the benefit of all of us.
BARRY: What are your plans for the Committee? What do you want to accomplish in the next three years?
GEORGE STEVENS, Jr.: Well, you know I’d like to take it from a kind of a “why we’re here” perspective, that this President’s Committee has the opportunity to function and relate to different agencies, to the private sector. It has a very small staff, but it has a very impressive membership. And one of the, sort of conditions and requests that Margo and I made when we agreed to do this was, that for the first time prominent artists would be members of the committee. And, we have, you know, some of the most active and thoughtful members, including Yo-Yo Ma, Damien Woetzel, Tom Mayne, Forrest Whitaker, George Wolfe, Sarah Jessica Parker.
And we consider that an asset in both getting the work done and giving it the kind of visibility that is valuable. And so really that’s where we start; that’s how we see ourselves as an organization and within that framework we can carry on projects that the President’s Committee has been doing in the past and initiate some new projects.
BARRY: Is there anything that you can share with us in terms of specific new projects that you have on the drawing board?
MARGO LION: Well I think that we’re interested in the notion of the Artist’s Corps (along the lines of the Peace Corps); developing that concept, but doing the research that is necessary first, to analyze the need and the manner in which we can meet those needs to have more artists working, particularly in schools. We begin with a two pronged project. One is to give work to artists, which is very necessary. And the second is to try and replenish and refill, in many cases, those spots for teaching the arts in schools that have been lost. And we hope this project would give artists a chance to add the experience of teaching and ultimately they might decide to stay in (the field of education). We’re in the discovery phase of that right now, but this is something that I think is very important to us. And the economy certainly could use it in two ways, both in providing jobs and also I think the idea that this is the creative economy century for America, and we need to make sure that young people and students coming out to the workforce can think critically, can think out of the box, can be innovative in their approach to their employment. The arts are very critical to developing those skills.
BARRY: Is there a timeline on how you see it developing over the next eighteen months?
MARGO: Well we’re going to do the research first. And then once we get the research we would then I think, ultimately try to fold this into the Our Town Project at the NEA.
BARRY: One of the things that Rocco Landesman has said is one of his priorities for the NEA is a concerted effort to try to involve more government agencies in support for the arts. Do you see a role for the Committee in trying to expand those relationships with other federal agencies?
MARGO: I think we definitely see that, in our Executive Director, Rachel Gosselin – who is very effective in talking with people, you know in the government, in the agencies, in the White House. And you know it’s valuable to have the presence of this committee, in the person of Rachel, reminding people of the value of the arts, the utility of the arts within the government.
And of course I mean education, state, transportation, any of those areas that we can approach - we want to do that. George referenced Yo-Yo Ma and Damien’s project which was the Silk Road Project, they took the Silk Road notion and they worked a project in New York City school’s using that paradigm, and that really is arts as integrated into learning and this would be arts as integrated into life.
BARRY: In the four traditional areas the Committee has dealt with before – including Preservation, Arts Education, International Affairs, and Special Initiatives – is there any particular project that you see the Committee prioritizing in the short term?
GEORGE: Well as I said I think our first goal right now is to do the research for Artist’s Corps, which is a goal in itself just doing the research. I think the Coming Up Tall Awards is obviously a legacy program that we want to keep going and that we’d like to investigate maybe doing some expansion with, but we’re not sure how that’s going to play out. The 20/20 Film Festival we’re looking at carefully to see if there’s a way of expanding that in anyway. And then I would say, working hand and glove with the NEA, the NEH, in their initiatives, most especially the Our Town initiative.
And then there’s a project to respond to the situation in Haiti., Margo will be going to Haiti. We’re working with the Smithsonian and with the Broadway League which provided funding to do a kind of little crash program on helping the Haitians preserve their wonderful art, which is of course endangered by the results of the earthquake. (Note: I believe Margo has travelled to Haiti since the interview was conducted).
MARGO: The Smithsonian reached out to Rachel. I’m on the Executive Board of the Broadway League; I knew that Broadway shows had raised a lot of money for relief, and they were taking their time where to donate that money and it just came very quick, I got a call, I was in a meeting, I put them together, Rachel was able to negotiate the donation and we’re all going down there. The League was able to contribute almost $300,000, and we’re all so grateful because it really got the project kick started and we’re just delighted. It’s obviously not the entire amount that is needed but it is substantial.
And that’s kind of an example of what the President’s Committee is well positioned to do -- I think more effectively than large government agencies. As a specific problem that needs to be addressed arises, we’re in a position to move quickly to do it.
We had the first committee dinner the night before the National Medal of the Arts event, and it was a very special evening; everybody had a great time and it highlighted the kind of special energy, exuberance and dynamic importance of the arts and humanities. Tony Kushner was the keynote speaker, and it was really exciting and people came up to us afterwards and said: “ Boy this is like nothing we’ve seen here.” We want people not to think of us as a ‘decoration’, not to think of the arts as a decoration. The arts are essential.
BARRY: At different times in its existence the President’s Committee has had a different profile. Under the last administration it was relatively low key, at least as far as the nonprofit arts sector itself could determine. It seems that so far the Committee under the Obama Administration seeks to have a higher profile. The Committee has an enormous bully pulpit, and a stellar public and private membership that might be leveraged. How do you think that power package can best be leveraged to the advantage of the nonprofit arts sector and individual working artists?
GEORGE: Well I think why we have a certain kind of position of value is that President Obama as a candidate was the first candidate in my knowledge to have an Arts Policy Committee, as part of the campaign. And it started in May of 07. So throughout that year and a half the arts were part of the campaign, and Margo and I chaired that. We again, met wonderful people.
So we came to this, in this administration, not kind of out of the blue but out of continuity, and with the kind of understanding that the President was going to take an interest in the arts and in the knowledge that Mrs. Obama – Michelle -- had an interest. So we feel empowered by that. We know that, you know within reason, our initiatives are going to be respected, and you know it’s also interesting that we’re able to help the White House, both advise them and help them with some of their arts related programs of which they’re doing quite a number, which I think is a good thing.
BARRY: Is the First Lady very active with the Committee? Do you have a chance on any semi-regular basis to exchange ideas with her about what your hopes for the Committee are?
GEORGE: We had an event with her, and she has a great appreciation for the arts and I also know that her particular focus is on access for those who are underserved. And she tells a great story about how she grew up quite close to a lot of cultural institutions in Chicago and she was aware of that, but many of her friends had no knowledge of that and certainly, you know did not feel, if they did have some knowledge may not have felt welcomed in those situations, which is I think of great interest to us, but it’s wonderful to have, to have two people in the White House who really appreciate the arts and humanities.
And perhaps the most important act of his role of the young administration, he and Michelle came to see my play at the Kennedy Center last week.
But that was, I mean unsolicited, just on a Friday night, that the pool, the White House press pool were told they were going out to dinner and they made a U-turn and came to the Kennedy Center and without a lot of foreplay and just became part of the audience.
BARRY: Do you see any role for the Committee to broker potential partnerships for the nonprofit arts with certain private sector interests like the Entertainment and High Tech industries?
GEORGE: Well I think we’re probably doing that but in different ways. I mean certainly we’re working with the private sector and with government, whether the idea of convening a group of people in Hollywood is something we would choose to do, so far it hasn’t been. I’m not sure that’s the particular avenue we would go, but we have a significant involvement and support from the Hollywood community.
BARRY: The President is the first President to our knowledge to have appointed someone on his White House staff to serve in the role as liaison to the arts when he named Kal Penn Modi to that position. Mr. Modi is now returning to the private sector. Do you see any expanded role for the Committee until the President names a replacement for Mr. Modi?
GEORGE: I think there’s a very good working relationship with the arts at the White House and I don’t think it’s dependent on one person. Arthur Schlesinger really spoke to and for the arts community for President Kennedy, while Leonard Garment was a very significant voice for President Nixon. Both were senior White House people. So there are different ways to skin the cat.
MARGO: I think one of the President’s most important initiatives is appointing, in each instance, absolutely first rate people as chairs of the two endowments, Rocco Landesman and Jim Leach. I think they both bring a really special quality. And I think it reflects the President’s interest. He is one of the few authors to serve as the President; as president he’s a creative person.
BARRY: Is there someone in the Administration on the level of a Schlesinger or Garment who is particularly passionate about the Arts and who has the President’s ear?
MARGO: Well, Rahm Emanuel (now ex Chief of Staff) is a ballet dancer right?
BARRY: In the past the President’s Committee frequently met in different locations around the country. Often times the meetings were not widely advertised and not as many leaders from the nonprofit sector attended as might have. Do you have any plans to rotate the location of the Committee’s meetings, and how often do you plan to meet?
MARGO: Well, you know we’ve just begun; it’s not even a year yet. So our first two meetings were held in Washington DC – one because of the swearing in of the members and the other because of the National Medal of the Arts. And because we wanted to be able to piggyback the swearing in also with meeting with some of the government officials the second one was here as well. We had had a meeting in New York, a subcommittee meeting. We would like very much for some of the subcommittee meetings to happen in some other places. And to tell you the truth we don’t have the schedule yet. I know one of the things that we’re talking about, the possibility is having one in Miami in the winter. But we’re just putting this together at this point.
BARRY: I note that there are a half dozen or more government department agency heads who are on the Committee as ex-officio members. Did they attend your first two meetings?
GEORGE: They sent representatives and the heads of the Endowments were there.
Representatives from the Department of Education came; Arnie Duncan couldn’t be there. IMLS was there. And somebody from the Domestic Council was there, a couple people actually.
BARRY: Given your experience in producing the Kennedy Center Honors and many of the American Film Institute Tribute television shows, does the idea of making a television program of the National Medal of the Arts event have any interest to you?
GEORGE: I would think it might be something that would make a lot of sense on C-Span, you know but to involve a network or create an entertainment show out of it, I think might even sort of distort the simplicity and integrity of it.
BARRY: The President’s Committee does both the National Medal of Arts and the Coming Up Taller awards. What do you think of the idea of the Committee bestowing some kind of recognition to single out some of those leaders in the nonprofit arts field that have made a contribution to the country with their work?
GEORGE: I think we have to pick our spots. I mean we’re a presidential committee with four employees. And the National Medal in the Arts does each year single out philanthropists and people who do that kind of work. So I think we would be kind of stretching ourselves to set up a parallel program to compete with that.
But who knows?
BARRY: Many of the leaders in the nonprofit arts field have suggested that we need a Minister of Culture, a Cabinet level post, to unify all of the various ways the arts & culture are manifested in countless agencies across the federal government, and which would help in the formation of cultural policy in this county. Do you see any role for the President’s Committee in helping to facilitate the development of a national arts, cultural and creative policy?
GEORGE: I’m not a fan of the Minister of Culture idea.
Having been in government early in my career working for Ed Murrow running the motion picture division at USIA under President Kennedy and being affiliated with government during my years running the American Film Institute and later with my connections at the Kennedy Center Honors and with this work, and the idea that somewhere we should be speaking with a single voice about culture is not an idea that makes me comfortable.
I think we have a vigorous national endowment, two endowments and the practicality of saying that this should become a cabinet position with a Minister of Culture being the voice of culture in the United States, I think when you think it through it, it sounds good but I don’t think it serves the purpose of a diverse and vibrant cultural life in the country.
MARGO: I think that’s a perfect answer of course. And I understand what you’re trying to say because you, you, I think, if I understand you correctly, you would like the arts to be accepted as a member having a seat at the table, but I think George’s concerns probably vitiate that, and I think they’re very important concerns because now you have a dynamic going on, you have a conversation going on in the various endowments and departments and I think that’s really valuable. I do think having energetic and visionary people in the chairs, the Chairman of National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Endowment for the Arts, and also the IMLS, that’s very important and we would hope that our committee would also be vigorous and you know participate in that discussion. But I think George has said it perfectly, we want to make sure that we keep having a conversation rather than a single authoritative point of view.
MARGO: I think now we have such dynamic leadership in the Endowments. I know Rocco’s had conversations with a lot of cabinet members and people in the White House and I’m sure Jim Leach is doing the same, and you know to the extent that we can enhance that opportunity we want to do that, and I know Rachel is doing that and has had a seat at various conversations.
The arts have to educate the public as to what the arts really represent, which is creative thinking, which is imagination, stimulating the imagination, encouraging the imagination. And so maybe we have to think about how we talk about it.
BARRY: Thank you very much.
Have a great week.
Next week I will be blogging daily (Monday through Wednesday) from the GIA (Grantmakers in the Arts) Conference in Chicago.