The Washington Times - September 22, 2009, 11:41AM

As a result of our crowd sourcing call, reader Joellen gave us the heads up on this particular web blog of an artist who attended the May 12 White House briefing.

Judith Baca, a community organizer who heads up the Los Angeles based non-profit SPARC (The Social and Public Art Resource Center) attended the May 12 White House briefing for sixty artists.  She later blogged about the event and revealed some interesting thoughts of her own after the briefing. (emphasis is mine) :


What does this mean for the arts in our field of community cultural development? Hope is what comes to mind and more work to make it real. With almost no exception all the people who addressed us were young. They like new ideas but need the input of experienced community arts organizers. They understand the power of new media and diverse voices. Are they only interested in the utilitarian aspects of the arts to carry out their agendas? Maybe, but I am not disturbed by this if we can add the ending of the war and torture, the issues of immigration and other issues concerning me deeply, to President Obama’s important priorities of health care, education, environment and the economy.

We have opportunities because there are willing hearts in the White House and no deaf ears.

Here’s how Ms. Baca described some of the Obama administration officials who talked to them on May 12:

Mike Strautmanis(Chief of Staff to the Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Relations and Public Engagement) spoke first in the 2-hour briefing describing his office as the front door to the White House and exclaimed, “This is the meeting I have been wanting to have happen.” The reason for the meeting was to reach out to the arts community, “get advise,” seek input so that the “administration’s decisions are relevant”. He acknowledged the power of art and its ability to motivate, and how this was demonstrated during through their campaign. He said that he has had “a long relationship with the first family, long enough to say that the arts are important to them”. “I have the coolest job in the White House,” he said. “But this will mean a lot of work for you”. 

Kareem Dale (Special Assistant to the President on Disability Policy) came to podium next and was introduced as our conduit for the arts. He is the art liaison and has meetings with President regularly and can get our issues before him. He said, “I am not a gatekeeper” he went on to say. A profound message came through slowly not in what he said but in who he is. Mr. Dale came to the podium led by a white cane. He looked at the audience with non-seeing eyes. He is blind and the liaison for the arts.

Mr. Dale when questioned by Bill Cleveland from our group about how our hard work gets connected to policy. Mr. Dale said,” You use me as the conduit to the White House. We are communicating, “Bottom up.” About community engagement he went on to say, “real engagement is messy”. You have to be comfortable and create space for differences in the same room. The ground rules are: no slamming each other in the media, no complaints but instead come with solutions and willingness to compromise. Then he went on to say that people are not used to this new political process. “Don’t trust this administration, trust the process.” “The Arts are Back.” Instead of hanging a sign on the outside of the fence being inside the fence can be uncomfortable for both sides but we must welcome new perspectives.

Buffy Wicks spoke next. She spoke about her offices plans for a Summer of Service. This is a call to work in any of the areas of concentration of the administration toward economic recovery. These four areas are: education (including art education), health care (including preventative health care), energy/environment, and economic opportunity, through the arts. June 11th is the National Day of Service.

She called out SPARC as an example of the type of work in blighted cities that they were interested in seeing. I was stunned that she knew of the work and when she addressed me asking me to clarify what our organization does exactly, I said, “We create monuments in communities as sites of public memory.” I wish I had responded with the fact that so many of our constituents are the working poor in Los Angeles who serve already everyday cleaning our houses and businesses, working in restaurants and gardens, or caring for our children. These people cannot, nor should they be asked to, offer more service through the type of volunteerism possible for middle and upper middle class people. While we are ready to serve, we are workers too and need jobs. This is something we must raise with the administration.

Christina Chen(White House Office of Public Engagement) came in late from another meeting. She said that education is the only way we will have a workforce. For policy issues she directed us to Kareem Dale but participate on the website which will become a vehicle for communication between her office and the public. “Whenever there is a town hall raise the issue of the arts along side of other important issues the administration is tackling,” said Ms Chen. She said we are aware that the arts represent a 160 billion dollar industry. The arts must be engaged in communicating about health care, the environment and other administration priorities.

Mario Garcia Durham(Director of Presenting and Multidisciplinary Programs from the National Endowment for the Arts)spoke for the NEA. Of the 155 million dollar budget 40% goes directly to the states. The rest of the funds are for direct grants through programs of the NEA, these programs are slated for reorganization. He spoke of the increase of 50 million to the NEA and how 40-50% of those who apply are funded. Stay engaged he urged to affect that process. Keep applying even if you have not been funded because who applies sends a message to the NEA in this time of reorganization. The core of the NEA is to provide access to the arts particularly to those underserved.