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Arts Groups Pushing for Money, Health Care

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Local artists and educators say they're hopeful the Obama administration will usher in a new era for the arts. Mr. Obama's thought to be the first president with a full arts platform – and a national arts policy committee in place – before his election. That public commitment has local groups feeling optimistic that there will be more money for the arts – even in hard times. Students are hunched over square tables, drawing as many cartoon characters as they can think of.

TINDER: Everybody doing OK? Are you having trouble coming up with more than 5 or 6 or 7?

Teaching artist Jeremy Tinder's leading a class at the non-profit Marwen art center. It's the first day, and one of his students is stuck. He's drawn only one cartoon character.

TINDER: The idea is to draw things that are outside of your comfort zone. You know enough about comics to know that it's not if you can draw well or if you think you draw poorly. It's how you use what talents you have.

Arts educators and artists are hoping that scenes like this will become more common around here and around the nation – under the new administration.

Mr. Obama's platform includes expanding partnerships between schools and art organizations and creating an artist corps to work in low-income schools. Mr. Obama also pledged to put more money into the National Endowment for the Arts, provide health care to artists and streamline the visa process to attract foreign talent.

Paul Jaskot is an art history professor at DePaul University, and he heads the College Art Association. He's already sent a letter to the president, pushing the group's priorities.

JASKOT: We're hoping to join the very broad chorus of non-profits, large and small, that are pushing the administration to stick to its goals of keeping the arts as central to American culture and society.

Many groups are already holding the president's feet to the fire. Especially arts educators. What they're counting on most is how the new administration might change schools.

The head of Marwen, Antonia Contro, calls this a renaissance:

CONTRO: We will see arts instruction restored. There will be arts instruction in the schools. I think we'll see art specialists being hired to teach art rather than classroom teachers, and as a result, the quality, the rigor of the instruction, will be better.


Over at the University of Illinois at Chicago, professor Olivia Gude is teaching the next generation of art teachers. On this day, the discussion turns to the new president.

Now it's not in the arts platform -- but Gude says one thing that would help is reforming No Child Left Behind.

GUDE: Principals became very fearful, and it created this icy grip on the idea of curriculum innovation.

One of her students, junior Emily Grelck, is excited about Mr. Obama's pledge to champion arts education.

GRELK: I'm hoping that it will get kids and parents more excited about their children being in art classes, and I'm just hoping that everyone will be more open about learning about different cultures and not like the regular Picasso and all the other white male artists that we've always learned about ever since I was little.

It's not just what kids learn in the classroom. It's about how artists can survive in this scary economy.

The platform would put some people to work through an artist corps that would send artists into low-income schools and communities. It also would let artists get health care under a new national system Mr. Obama has vowed to create.

That's the pledge that hit Barbara DeGenevieve the hardest.

DeGENEVIEVE: I cried when I read it. (Laughs.)

She's chair of the photography department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

DeGENEVIEVE: Everyone needs health care, but artists are for the most part fairly poor because most artists don't care about anything but making art. So they will give up so much to make their work, and what they give up very often is health care.

The tax code's another issue Mr. Obama's vowed to change. A twist in the code lets private collectors donate to museums and deduct the fair market value. But not artists.

Madeleine Grynsztejn, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, says there are famous artists who want to donate, but can't afford to.

GRYNSZTEJN: Right now, if an artist were to donate a work of art, a painting, to a museum, they would get the tax deduction only for the value of the materials that they put into that art work. In other words, they would get a tax deduction of maybe, 10 bucks?

If the code changes, she envisions new works arriving at museums all over the country.

Now there's no mention of emergency bail-out funds or an art czar in the platform, but Grynsztejn supports both.

GRYNSZTEJN:. It's not just car industries that may be in trouble or banks. But there are many cultural institutions that need representation and that need economic assistance, and they don't have somebody to go to to discuss that.

JASKOT: I think for those of us in the visual arts that have experienced the last few decades, we're seeing a profound opportunity, as well as a profound crisis.

DePaul's Paul Jaskot says the magic question, is whether there's enough money to fund the platform, or provide emergency bail-outs.

He says the arts are a necessity. But they're seen as a luxury even in the best of times. Now they're up against massive job losses and failing banks.
Still, he and other educators are hopeful Obama will put the arts on an equal footing, and prevent people from literally becoming starving artists.

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