First family of arts lovers


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Barack and Michelle Obama and their daughters spent the evening of Feb. 6 in the presidential box at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., applauding the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Evidently, it was the first family’s idea of a fun Friday night out.

But in a capital where every presidential inflection and turn of phrase is parsed for glimmers of meaning, that front-and-center display of enthusiasm for one of the “high” or “classic” arts boomed like a 21-gun salute. It fed increasing hopes among arts advocates that the Obamas would generate a greater buzz for the arts simply by smiling in theater seats or strolling through museum galleries.


If outings to arts venues become a habit with the first family, “it would be a huge boon to the arts community in Washington and for the United States and the world,” says David Andrew Snider, president of the League of Washington Theatres. “There’s a widespread feeling that he ‘gets it.’ He gets the importance of the arts.”

“They could indeed lead by example,” agrees Mariana Nork, senior vice president of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, across the street from the White House. “We’re going to have new trends set.”

At the Ailey company, Executive Director Sharon Gersten Luckman says colleagues quickly congratulated the dance troupe for having won the presidential seal of approval. “Everyone is commenting, at least in our world, that their first night out, their date night, was an arts event,” she says. “People are more thrilled than jealous.”

Other early signs that the arts may get to share the Obamas’ spotlight were opera star Renée Fleming’s inclusion in a free pre-inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial and the rainbow quartet featuring cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Itzhak Perlman that shivered on the Capitol steps while delivering (via a recording, as it turned out) a musical prelude to the oath of office.

This infusion of the arts into the Obamas’ public rituals and family routines comes after eight years in which George W. Bush seldom was seen in Washington’s halls of culture. Laura Bush liked to attend performances and museum exhibitions, Washington arts leaders say, but such patronage wasn’t a couples activity.

Taking the Obama past as prelude, there’s a fair amount of evidence to support arts partisans’ hopes for a White House attuned to music, theater, fine arts and dance.


Although the varsity basketball team was his signature extracurricular interest at the Punahou School in Honolulu, Obama’s 1979 senior yearbook notes that he was also in the boys’ chorus as a freshman and the concert choir as a sophomore. Both involved taking music courses as well as performing, according to a course catalog from the time. As a senior, the future president was on the staff of the literary magazine, Ka Wai Ola.

The adult Obama’s arts résumé includes teaming with the Chicago Symphony as narrator for Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” during a free concert in 2005. On his Facebook page, the president includes Bach’s cello suites and Shakespeare’s tragedies among his favorite things. And before the first family moved to the White House, Michelle Obama served on the board of the Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago, which is devoted to contemporary and traditional African and African American styles.

A prominent place in Obama lore belongs to the Art Institute of Chicago. It’s where young attorneys Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson had their first date. “I took her to the art museum ... to try to show that I was a cultured kind of guy,” the president told CNN.

If the president needs input on the arts, he’s plugged in with a chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, who entered Sarah Lawrence College with dreams of becoming a ballet dancer. The Washington Post noted recently that Emanuel had attended a Kennedy Center performance of the Mark Morris Dance Group.

Meanwhile, although it’s well known that one presidential brother-in-law, Craig Robinson, is the basketball coach at Oregon State University, another, Konrad Ng, was curator of film and video at Hawaii’s leading art museum, the Honolulu Academy of Arts, before taking his current post teaching critical studies at the University of Hawaii’s Academy for Creative Media. Ng, who declined to be interviewed for this article, is married to Obama’s half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng.

Shortly before Obama was sworn in as a U.S. senator in 2005, Ng set up a private family tour of the Academy of Arts with museum director Stephen Little as the foursome’s guide.


“I was doing most of the talking, but they were very open, very engaged, very attentive,” Little recalls. “We spent a good hour and a half, and based on that, I would say they were very eager learners.”

In Chicago, theatergoing was at least an occasional Obama pastime. In 2002, officials of the Goodman Theatre say, Obama attended its production of “Drowning Crow,” Regina Taylor’s recasting of Chekhov’s “The Seagull” in an African American milieu. And in 2005, the Obamas journeyed to the Chicago suburb of Skokie for a Northlight Theatre production of Thomas Gibbons’ play “Permanent Collection.” The play, based on the real-life art-and-race controversy at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, starred Harry J. Lennix, a friend of the Obamas.

On Inauguration Day, Gemma Mulvihill, director of sales for the Broadway in Chicago series, proudly blogged about the standing ovation Obama and his wife had received in 2007 as they were being seated for “The Color Purple.” Mother and daughters, she noted, also caught “Wicked” and “High School Musical.”

During the early stages of the presidential campaign, moreover, the Chicago comedy troupe Second City opened a revue called “Between Barack and a Hard Place,” and Michelle Obama attended the show in July 2007. Obama himself showed up a few weeks later for a truncated version restyled as a benefit for his campaign. The Obamas seemed so enamored of Second City, in fact -- both often posed for pictures with its actors -- that there was speculation in Chicago that Second City was on its way to becoming the official White House comedy troupe.

Obama also set up a national arts policy committee during the campaign to offer him advice. Its members included Broadway producer Margo Lion, Disney Theatricals executive Thomas Schumacher, attorney Michael Dorf (an acknowledged candidate to be the next head of the National Endowment for the Arts) and Charles Newell, the artistic director of the Court Theatre in Hyde Park, the Chicago neighborhood where the Obamas have their home.

Chicago arts organizations don’t seem keen to make box-office hay of the first family’s past patronage. “The fact that someone has visited your theater who is a president of the United States is a huge deal, but nobody is using it as a marketing tool,” says Deb Clapp, executive director of the League of Chicago Theatres. “I think it would be kind of tacky.”


As for that presidential first date, says Erin Hogan, spokeswoman for the Art Institute, “We are thrilled, no question about that ... but I don’t think we would ever try to capitalize on a private moment.”

The New York-based Ailey company, for its part, promptly posted a news report of the Obamas’ attendance on its website, but Luckman, the executive director, says that’s not something she would use for marketing or fundraising, except perhaps “as a casual mention” to prospective donors.

But in Washington, says Snider, the local theater league president, everyone is eager to reach out to the White House’s new occupants. As he puts it: “I know the arts community doesn’t feel too cool for the Obamas.”

Indeed, Mark Weinstein, executive director of Washington National Opera, says the company has courted the Obamas through channels -- the White House social secretary -- and via personal go-betweens.

A presidential presence at the opera would help show that it’s “for everybody, and not an elitist form,” Weinstein says.

According to Katie McCormick Lelyveld, the first lady’s press secretary, the Obamas plan “a spectrum of activities,” both official and on family time: “Getting out to dinner when they can, getting out to theater when they can, and bringing arts inside the White House and using that as a tool for education.” Artists performing for state dinners may be asked to do an early show for audiences from local schools or community groups.


Michael Kahn, artistic director of the capital’s Shakespeare Theatre Company, says the point isn’t to boost ticket sales by winning a presidential imprimatur. “It’s just about [creating] an awareness that, if the first family appreciates and participates in arts events, it’s something that is part of American life. It sends a good message that the arts count.”

— Mike Boehm and Chris Jones