When it comes to campaign themes, the arts can't compete with healthcare reform, national security, the sluggish economy -- just about anything you might name.
But this presidential primary season, people who work at the crossroads of politics and culture say the arts have attained a higher profile than usual -- and the push for an arts agenda has established a foothold in the campaign landscape.
Linda Frye Burnham, well known in Los Angeles arts circles for starting High Performance magazine and co-founding Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, began hearing in January about Barack Obama's support for the arts.
Along with thousands of other arts figures, she received an e-mail detailing how Obama would increase support for the National Endowment for the Arts, embrace arts education, strengthen cultural diplomacy, advocate an artist-friendly tax law and propose an Artist Corps to send young artists to teach in low-income areas.
In Ohio, meanwhile, Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign worked to arrange a gathering at which her advisors hoped to win arts-interested voters with her commitment to the same ideas. Mike Huckabee has promised that should he be elected, he'd follow through on his devotion to arts education, especially. And last March, John McCain answered a New Hampshire theater manager who said he hoped the senator would support the arts by sending the man a personal check for $500.
The statements and promises, as it turns out, reflect an initiative called ArtsVote2008 mounted by the political arm of a group called Americans for the Arts, or AFTA.
In advance of the Iowa caucuses, ArtsVote gave all the candidates then running a 10-point plan for the arts in public life. No. 1 stresses NEA grants to the sorts of local arts agencies and groups that AFTA represents. No. 6 urges candidates to enhance healthcare coverage for arts groups and artists. (The complete text is available at www.americansforarts.org.) ArtsVote then urged the candidates to address these points in public.
Such political pressure "is pretty common among other advocacy centers, but for the arts it is somewhat new," says Rindy O'Brien, director of the American Arts Alliance, which represents opera, ballet and orchestra groups in Washington. "I come out of the environmental realm, and they would do a lot of that electoral work -- and Planned Parenthood does -- but, for the arts, you haven't seen it."
One reason it's visible now is a matter of resources. In 2002, AFTA received a $127-million gift from Ruth Lilly, heiress to the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical fortune.
The money, given in annual installments and spread across the group's political, educational and service activities, lifted its yearly budget to $14 million from about $8 million. And those extra millions helped give clout to ArtsVote, a part of AFTA's political arm, the Arts Action Fund.
With its 10-point plan in place, ArtsVote tracked candidates' responses by giving a $40,000 grant to a group called New Hampshire Citizens for the Arts so it could hire Suzanne Delle Harrison, who runs a theater in the state. She, in turn, put candidates and their staffs on the record by asking them about their views before the state's primaries. On the ArtsVote website are both the campaigns' arts statements and a diary of Harrison's lobbying adventure:
The diary alludes, for example, to a lecture Huckabee gave ArtsVote volunteers that Harrison described in an interview as a "fascinating" evangelistic interpretation of human creativity as a conduit for the creative role of God.
Beyond his $500 gift, McCain doesn't appear in the log. His silence, arts advocates say, is already framing a clear difference on public financing for the arts between whichever Democrat runs and the Republican front-runner. "It would be a stark contrast, especially since Sen. McCain hasn't responded in any way about supporting the arts," says Narric Rome, director of federal affairs for the Arts Action Fund.
An issue of particular interest on the ArtsVote agenda is arts education, which, arts advocates say, became a casualty of the test-driven No Child Left Behind Act.
Obama, Clinton and Huckabee all extol exposing students to the arts. Speaking before the Virginia primary, Obama declared: "I want our students learning art and music and science and poetry and all the things that make education worthwhile."
Pollsters have not attempted to measure the power of a national arts vote, and it's hard to know how such stands will sway the public.
But the Arts Education Partnership, a coalition of 140 organizations, recently commissioned a poll of 1,000 likely voters from Lake Research, a Democratic polling firm. It showed that 57% of the respondents would more likely vote for a candidate who supported the development of the imagination in schools.
The poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points, also found that 57% of voters would be less likely to pick a candidate who voted to cut funding for arts education.
Current and former Clinton and Obama campaign staffers speak of the candidates' self-driven support for the arts. But they also credit former Americans for the Arts officials and members of other arts organizations for helping AFTA develop its 10-point plan. O'Brien of the American Arts Alliance says it was consulted. And Rachel Lyons, the Clinton campaign's deputy political director in New Hampshire, is a former director of the American Arts Alliance, which ArtsVote's Harrison believes won her a particularly "open and knowledgeable" hearing with the campaign.
Last spring, a key Arts Action Fund official gave an extensive briefing calling for more funding for arts education and its other priorities to the Obama campaign's Arts Policy Committee, a growing volunteer group of arts professionals, researchers and artists that both considers arts policy and works politically.
In addition, novelist Michael Chabon has written a statement of principles for the campaign called "Thoughts on the Importance of the Arts to Our Society".
Clinton advisors, for their part, speak of the ArtsVote proposals as one of several influences. The Clinton campaign exchanged e-mails with Rome about arranging the arts gathering in Ohio.
According to Clinton officials, the campaign has no arts policy committee but instead has opted for what domestic policy advisor Catherine Brown calls "a more organic approach" of reaching out to "Hillary Clinton's many friends who know about her passion for the arts."
Overall, the Democrats' formal responses to ArtsVote are similar in how they parallel the ArtsVote priorities.
The Clinton campaign has outlined nothing comparable to Obama's Artist Corps, but it has proposed a Putting Arts in Reach initiative, which would "offset the cost of musical instruments, art supplies, drama equipment, and other things used in arts education for children from low-income communities."
Will such words actually produce programs?
Says Burnham: "I've lived long enough to know that platforms mean relatively little when people get in there and find out what is going on. They give a sense of whether the candidate gets it or not -- the value of the arts to the American public. I know that Americans for the Arts will keep rattling their cage for change, whether it is Obama or Hillary.
"What I wonder is what would happen if McCain got in and Huckabee were vice president. What would happen to the arts then? I think about that a lot."