Thursday, August 27, 2009

Conference Call with Kalpen Modi, Americans for the Arts, and Corporation for National and Community Service

Sat in on a conference call between Kalpen Modi (previously Kal Penn), Americans for the Arts, and the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Some notes/reactions:
  1. Although the arts are important to the Obama Administration in and of themselves (which I got from Arne Duncan in a conference call last week), Kalpen Modi underlined the instrumental benefits of the arts to the economy, to education, and to tie together economy (you can tell from how they speak that they've internalized the Obama heritage of community organizers).
  2. The Obama Administration is not out to make artists.
  3. The crux of Obama's approach to the arts currently is based around the Edward Kennedy Serve America Act. The act added arts to the types of community service supported, increased the amount of support for community service in a number of ways--especially in numbers of volunteers supported--and declared 9/11 a day of national service.
  4. The 9/11 Day of Service is the current focus of arts policy, bringing together not only the Corporation of National and Community Service with Americans for the Arts, but also bringing together every branch of government that cares about the arts - Kalpen mentioned the Department of State's cultural ambassadorship program, and arts within HUD and Transportation (the latter two are departments I hadn't heard of any arts coming from, but I'm glad that I'm wrong)
  5. Other programs on their way include the Social Innovation Fund (from the White House Office of Social Innovation) and a Volunteer Generation fund (to help nonprofits increase their ranks of volunteers). The appropriates for this have been passed in the House (which decreased the number) and in the Senate (which increased the number). Kalpen said that they were "looking with interest" to see how those two bills would be reconciled.
  6. The 9/11 Day of Service comes with two websites: one is the general volunteerism website at, the other is the arts-specific website that Americans for the Arts set up, at Arts volunteer organizations are encouraged to list their events on both, so that people can sign up, and post about their experiences.
  7. also has two significant other attractions: one is a petition for the addition of Artistscorps to the current Peacecorps/Americorps/etc. within the Corporation for National and Community Service. The other is the United We Serve: Arts Idea Kit which is intended to serve as a springboard for ideas of how to mix art and public service.
That's really what you need to know. My sense, both from this conference call and the one with Arne Duncan, is this: the Obama Administration wants to create a grassroots arts policy, rather than a centralized, NEA-led policy. Given the difficulty in Congress of getting support for the arts, that's pobably wise for the moment, especially as he's neck deep in criminal prosecutions, healthcare, cap-and-trade, getting Ben Bernanke re-authorized, closing Guantanamo Bay and shipping the inmates to Kansas, and his coming legal battles around DoMA.

However, they recognize that we're crucial and they're willing to help us try to get boots on the ground. Where they see something effective happening, they want to duplicate it--the philosophy is the same as his proposal to duplicate the Harlem Children's Zone in 20 cities around America.

In a way, he's trying to use tools in the free-market to try and help promote the arts: increasing the incentives for success (for instance, part of the appropriations is that the education grants to students who participate in Americorps or Seniorcorps will be pegged to the level of Pell Grants, so that the benefit doesn't lag).

I left it reasonably happy: I'd have liked more direct support, but the general feeling was, "We'll provide some big infrastructure for volunteerism, and we'll put all our support behind the good work you do. Now get out there and do it."

To put it another way: "If you build it, we will come."