Keeping Art Alive in These Times

Published in: September-October 2017 issue.


IN HIS ROLE as executive director of the College Art Association, Hunter O’Hanian is in a unique position to understand how government policy and funding affect the arts in higher education. Other positions he has held in arts management have given him a broad overview of the art world from both a creative and an institutional perspective.

         For almost a decade, starting in 1997, O’Hanian was the executive director of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass. He served for three years, starting in 2009, as a vice president of the Massachusetts College of Art (MassArt) in Boston. Prior to taking his position at the CAA last year, he was the museum director for the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in Manhattan.

         Public support for all of the arts is under threat in the wake of last November’s election. In this interview, which was conducted by phone in May, O’Hanian addresses the challenges facing both artists and arts organizations in the current political environment.   

— Cassandra Langer



Cassandra Langer: Let me start right in with a question about the arts in the new political environment. What do you see as the most important threats to the creative arts?

Hunter O’Hanian: Two things come to mind right away. First, one of the most pressing problems is the current economic situation and how it impacts today’s students in the arts and humanities. I am deeply concerned that the high cost of undergraduate and graduate education has left today’s students and recent grads burdened with a near-lifetime of debt. These grads are virtually living hand-to-mouth because of carrying so much debt. Many are barely paying for rent, food, and necessities, much less paying back their loans. The very idea of having the energy and time to make art becomes a tremendous challenge. It seems unrealistic to expect the arts community—teachers, students, and working artists—to find the energy to focus on making work and exploring new ideas while they go from job to job just to make ends meet. This is a major threat to their creativity in the years ahead. How can they possibly participate in the arts and humanities without basic support?


CL: And the second problem?

HO: Without question it is the current administration’s openly hostile stance toward the arts and humanities and marginalized communities. This is a problem especially for glbtq artists and writers as the administration appears to be actively working against them. Given the president’s budget—with the proposed elimination of the NEA, NEH, CPB, IMLS,* and other vital agencies, along with the billions of dollars in additional funding for the military and tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations—the only conclusion one can draw is that this government wants to strip culture from our society. They also intend to roll back progressive accomplishments for the gay community.

It really goes against what this country is founded on. Many of those involved in the creation of this country—from Washington to Jefferson—spoke to the need for an educated population, one schooled in science, arts, and humanities. However, today, the government is trying to eradicate as many federal agencies as they can. It’s stunning to realize that we live in a society that has systematically targeted all humanities and arts programs for elimination. It’s not that they are trying to reduce funding—they want funding eliminated. Unfortunately, if they get their way, it will embolden state governments to follow suit. These state budgets support many grants to artists, education in the schools, and other enrichment programs. It could have a chilling effect on the arts and humanities at the local level. These cuts would further undermine the advancement of marginalized minorities nationwide.

There is a bright side to this, however. Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to visit many congressional offices and conducted numerous conversations on the current funding situation. Despite the efforts of the current government to eliminate culture from our society, I remain optimistic that sanity will prevail and Congress will reject the President’s plan and save these vital agencies. We saw this happen with the recent passage of the 2017 budget, where some arts and humanities budgets were actually increased over Trump’s expressed wishes that they be eliminated. Many members of Congress, including both Democrats and Republicans, understand the social role played by culture as well as its economic impact. They know it’s foolhardy to simply scrap these programs.


CL: You mentioned that America’s founders wanted a progressive foundation in the humanities and sciences. As an Americanist art historian and critic, I was very much aware of the culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s, as I am sure you were. We seem to have lost our way not only because of economics but because of the constant struggle with a white patriarchy determined to stay in power regardless of what’s best for the country. Do you have any thoughts on what has contributed to the nation’s turn away from the progressive ideas of the founders?

HO: It’s complicated. I think a lot of this is backlash against the progress made during the previous administration. During Obama’s eight years, the concerns of diversity and marginalized communities were brought to the forefront. I remember having tears in my eyes hearing the President and U.S. Attorney General openly and proudly defend the rights of the LGBT community.

But while that was happening, a large part of the country was suffering from a loss of jobs and opportunities. They were left behind—blue-collar workers whose industries were being phased out, among others. They are coal miners, steel workers, and other skilled workers. They didn’t realize that the jobs that had sustained them through generations were a thing of the past. Some didn’t want to change and learn new skills. Honest labor was what they knew, what they were proud of. So the current president’s campaign exploited their anger and, in truth, conned them into voting for him.

Those of us in the Northeast, West Coast, and other “blue” areas of the county often live in our own bubbles. This is especially true of many artists, academics, and progressive members of the gay community. In many cases, we have failed to reckon with the disparities in education and economic opportunity and the continued sexism, racism, and homophobia that were not vanquished during the progressive years. At times, we were happy to focus on loftier issues and topics, but we missed the extent to which right-wing fringe groups were able to grab hold of power and promulgate polices that furthered control by white male heterosexuals at the expense of communities who have traditionally been marginalized. Just look at those with whom the president surrounds himself at points of celebration—almost all white, straight, middle-aged men of wealth and power. And they are the ones who gather to decide what women should be allowed to do with their own bodies or how gay people should be treated in housing or the workplace?


CL: Do you think their conservative ideology will adversely affect the humanities and the sciences?

HO: Without a doubt. The humanities and sciences are fact-based disciplines. Science is about what can be proven or what we can discover based upon evidence. The present government and many of its supporters seem to have no problem in ignoring facts—whether about the size of the crowd at an inauguration, what someone said in public, or the causes of climate change. They simply make stuff up as they go along to suit their agenda.

The mainstream media, always looking for ratings and readers, often goes along and is not as vigilant as it should be. So, we have a confused American public. This could be especially true in more conservative states as they listen to media outlets like Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter, and others who feed them a steady diet of misinformation. But many of us on the Left are just as guilty, as we too live in a bubble, getting our news from like-minded sources found at msnbc, The New Yorker, HuffPost, and other left-leaning outlets.

The election should have been a wake-up call for everyone. Unfortunately, the federal government in all three branches is dominated by straight white men who have no intention of giving up their power. They felt that the progressive coalition that was changing the country and allowing others to have a seat at the table had to be stopped. They used a combination of religion, economics, and envy to regain lost territory. However, the push-back by people who voted for Hillary Clinton presents an opportunity for liberals, progressives, and moderates to get involved and effect change. It will take time, but the signs are hopeful: the Women’s March, the Tax March, the Science March, the Climate March—these are all important actions.


CL: Are you concerned that curators and museums are self-censoring rather than confronting issues around racism, sexism, and homophobia?

HO: The effect of commercialization and industrialization on today’s cultural organizations is staggering. In many cases, the arts, humanities, and academia are driven by broader economic concerns. Consequently, we are in danger of raising an entire generation less attuned to arts and culture than previous generations. In some cases, museums are less concerned about content and messages of artists than about exhibitions that will draw the biggest crowds. This leaves many gay artists out in the cold.

This trend has spilled over into our universities and colleges. Faculty members have told me that their administrators have advised them not to “rock the boat.” Many have been silenced by students who complain of being impacted by “micro-aggressions”—so much so that creative dialogue has become impossible. Arts programs have been advised to avoid controversial visiting artists, thus putting a chill on inviting people who can stimulate lively discussion of contemporary issues and intersectionality in the arts. Teachers have been told that “mum’s the word,” because controversial speakers on both left and right would compromise the financial interests of their institutions.


CL: Do you see this as affecting the delivery system of the arts to the public?

HO: There’s no question that this has become an ongoing problem, particularly with our larger and more established museums nationwide. The strength of our institutions is the individuals who support them: museum-goers, local governments, and boards of directors. These in turn impact the ability of curators to address controversial issues or take risks. Fewer risks means shutting out new voices.


CL: To what extent do you think this administration is going to undercut the progress the LGBT community has made in the last decade?

HO: We must remember the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s. Today over 130 laws attacking gay rights are pending in state legislatures around the country. The states of Texas and North Carolina are trying to roll back gay marriage and other equal rights protections that gays have sacrificed and fought for over many generations. Those in power actively do not want parity for women, racial minorities, or the lgbtq community. We now have a situation where the powerful are empowered to roll back the gains we have made in the last eight years. It appears driven by moralistic judgments of the far religious Right that seek to disadvantage marginalized communities. Given the direction the country is going in and the rise of retrograde forces worldwide, we are going to have to come together with other liberal, progressive, and radical forces in an activist way to challenge government powers at the national, state, and local levels.


CL: What is your sense of how the Internet and social media have changed how we see things today and how a younger generation of Millennials sees things?

HO: Millennials are the future. Information for them comes from the web. We are living in an era of momentous change. Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms are part of their everyday life. We live in a global world with a global vision. That said, it is refreshing to see that many young people are turning to an older generation of gay folks for advice on how to fight the fight. It’s encouraging that many of them believe that we are all connected. That bodes well for the future. Our young people, as well as the older generation, are finding new ways to winter this political ice age of the patriarchs through digital media. For gays, this may mean revisiting our roots and questioning the assimilation of the past decade. It may mean returning to our subversive and revolutionary roots and restructuring the way we think about acceptance in today’s world. Artists and gays have always put themselves on the front lines and no doubt we will continue to do so in the future. It is our only hope.


* National Education Association, National Endowment for the Humanities, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Institute of Museum and Library Services.


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