By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 21, 2010; C01
In a White House where first lady Michelle Obama's relationship to the arts strives to be both rarefied and common, cerebral and pragmatic, the cultural program is dictated by tradition, personal life story . . . and an unabashed desire to shake things up.
Information does not always come through the tried-and-true institutional channels. And many of the honored guests invited to gilded East Room soirees are not even old enough to vote.
On Monday evening, the president and first lady hosted the sixth installment in the White House Music Series: Broadway. As usual, there was an afternoon youth workshop. Dozens of students from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts gathered for a dance lesson from Jerry Mitchell, the award-winning choreographer of "Hairspray." They had only about six hours of rehearsal at the Joy of Motion Dance Center in Northeast Washington before they took the stage at the White House. Their dress rehearsal, in the East Room, was in front of a daunting audience: the first lady, dressed in a chartreuse pantsuit, as well as parents and teachers.
"I didn't make the steps easier for them. They're doing the exact same steps they're doing on Broadway," said Mitchell, tall and lean and wearing a pair of low-tech sneakers. "Why else am I here if not to challenge them and let them know what it might take to do this" professionally?
As a small band cranked out "You Can't Stop the Beat," the students -- in a rainbow of T-shirts and black pants -- sang, leapt and put on big Broadway smiles.
"No feet on the ground," encouraged Mitchell as the students jumped high with the beat. "Wait, wait, wait, wait. Stop, stop, stop, stop. Good!"
The first lady, arms in the air, cheered from her front-row seat. "Oh, my goodness, I'm out of breath just watching you all," she said as she took the stage to applaud their effort. "This is exactly what we envisioned happening when we started this music series."Bridging the disconnect
After a year and a half of an Obama White House, which has included more than 50 cultural events, this student workshop epitomizes the first lady's approach to the arts. Her philosophy is defined by an emphasis on education and access for those who are often locked out.
With that goal always in mind, she has also pointed out the financial impact of the arts on the economy and their ability to strengthen and build communites. And finally, she has made clear that her relationship to the creative community is personal, born out of family history and personal curiosity.
"My life is an anecdotal representation of the importance of music and culture. I grew up on the South Side of Chicago where you had me and my brother and a set of kids who happened to have parents that were a little more enlightened," she said during an interview about her arts interests and advocacy. "We got to go to the symphony and we got to experience opera and we got to see and go to the museums when we were young. But we were also hanging out with kids who didn't know these museums existed in the city they grew up in. We grew up with kids who had never seen the lake because they lived on the west side."
She paused, and her silence underscored her disbelief. "Their disconnect from the heart of the city of Chicago was so deep," she said, "that they had never seen the lake."
"There's a difference between where I am and where many of them are and that's when I say, 'There but for the grace of God go I,' because these kids were smart, engaged," she said. "They were missing that opportunity, and many times that opportunity came in the form of arts and culture."
She painted a mural at an Adams Morgan community center with children, congressional spouses and the head of the National Endowment for the Arts. She brought the Russian first lady to a performance at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, where a student brought down the house with her version of George Gershwin's "Summertime." And on Wednesday morning, before the traditional White House luncheon in their honor, winners of this year's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Awards were dispatched to the Renwick Gallery to give area teenagers a free design symposium.
In the fall, she will debut a program with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which she hopes will be the start of a dance series.
"If I'm giving those experiences to Malia and Sasha, and I think it's important to them, then I can't pretend it's not important for everyone," Obama said. "If they weren't important, the best high schools and grammar schools in the country wouldn't be fighting to make sure they had music and that every single one had an orchestra hall and a band. If we know it's good for some kids, it's good for all of them. We don't need scientists or research studies or data to tell us what we already know."
"The more experiences kids have," she said, "the more things that they see, the more things that they know to want."
The Music Series, which launched in 2009, has been the centerpiece of her outreach. It began with a celebration of jazz and worked its way through Latin, classical and country music. It has explored the songs of the civil rights era. Coming up: opera. Up for consideration: gospel. An educational workshop is almost always a component.
"When you have the luxury of asking Stevie Wonder or Paul McCartney to come and perform in your house, my philosophy is if you do that -- have the muckety-mucks here for that -- what activity is going to connect this event to kids and to the broader community?" Obama said. "If we have kids, who put on their nice clean white shirts and walk through the gates of the White House and sit down for a concert, they start thinking, 'I've done something that gives me access to doing more.' "Tours arranged
And while it's important for kids to have the big-shot experience, she said, it's equally important that the students encounter art in their community.
So Obama has also quietly arranged for students in the White House mentoring program to take behind-the-scenes tours of museums and cultural sites. They met, for example, with a curator from the National Museum of African American History and Culture who led them to Frederick Douglass House, Mary McLeod Bethune Council House and Ben's Chili Bowl, which has apparently risen to the level of cultural landmark.
"She understands that the arts capture a kid in a way that standardized tests don't," said Rocco Landesman, chairman of the NEA, who has had conversations on this subject with Education Secretary Arne Duncan. "We're up against this perceptual prejudice that the arts are an add-on, a frill. We believe they're fundamental to who we are."
In May, at the ribbon-cutting for the new American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the first lady crystallized the value of the arts by describing their impact in dollars and cents. She spoke of the nearly $160 billion that art and cultural activities contribute to the economy and announced the $50 million in stimulus funds earmarked for the NEA to preserve and create regional jobs in the creative industry. Her remarks, which positioned the arts as an engine of economic development, received a modest nod in the mainstream. But they sparked hoots of happiness in the creative community.
It was an I-told-ya-so moment for people such as Landesman, whose NEA recently introduced an initiative with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide $100 million in funding for arts organizations.
"This is not about these august, impenetrable cultural institutions on a hill that people are afraid to approach," said Landesman, whose $168.5 million budget has inched up over the past two decades to its highest level since 1992.
"You put up arts clusters in very tough areas and they change."'I like to mix styles'
Historically it has always fallen to the East Wing to take the administration's arts policy and translate it into programs, parties and, ultimately, mythology.
Jackie Kennedy used the arts to help Americans see themselves as cosmopolitan and the White House as a place of grand sophistication. Lady Bird Johnson's focus on "beautification" quietly highlighted environmentalism, the notion that our surroundings help shape our sense of self and that natural beauty was as vital to the country's legacy as any painting or sculpture.
And Laura Bush, while perhaps best known for inaugurating the National Book Festival, also dedicated much of President George W. Bush's second term to using the arts as a tool for international diplomacy in places such as Pakistan.
This first lady is meticulously sketching an image of a modern, plugged-in White House. She wears clothes by young designer brands such as Prabal Gurung and Cooper-Hewitt honoree Rodarte. She attends concerts by Robin Thicke, Beyoncé and Maxwell. And she chose "Black Like Me #2" by contemporary artist Glenn Ligon for the residence.
"I like to mix styles. I love the bold colors and concepts that come from modern art," she said. "I like three-dimensional, textured paintings, particularly when the house itself is so traditional." She recently met with the Committee for the Preservation of the White House and discussed bringing photography and sculpture into the public spaces.
And the day of the May 2009 poetry jam, several guests, hearing the thump-thump of house music at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., mused: Who'd have thought it possible?
"You didn't have the sense that you were in the presence of high art being handed down from the mountain," said Landesman, who was there that evening. "This wasn't something done in a condescending way. It had an immediacy.
"The poets who were there tended to be young and unknown rather than gold-watch-acknowledged poets."
That wasn't the first time poets had been invited to convene in the White House. Bush organized a poetry symposium -- albeit without house music -- to discuss the work of Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes and Emily Dickinson. The salon was scheduled for the month before the Iraq war began. What was intended as a literary happening quickly began to transform into an antiwar protest, with the guests planning to confront the first lady. The gathering was canceled.
Today, the Iraq war goes on, as does the war in Afghanistan. Why did poets rush enthusiastically to the Obama White House rather than raise their voices in protest?
At the Obama event, "the artists featured had deep roots in social change. . . . I felt they were urging a change of course, and that's not unimportant," said Sarah Browning, director of Split This Rock, an organization of socially engaged poets that was born as D.C. Poets Against the War during the Bush controversy.'It's the packaging'
Much of Laura Bush's arts engagement was overshadowed by the war, said Anita McBride, her former chief of staff. History is on Michelle Obama's side. "There's a greater fascination with what she's doing and how she's doing it," McBride said. "I'm about all things 'first lady.' But it's the packaging, plus the level of interest that continues to be there."
The poetry event was branded as cool rather than genteel. It was organized like an evening in an urban nightclub. Obama wore an asymmetrical top by Basso & Brooke, a London-based avant-garde label. The evening paired spoken-word artists with lesser-known musicians such as Eric Lewis and Esperanza Spalding, who would go on to perform at the president's Nobel concert.
"She was such a series of contradictions: this little-bitty woman with an Afro and a bass with that angelic voice playing jazz. You know, I love that. I love the notion of having members of Congress sitting in the East Room listening to the spoken word," Obama said.
"It's just those incongruencies, making sure the socialites from D.C. are sitting next to the teachers from Anacostia listening to opera. It's that whole mix," Obama said. "You can get so much done and say so much -- without saying anything."
By that logic, access is not just who's allowed in the audience but who's allowed to take the stage. The rock-jazz pianist Lewis pounded out "Mr. Brightside" at the May '09 poetry jam. Lewis is not the usual sort of musician. He does not sit at the piano but rather assumes a warrior stance in front of it. The keys are his prey and he attacks each one with a ferocity that sends sweat flying from his athlete's body and into the front rows. His presence telegraphed that the first lady wasn't relying solely on the esteemed masters, the usual suspects or even the critically praised.
"I never could have played the White House under a different administration, with the style that I play," Lewis suspected. "The fact that she urged me on in the face of the criticism I received said a lot about her courage."
Lewis came to be a White House guest thanks to the many voices that whisper in the ears of this first lady and the wide-ranging vision of her art-scouting emissaries who talk to everyone from experts at the Grammy Museum to the editor of Nylon magazine. What's cool? they asked the New York-based editor, Marvin Scott Jarrett. Eric Lewis is cool.
"It's a modern sort of environment here," Obama said. "The president is trying to get his iPod up to speed. . . . I'm always curious to hear from the new young talent."
"The first time I heard Esperanza Spalding play was at the White House," Obama said. "Our goal is to send the message that great music and art is everywhere and everything."
Lewis's route to the White House began in June 2008, when Peter Emerson, a political consultant, heard him play at a wrap party for the film "The Messenger." Impressed by what he heard, Emerson introduced Lewis to Vanessa Reed, whose husband Thomas has known the first lady since college. Reed, who lives in Virginia, was smitten with the artist who performs as ELEW and decided to put his talent on the White House radar.
So in mid-February 2009, Reed sent an e-mail to Desirée Rogers, the White House social secretary at the time, inviting her to an ELEW concert at D.C. jazz haunt HR-57. Rogers, not quite a month into her new job, responded with a promise to attend the show and to bring along a couple of East Wing staffers, including her deputy Ebs Burnough.
As it would happen, Rogers would hear Lewis perform again a couple of days later when she attended the Donna Karan fashion show in New York.
A month passed. Then, as a scathing review in the New York Times was describing a recent Lewis performance as "grandiose" and "facile," Rogers booked him for the poetry event. Old-guard criticism be damned! Reed also sent the first lady a YouTube video of ELEW reaching into the piano to pluck the keys -- a technique that has churned up little love from the kind of jazz fans who shush neophyte listeners during sets.
When Lewis arrived at the White House, he expected formality and was planning to play with restraint. He most certainly was not going to go poking around inside a piano in the East Room. Then he met Obama. "She had me off balance from the beginning, honestly," Lewis said from his hotel room in Ischia, Italy, where he was performing and where the media have been referring to him as "Barack's piano player." "As soon as I set my foot down in the room, she said, 'Oh, Eric, come over here, man.' "
"She wanted to make sure I was going to go inside the piano and do some of the special effects that I do. I was totally surprised she had that kind of candor and sheer taste for something edgy, fast and hip," Lewis recalled. "That particular effect has gotten me negative criticism."
But Obama wasn't finished giving Lewis his marching orders. This was a first lady whose maternal grandfather blasted jazz from every room of his South Side Chicago house; her father collected jazz recordings; aunts played for the church choir; an uncle played in a band; she dabbled at piano. (The president took guitar lessons. And Malia is, according to the first lady, keen on being an accomplished pianist.) "She said, 'Kill it! Kill it!' She was talking shop talk. That's a big compliment. It means you totally understand the complete package, the subtle nuances to the radical stuff. She might have even said, 'Break it to bits.' "
Regardless, he did just that.'You carry that with you'
Creating those juxtapositions is part of the Obama mythology. Mixing students with professionals. Introducing neighborhood kids to international stars. Putting unorthodox performers in historical settings. Browning, who remains an antiwar activist, points out that giving folks access doesn't equal influence. "It would be harsh to say 'window dressing,' but the arts are at risk of being used to make them look more connected to social change than they really are."
For now, however, countless artists are pleased with the access the first lady has provided. They're excited that she's talked economics. And for Eric Lewis -- a.k.a. ELEW -- performing at her behest was transforming.
"You carry that with you. In situations where I'm worried about how I'll be accepted, in New York or by conservative jazz fans, it's at that time the nudge and chumminess the first lady gave to me, that shatters the timidity," Lewis said.
"It allows me to move forward like a gladiator."