They partied with Prince on the South Lawn, freestyled with “Hamilton” star Lin-Manuel Miranda in the Rose Garden, did Al Green at the Apollo and sang Stevie Wonder as carpool karaoke. This was the viral snapshot of the arts during the Obama years, a sometimes surreal, seemingly endless night of the stars.
But after the Obamas leave the White House, and those pop-culture moments drop down the scroll, their arts legacy will face a more rigorous examination. There will be 43 other administrations to contend with, ranging from John Kennedy’s, capable of coaxing the Mona Lisa (on loan) out of France, to Ronald Reagan’s, which established the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities during his first year in office.
It should come as no surprise that where the arts were concerned, the Obamas didn’t just ignore the Pennsylvania Avenue playbook, they wrote their own script. They established dynamic programs and raised considerable money for arts initiatives. They also sometimes drifted away from the traditions of the past, which could leave locals frustrated and impatient.
Perhaps their harshest critic would be Wayne Reynolds, the former chairman of Ford’s Theatre.
“They decided early on not to be involved in the local arts scene,” said Reynolds.
That meant being virtually absent from the National Gallery of Art. (Michelle Obama only made her first NGA visit, a 65-minute photo opportunity with the wife of the prime minister of Singapore, in August. President Obama has yet to poke his head in.) The Obamas also said they were too busy earlier this year to participate in the annual Ford’s fundraiser, an event usually chiseled into the White House calendar. Without the White House, the nonprofit organization decided to cancel its gala. Reynolds also could not get the Obamas to pay attention to the plight of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, which was eventually swallowed up by the NGA.
“This is the nation’s capital,” Reynolds said. “It’s not good enough to go to New York and Broadway and Hollywood and L.A. That’s great, but Washington, D.C., has to be about more than politics and policy. It has to be about culture.”
That’s one side. The other describes the Obamas as ushering in a new era for arts and culture. Most of the credit, the supporters say, should go to Michelle Obama.
That’s no departure. Typically, the first lady takes the lead on arts issues out of necessity. Consider that George W. Bush, who has famously taken up painting in recent years, simply “didn’t have time to look at anything” while he was president, according to former first lady Laura Bush.
On the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, Michelle Obama launched Turnaround Arts, which brings arts education into poorly performing schools across the country. The program has been so successful that it will continue even after the Obamas leave the White House, operated out of the Kennedy Center.
White House representatives also provided a long list of events, ranging from appearances at the National Building Museum to speeches at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles to a ribbon-cutting at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, at which one or both of the Obamas participated.
Michael Kaiser, the former Kennedy Center president, gave the Obamas rave reviews for their advocacy. He said it was far more important that President Obama included $50 million for the arts in 2009’s economic stimulus package than that he attended a Kennedy Center performance.
“We always want our leaders to do things that show a personal engagement with the things we care about, but presidents and first ladies are incredibly busy,” says Kaiser. “They’re presidents of the whole country. They’re not just presidents of Washington, D.C.”
Laura Bush agrees. She was known for her presence at local arts institutions during her husband’s eight years in the White House.
“There are so many cultural institutions and sites that would love for the first lady and president to visit, so you can’t visit all of them,” Bush said. “I don’t think it’s an oversight on their part. It’s just that they went to this one, they didn’t go to the other.”
Bush, during her time in Washington, said her visits to the Renwick Gallery, the Kennedy Center and the National Gallery — official records show her visiting a dozen times over that eight years, although she believes she may have arrived unannounced occasionally — were not about setting an example as first lady. She just loved art and felt lucky to be so close to so much of it.
“I want all Americans to be interested in art, but on the other hand, a lot of it was, ‘I’m right here, I’m right across the street and I’m so pleased to see this show,’ ” Bush said.
She visited the NGA with friends, her daughters and her mother. But she also used it strategically at times, taking then-Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to see “Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture around the Bay of Naples” in 2008 and the first lady of Spain, Ana Botella de Aznar, to see a Goya exhibition in 2002.
Laura Bush also responded when Ford’s Theatre needed help raising money, personally writing to the Carters, Clintons and George H.W. and Barbara Bush to make sure they offered support.
Obama supporters say the first couple did plenty to promote the arts locally.
The renovation of the White House’s Old Family Dining Room included displaying works by 20th-century artists, among them a piece by the late Alma Thomas, making her the first female African American artist featured in the building. They attended the groundbreaking of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in 2012, and will return this month to dedicate the new institution.
Obama launched the White House Music Series in 2009, which included programs devoted to everything from classical and country to Motown and Latin music. At a poetry and spoken-word event, in 2009, Lin-Manuel Miranda performed “The Hamilton Mixtape” more than six years before his musical made its Broadway debut.
The Obamas made their mark nationally and internationally, advocating for artist Mark Bradford, who was selected to represent the United States in the Venice Biennale in 2017.
In 2012, the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities launched Turnaround Arts, which has expanded to 68 schools across the country. Artist Chuck Close, a member of the president’s committee, said that Michelle Obama’s involvement was key, whether she was hosting events at the White House or recruiting high-profile volunteers to participate.
“We wouldn’t have had that kind of success without the bully pulpit,” Close says. “She helped get people like Yo-Yo Ma and Kerry Washington to participate, and we went because not only did we believe in the arts and education and the role of arts education, but because we wanted to hang out with her and see if the administration got it and if they understood what we were doing. She really did get it.”
Mary Schmidt Campbell, the Spelman College president who served as vice chair of the president’s committee, noted the makeup of the group, which included Close, actress Alfre Woodard and dancer Damian Woetzel. These weren’t, she said, big donors being thanked with board posts. These were artists, musicians and theater directors who understood how the arts could improve life. Campbell also said it’s important to remember how the Obamas bridged different parts of culture.
“The collaboration between Lin-Manuel and [Hamilton biographer] Ronald Chernow is kind of a metaphor for the way I see the Obamas being able to balance this genuine understanding of pop culture with a genuine appreciation for scholarly inquiry,” said Campbell.
If President Obama wasn’t particularly present on the District’s cultural scene during his time in office, there’s always next year. Unlike most former presidents, he and Michelle will remain in town so daughter Sasha can finish high school here.
Laura Bush notes that her husband became interested in art only after leaving the White House. Just recently, the former president was flipping through an art catalogue and stopped to point out a Thomas Moran painting he liked. Laura Bush was amused. She told her husband that the work should have looked familiar. For years, a Moran painting hung outside the treaty room in the White House, a place he went to read his briefings every single night. Now he had time to notice it.
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