“The arts give people an outlet to view the world differently,” Senator and vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris tweeted in 2017 after President Trump first threatened to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). It’s undeniable that the arts and culture sector has been under siege for the last four years, neglected by an administration that consistently deprioritizes public arts funding while enacting tax policies that help the ultra-rich, an approach that may benefit blue-chip art collectors but leaves most of America’s working artists struggling.
The creative industry employs 5.1 million Americans and brings in $877 billion to the economy annually. With the election less than two months away, Hyperallergic looked at the Democratic candidate and his running mate’s track record in the field, from legislative achievements to museum affiliations and general support of the industry.
* * *
Prior to his presidential aspirations, as a senator for Delaware from 1973 to 2009, Biden took a firm stance in support of the NEA. In 1993, 1997, and 1999, he voted against amendments that would eliminate all funding for the endowment, and he opposed cuts to the agency’s budget in 1991, 1994, 1997. Biden was also among the senators who voted against Amendment 1206 in 1997, which would have privatized the agency within a three-year time span.
At the beginning of his senatorial career, in 1973, he supported a resolution to establish the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress; in 2000, he helped designate March as Arts Education Month. In 2003, Biden was an original cosponsor of legislation to establish the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, and has pledged to create a Smithsonian National Museum of the American Latino if elected, initiating a feasibility study and determining a site location for the institution.
From 2009 to 2017, as Vice President to President Barack Obama — whose engagement with and knowledge of American art and pop culture is well-documented — Biden was part of an administration that consistently endorsed and encouraged creative expression. From commissioning the first portrait of a First Lady by an African American woman, Amy Sherald, to funneling millions in stimulus money to the NEA during the 2009 economic crisis and appointing a dedicated team to the arts and humanities, the Obama administration affirmed the value of the arts.
“Throughout his career Vice President Biden has been a strong supporter of the arts,” a campaign spokesperson told Hyperallergic. “Vice President Biden knows investing in the arts is critical for job creation and he is committed to promoting and supporting the arts in schools as well as the diversity and richness of ideas that keep the artworld alive.”
Though the Biden campaign has yet to release an official agenda on the arts, there are glimmers of Obama-era enthusiasm. In a recent conversation with Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator and star of the musical Hamilton, Biden described the arts as “the expression of our souls.” The play was “a profound educational opportunity to remind both people with PhDs and people with high school education what we’re all about,” he said, addressing Miranda. “The future of who we are lies in the arts,” the presidential candidate added.
As a senator for California for nearly four years before being appointed Biden’s VP pick, Harris has signed on to key legislation in the sector; separately, she has a long history of individual engagement with cultural institutions.
The first woman of color to join a major party’s national ticket, Harris has supported several efforts to recognize the cultural contributions of different ethnic groups, including resolutions in favor of Hispanic Heritage Month and Filipino American History Month. When it was first introduced in 2017, Harris also co-sponsored an act to establish a Smithsonian National Museum of the American Latino Museum that was recently passed in Congress.
Most recently, in June of this year, Harris co-sponsored the Confederate Monument Removal Act, which would remove all statues of individuals who voluntarily served the Confederate States of America from display in the US Capitol. The bill was originally introduced by Senator Cory Booker in 2017 in the wake of the deadly “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Harris’s contributions in the arts predate her Senate seat. While serving as San Francisco’s District Attorney, the politician was a trustee on the board of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. During her tenure, from 1996 to 2011, she helped launch SFMOMA Matches, a mentoring program that paired connect students from underserved communities with adult museum members to foster and support their interest in visual art.
At the time, Harris also helped organize the display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) in San Francisco.
“She was deeply engaged in education and the arts in San Francisco,” said Natasha Boas, a former curator at YBCA, in a conversation with Hyperallergic. Boas, who worked with Harris on the AIDS Memorial Quilt and other public programs, said that the Democratic VP candidate “focused her work on grassroots programs that promoted diversity.”
According to Politico, Harris was also a member of the San Francisco Jazz Organization and chaired the San Francisco Symphony’s annual fundraiser.
Notably, both Harris and Biden have artists in the family: the presidential candidate’s son, Hunter Biden, is a painter; Harris’s stepdaughter, Ella Emhoff, makes sculpture, knitwear, drawings, and paintings, and is currently enrolled at Parsons School of Design. Harris lauded the New York City arts school during an interview, saying its curriculum encourages students to “apply their talent to what’s going on in the world,” such as climate change.
Artist and organizer Tanya Selvaratnam, a member of Arts for Biden-Harris, a coalition of arts practitioners and artists advocating for the Democratic ticket, believes that democracy flourishes when art thrives — and the current administration deliberately targets both. Selvaratnam points out that the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (PCAH), which advised the White House on cultural issues since 1982, disappeared under Trump’s administration when all its members resigned in 2017 in protest of the president’s comments following the “Unite the Right” rally. National Arts and Humanities Month, typically celebrated in October, has also fallen by the wayside since Trump took office, she adds.
“Kamala was my first pick when the primaries were in session, and it was because I studied her and how she had learned to listen to people,” said artist Lee Quiñones, also a member of Arts for Biden-Harris. “And Biden is coming right off the Obama ticket, they were very much involved in the arts. So I knew that they would have a keen eye to working with artists.”
Quiñones also emphasizes that the pair’s stance on social justice issues, from race equity to immigration, aligns with the liberal values many artists are striving to protect.
“Artists in general have been speaking about issues of race for a long time, because it’s been pulling at the fiber of the country for so long,” he told Hyperallergic. “I think that artists can open the aperture of life through the power of their art. That goes along with good administration practices and policy pushing. I think we need to flip the script.”
Hakim Bishara contributed reporting.