Blogs > Cliopatria > JUSTICE, WOMEN AND ART?

Jan 7, 2004 4:49 am


I am a proud supporter of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, a charter member, actually, going back to my undergraduate days. I don't get much out of my membership except pride, since they are based in Washington, D.C., and I'm about as far away from there as you can get without actually leaving US territory entirely. And I'm really very mercenary about causes that I support: I don't care where the money comes from, as long as it doesn't come with strings attached.

But I was reading the latest issue of the membership magazine, Women in the Arts, a little 30-page quarterly that reminds me why I send my pittance, and sometimes teaches me something interesting. The number of active and respected female artists in the Rennaissance through modern times is really quite remarkable: a name or two per era for survey teaching (OK, a few more for the great moments like the Renaissance, or the early 20th century modernists, but how much do we really know about these guys?) and, if you're interested in art at all, a few favorites in your personal field. But art was popular culture, as well as high culture, and there were a lot more than"the masters" working at any given time, and some of those people, men and women, were really, really good. It's an area I'd like to spend a little more time on, when I have the time, particularly the social history of art and social history depicted by art.

But that's not what got my attention this time. I was reading through the stuff at the end when the list of big donors for the 3rd quarter of 2003 caught my eye. A lot of the usual suspects were there: big corporations like Ford, Hecht's, MBNA, Coca-Cola. There are also a lot of people I've never heard of, personal trusts and estates. But a few other names jumped out at me. Near the top, in the $10K-$25K zone, was the Second Lady herself, Lynne V. Cheney, formerly head of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Great! They've got money and NMWA needs it. Then things started to get strange.

In the next category down ($5K-$10K) was the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a single-minded cadre of pro-Israeli lobbyists whom I never would have suspected of having an interest in art, much less women artists of anything other than an Israeli persuasion. In the $1K-$2.5K range were the National Association of Bankruptcy Trustees and the Dermatology Foundation, and I'm sure there's interesting stories behind both of those, but I can't imagine what they are. (Actually, it's more likely these DC based groups just want to be able to work the parties, ply their own donors with exhibit tickets; those benefits come with big corporate contributions. But you got to admit that it looks odd.)

But the reason I'm writing this tonight, instead of working on my syllabi or sleeping, is that the United States Department of Justice also gave between five and ten thousand dollars to my favorite museum. I'm pretty sure that we have other arms of government which are supposed to be supporting the arts, and I'm pretty sure that DoJ is pretty busy with other things that have nothing to do with art (they don't even have responsibility for our color-coded alert system, though that was probably more Crayola than O'Keefe; most news outlets I pay attention to have started using the text versions --"high,""elevated," etc. -- instead of the colors, which makes a great deal of sense). Then I remembered. Back in 2002, there was a bit of a ruckus over the DoJ spending a few grand to cover up the semi-nude statues of The Spirit of Justice in the Great Hall where press conferences happen. In their defense, DoJ argued that news photographers were deliberately framing shots with the breast prominently featured, and that was clearly detracting from the dignity of the proceedings. I'm not taking sides here (both sides have a silly factor that precludes getting involved without looking stupid.) but I can't help but wonder if the NMWA donation from Justice is part of a fence-mending between the Department and the art and feminist communities? And is it working?

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Ralph E. Luker - 1/7/2004

This really seems quite odd, doesn't it? If we aren't talking about a contract or a grant, how can a department of the federal government be making a "donation" to a private agency? Is it legal? Should it be? Particularly when, as you point out, the mandate of the particular branch of the federal government has no obvious interest in or responsibility for the concern of that private agency. Is the bureaucracy's budget just so bloated that it has slush funds for doing this kind of thing? Is this just Mrs. Cheney strong arming Mrs. Ashcroft for one of the former's favorite causes?