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First family of arts lovers

The Obamas have a history of attending performances and museums. Will

February 25, 2009|Mike Boehm

Barack and Michelle Obama and their daughters spent the evening of Feb. 6 in the presidential box at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., applauding the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Evidently, it was the first family's idea of a fun Friday night out.

But in a capital where every presidential inflection and turn of phrase is parsed for glimmers of meaning, that front-and-center display of enthusiasm for one of the "high" or "classic" arts boomed like a 21-gun salute. It fed increasing hopes among arts advocates that the Obamas would generate a greater buzz for the arts simply by smiling in theater seats or strolling through museum galleries.

If outings to arts venues become a habit with the first family, "it would be a huge boon to the arts community in Washington and for the United States and the world," says David Andrew Snider, president of the League of Washington Theatres. "There's a widespread feeling that he 'gets it.' He gets the importance of the arts."

"They could indeed lead by example," agrees Mariana Nork, senior vice president of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, across the street from the White House. "We're going to have new trends set."

At the Ailey company, Executive Director Sharon Gersten Luckman says colleagues quickly congratulated the dance troupe for having won the presidential seal of approval. "Everyone is commenting, at least in our world, that their first night out, their date night, was an arts event," she says. "People are more thrilled than jealous."

Other early signs that the arts may get to share the Obamas' spotlight were opera star Renee Fleming's inclusion in a free pre-inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial and the rainbow quartet featuring cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Itzhak Perlman that shivered on the Capitol steps while delivering (via a recording, as it turned out) a musical prelude to the oath of office.

This infusion of the arts into the Obamas' public rituals and family routines comes after eight years in which George W. Bush seldom was seen in Washington's halls of culture. Laura Bush liked to attend performances and museum exhibitions, Washington arts leaders say, but such patronage wasn't a couples activity.

Taking the Obama past as prelude, there's a fair amount of evidence to support arts partisans' hopes for a White House attuned to music, theater, fine arts and dance.

Although the varsity basketball team was his signature extracurricular interest at the Punahou School in Honolulu, Obama's 1979 senior yearbook notes that he was also in the boys' chorus as a freshman and the concert choir as a sophomore. Both involved taking music courses as well as performing, according to a course catalog from the time. As a senior, the future president was on the staff of the literary magazine, Ka Wai Ola.

The adult Obama's arts resume includes teaming with the Chicago Symphony as narrator for Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait" during a free concert in 2005. On his Facebook page, the president includes Bach's cello suites and Shakespeare's tragedies among his favorite things. And before the first family moved to the White House, Michelle Obama served on the board of the Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago, which is devoted to contemporary and traditional African and African American styles.

A prominent place in Obama lore belongs to the Art Institute of Chicago. It's where young attorneys Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson had their first date. "I took her to the art museum . . . to try to show that I was a cultured kind of guy," the president told CNN.

If the president needs input on the arts, he's plugged in with a chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, who entered Sarah Lawrence College with dreams of becoming a ballet dancer. The Washington Post noted recently that Emanuel had attended a Kennedy Center performance of the Mark Morris Dance Group.

Meanwhile, although it's well known that one presidential brother-in-law, Craig Robinson, is the basketball coach at Oregon State University, another, Konrad Ng, was curator of film and video at Hawaii's leading art museum, the Honolulu Academy of Arts, before taking his current post teaching critical studies at the University of Hawaii's Academy for Creative Media. Ng, who declined to be interviewed for this article, is married to Obama's half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng.

Shortly before Obama was sworn in as a U.S. senator in 2005, Ng set up a private family tour of the Academy of Arts with museum director Stephen Little as the foursome's guide.

"I was doing most of the talking, but they were very open, very engaged, very attentive," Little recalls. "We spent a good hour and a half, and based on that, I would say they were very eager learners."

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