Open Letter to Mrs. Karen Pence

Appealing to the nation’s “Art Educator.”

I would prefer not to call you SLOTUS because it just doesn’t sound right. It reminds me of slugs and my letter may already appear a little salty.

Another Medium writer wrote you a letter in 2017 and I am writing you in 2019 with the same concerns. Your husband’s boss has proposed to neuter the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. This is in addition to severe education cuts in both K-12 and higher education. This is the third time Trump has called for a complete defunding of arts programs. As an artist and as an arts educator, this should make you upset.

The National Endowment for the Arts’ budget is just $29 million, a budget so low that it can be completely funded by Andy Warhol’s painting of Elvis with $1 million left over. The goal of the NEA is to “[bring] great art to all 50 states, including rural areas, inner cities, and military bases.” A budget that small sets up the NEA to fail those communities that need art the most: the people who make up the majority of your political base.

The Trump Administration has made it crystal clear it considers education (and the rural areas of our nation) to be a low priority. Your husband’s boss doesn’t even know the difference between community college and vocational school and his version of trade schools amounts to rote physical learning instead of conceptual learning. He and DeVos continue to spread anti-intellectual ideas about higher education, despite everyone in his cabinet benefiting from such a system. As long as you have family money, you are allowed to work at a “think tank” as a pundit or consultant, while simultaneously lecturing the populace on the evils of a liberal arts education. But children who live on a South Dakotan reservation or in the Mississippi Delta or in inner-city New Jersey have just as much right to an arts education as your well-funded class of parochial school children.

Conservatives have had their eye on the NEA for a long time. Ronald Reagan, a man who was an actor, and therefore should support the economic value of the arts, proposed to eliminate the NEA in 1981. It took his fellow conservative actors and artists to change his mind. The NEA was in the crosshairs again for funding Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, a piece that triggers many conservatives to this very day. Serrano is a devout Catholic, but conservative preachers Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan argue that the piece is anti-Christian propaganda. As a fellow Christian, I disagree, but this is precisely the type of art discourse we need in order to foster independent thought. Christianity and art used to go hand-in-hand. Millions learned about God by viewing the crafted stained glass windows of their neighborhood church. You and your husband as former Catholics should know that the Catholic Church believes that God’s buildings on Earth should be testaments to His Glory by the gift He has left man: art. Also, the NEA no longer funds individual artists and hasn’t in over 20 years. The money is earmarked for programs that benefit the entire community, both on a national level and on a local community level.

Not all conservatives despise the NEA. The Second Bush Administration famously increased the budget several years in a row, including a $20.1 million increase in FY 2008, a historic budget increase. The increases funded programs like the American Masterpieces program, which included expanding local arts education activities in every US state. It was considered a bipartisan effort with the Bush Administration and the Democrat-controlled Congress. President Bush and his librarian wife Laura recognized the importance of the arts in underserved communities and it’s something they should receive more recognition for.

Maybe you believe that it is okay for someone to be an artist as long as their family can support them. Maybe you won’t say it aloud, but maybe you feel that artists who need grants need another job. YouTuber Ian Danskin from Innuendo Studios made the point that American conservative thought stems from monarchists who believe that society rank is stagnant, and as someone who studied Hobbes in graduate school, I’ll concede that Americans all have an inherent sense of social rank. I’ve seen this in my own privilege. Despite my race and gender, I’m usually regarded as educated and well-mannered, even while displaying “low-class” mannerisms or doing “low-class” things. As I mentioned in my earlier writings, I can hide financial hardship extremely well behind the black upper-middle class image my family worked hard to cultivate.

But the difference between a person like me and whoever is left in the Trump Administration is that I believe any American has a God-given right to a quality education and to work in any career they choose. We all have the right to our own pursuit of happiness. I’ll concede that college isn’t for everyone, but that doesn’t mean community outreach programs that focus on arts and humanities should be placed on the chopping block. If anything, conservatives should use the elitism of college to argue for community arts and humanities. They are cheaper to the taxpayer and have an immediate economic impact. To put it frankly, folks are attracted to pretty-looking cities with things to do on the weekends.

As a community college instructor, it irks me that the Trump Administration treats vocational education as a solution to ballooning student loan debt. Students are regarded as replaceable cogs instead of human beings whose work needs change as they age. We need welders and pipe-fitters, but we need a workforce that can adapt to economic change. I’m from a town with a shipbuilding history and a strong affinity for the arts and there is room for both arts education and vocational training. We humans are complex creatures and we are not designed to be in neat, little boxes with labels.

I imagine that cutting the arts and education programs appeals to the type of individuals who use “art history” and “gender studies” as anti-SJW dog whistles. Those individuals tend to believe there is a conspiracy called “Cultural Marxism.” Ironically, the Trump Administration’s defunding of arts programs will lead to a narrowing of American culture. Perhaps this is what you want, but I must remind you that we Christians do not agree on the finer cultural aspects of our religion. To limit it to just one point-of-view is un-American.

The fine arts world definitely has its problems, with all the money laundering, price gouging, and glorification of dead white guys. But there used to be a time in the United States in which we pumped money into our American artists in order to kick some Nazi and Soviet butts. Times have certainly changed.

America wouldn’t be the same without its arts. Our art defines who we are. You may not consider yourself a policy maker, but I urge you to take your arts education campaign seriously. I know you are not your husband, but in the event he becomes president, you will have the unique position of being the most effective policymaker on his team.

As an arts educator and advocate for art therapy programs, I’m sure art and arts education is important to you as it is to me. I can’t help but feel your current stance on art and art programs feels more like a bored, rich woman’s stance who doesn’t depend on her art to survive. Art shouldn’t be a pastime for the rich, nor should it be regarded as such.

As Second Lady of the United States, will you defend the arts from being defunded? Will you champion STEAM education to create well-rounded critical thinkers? Will you champion art as a viable career choice, one that our economy needs? The rest of us art educators are hoping you say something.

is a filmmaker, photographer, and digital media artist living a stereotypical artist life. She could have been a doctor or a scientist, but here we are.

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