When Will Music and Culture Return to the White House? (Guest Column)

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Ken Ehrlich, the longtime producer of the Grammys, spent years visiting the Obama White House, curating performances with A-list performers. When Donald Trump took office, those shows went away. Now, with President-elect Joe Biden, Ehrlich hopes for a return of the celebration of the arts.

When Bruce Springsteen recently referenced Elayne Griffin Baker’s poem that begins, "There’s no art in this White House. There’s no literature, no poetry, no music," my immediate thoughts went to the several PBS shows we did over the course of the Obama administration and how joyful they were for so many reasons. Having the opportunity to do shows about music of the civil rights movement and the heritage of the blues in front of the first sitting Black president made it extra special for us.

I remembered thinking that if we received a call to return and do more during the Trump years, how I would delight in slamming the phone down on whoever had called. I didn’t have to worry about that, nor did any other creative types who had had the privilege of working with a most amazing group of people, starting with the president and the first lady. The call never came, and the current administration demonstrated a lack of interest in — and perhaps respect for — the arts world.

That stood in stark contrasts to the Obamas.

They were incredible to work with, and to do shows for. I was too young to have been involved with the Kennedy administration, which was culturally dubbed "Camelot," but I can imagine that during the Obama years we may have come as close as anyone to rekindling that spirit.

And because there was such a commitment to education by then-first lady Michelle Obama, all these shows had a strong educational component, and our involvement came with that of The Grammy Museum and its wonderful first director, Bob Santelli. We had also been active in both of the Obama presidential campaigns and had gotten to know the players as well.

So, since the victory of President-elect Joe Biden, I’ve been fielding calls from friends and a few artists' representatives about whether there will be a cultural mandate returning to the Biden White House, and, if so, whether we would like to be part of it. The answer, of course, is yes to both queries, but I suspect the landscape may be somewhat different now from how it was from 2009 to 2016. First and foremost, as much as the Bidens enjoyed the work that we and other producers did over those years (at a fundraiser last year, Joe remembered a few of the performances and commented on how much fun it was to be there for those), and however much they may remember that those were the great days of the Kennedy Center, right now there’s the coronavirus to be dealt with. Both practically and morally, I’m not sure we’re in a time when people will be allowed to gather at the White House or the Kennedy Center, or that we really feel right about putting on great performances at a time when so many of us are experiencing tremendous grief and loss.

On the other hand, maybe that’s precisely what we need now. As a supplier of event-type shows, I must tell you that I think the days of the remote, taped "living room performances" that have defined the COVID-19 era have just about run their course. The idea of creating great performances such as the ones we’ve done for 40 years on the Grammys, Emmys and other shows, only for them to conclude with an awkward lack of audience response after an act has sung their heart out feels so counterintuitive to the reason for live-event television.

But there’s an even more significant change that is bound to affect the relationship between the Biden-Harris administration and those of us who believe that part of our service involves providing cultural enrichment and enjoyment through music and art: The landscape has changed drastically in the four years that Trump was around. And though it would be wrong to lay too much credit or blame at his feet, the results are significant. The events of last summer — the police killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protest marches — lit a match once more in the fight for equality and diversity everywhere, but particularly in the entertainment industry. Nearly every network and production company has or is in the process of responding with a new commitment to greater diversity both in front of and behind the camera, and there is a renewed commitment to trying to level the playing field. I have no doubt that this will come into play thanks to the extremely evident commitment that the Biden-Harris team has already expressed in this area.

That commitment to diversity is symptomatic of what we believe is part of the humanistic approach that the new administration stands for and wants to put into practice starting in 2021. And while the celebration of popular culture may be one of the most visible aspects of that welcome change in our political landscape, it would be wrong to give too much importance to that as opposed to the "bigger picture," which will require the best of what Biden-Harris stand for.

Though several of the shows we did at the White House celebrated African American culture, we also did shows that celebrated veterans and the women's movement and which were booked and produced with a diverse group of people both behind and in front of the camera. Still, I suspect that the new administration will be even more guided by the new awareness and change in media attitudes toward race, gender, etc.

It’s my long way of saying, firmly, yes, there’s no question about the return of culture and art with the Biden-Harris administration. The words of Elayne Griffin Baker resonate: "We have lost our mojo, our fun, our happiness, our cheering on of others. ... the unique can-do spirit that America has always been known for. We are lost."

But maybe, in the phrase that has been sung by Blacks and whites for hundreds of years, and continues to unite us and renew our spirit every time it’s sung ... we will find that ...

"I was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see."

Let’s hope so.

Ken Ehrlich is one of live event television's premier producers who in January completed 40 years as producer of the annual Grammy Awards telecast.