My friend, the artist Tom Lea of El Paso, Texas, captured the way I feel about our great land, a land I love,” said George W. Bush. “He said, ‘Live on the east side of the mountain. It’s the sunrise side, not the sunset side. It is the side to see the day that is coming, not to see the day that has gone.’ ” The comment, made during Bush’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia this summer, brought to light a little-known side of the Texas governor and presidential candidate: his interest in American Western art.
Guided by his wife, Laura, a former librarian actively engaged in the arts, Bush has developed a taste for the work of artists who address themes unique to Texas and the American West. In addition to the painting Ranger Escort West of the Pecos (given to the state of Texas in 1965) by Lea, who is 93, the governor’s office in Austin displays a number of other works. Among them is a 1984 sketch by the Mexican-born artist José Cisneros, and the paintings A Charge to Keep (1929), by the early-20th-century illustrator W. H. D. Koerner, and Sam Houston as Marius among the Ruins of Carthage (date unknown), attributed to Washington Cooper, a 19th-century Tennessee portraitist who painted many American senators and statesmen of his day. The Bushes have cultivated relationships with several regional artists and art institutions. Laura Bush is the honorary chair of the Austin Museum of Art’s $80 million capital-building campaign and is a fixture at museum openings.
But Ricardo Hernandez, deputy director of the Texas Commission on the Arts, is quick to point out that the Lone Star State is last in funding for the arts per capita, behind the other 49 states, the District of Columbia, and the six U.S. territories. Founded in 1965 by the Texas legislature, the commission manages public funding and technical support for artists and cultural organizations, as well as arts education, in the state. It is dependent on legislative appropriations and now spends the equivalent of 18 cents per citizen on the arts. Even so, Hernandez says that “under Bush, we have made some fairly substantial incremental increases.” The current annual allocation for the commission is $7.3 million, up from $4.1 million in 1996. Both last year and this year, the commission also received substantial grants—$670,000 and $665,000, respectively—from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Officially, Bush takes a moderate stance on government support for the arts. In contrast to his Republican primary opponent John McCain, who publicly stated his desire to end funding for the National Endowment, Bush has not been vocal about his plans for its future. And because he has never been in the U.S. Congress, the governor has no voting record for or against the endowment. Ray Sullivan, deputy press secretary for the Bush campaign, said that because of campaign obligations, Bush was unavailable to be interviewed for this article. Responding to questions from ARTnewson the governor’s behalf, Sullivan said, “Bush believes that we should continue federal funding for the arts, but give the states a better say in how the funds are spent. He’s made it clear that we should not spend public money to support obscene material or to denigrate religion.”
In the Texas art world, at least, some have given the Bush family high marks for their personal involvement. Adair Margo, a longtime gallery owner in El Paso who specializes in Western art and contemporary Texan paintings and photography, and a Bush supporter, has known the Bushes since 1995. Margo became friendly with the governor and his wife after Laura Bush attended a party for a book Margo published about Tom Lea, whom her gallery represents. While largely unknown outside of Texas, Lea is famous in his home state for his depictions of the Old West, some of which have been likened to the Western films of director John Ford. (Lea is also a former war correspondent whose books have served as inspiration for several Westerns.) Margo describes the artist’s market as “very private” and says his paintings have sold for $40,000.
Following the encounter, the Bushes developed a personal friendship with Lea and his wife. In addition to the numerous Lea works now owned by the state of Texas, the governor and his wife have themselves purchased several pieces by the artist. They keep some Lea drawings at the governor’s mansion, including depictions of the Texas State Fairgrounds. Bush’s gubernatorial staff bought the artist’s rendition of a woman cradling a baby as a gift for the governor.
Beyond their enthusiasm for Lea’s Old West motifs, the Bushes have also shown an interest in Hispanic art. Early last year Laura Bush presided over the opening of an exhibition of embroidery and dresses from Mexico at the Mexic-Arte Museum in Austin. Last May she held an exhibition of Texas-reared Hispanic artists Santa Barrazza and Sam Coronado to coincide with the annual Cinco de Mayo festivities at her office. The Bushes also invited Cisneros to the governor’s mansion early in Bush’s first term.
Following their meeting in El Paso, Margo invited Laura Bush to return for the dedication of Los Lagartos (The Alligators), a sculpture by the well-known artist and El Paso native Luis Jiménez. El Paso’s first public sculpture to be sponsored jointly by the National Endowment for the Arts and the city, the work refers to the time when alligators actually lived in the inland community. By Margo’s account, the first lady was so taken with the sculpture that she accepted an invitation to travel to Hondo, New Mexico, where the artist is now based, to meet him.
“Jiménez does larger-than-life fiberglasses of the vaquero, the original cowboy. The Mexicans—not John Wayne—were the first cowboys,” says Margo. The visit bore fruit. The Bushes ended up buying a Jiménez work called Texas Waltz for the governor’s mansion.
Later, Margo journeyed with Laura Bush into the Mexican state of Chihuahua to visit a pottery-making center in Mata Ortiz, a three-hour drive from El Paso. There, the artist Juan Quezada had revived a traditional technique by replicating shards of ancient pottery found locally. According to Margo, Laura Bush “loved it. Not only did she go, but she also invited the Texas secretary of state to go down there, and [persuaded] the Austin Museum of Art to host an exhibit of Juan Quezada pottery.”
“The Bushes’ interest is genuine. When you grow up in Texas, you live in a diverse culture and it’s ingrained in you,” says Sylvia Orozco, the executive director of the Mexic-Arte Museum. “You grow up with Mexican Americans and African Americans. It’s part of your community.”
In government, the Bushes have promoted art more through personal involvement than through state policy. Laura Bush has turned her office into an informal art gallery featuring Texas artists she selects. She is currently showing the paintings of Gail Wendorf of Lubbock. She is also overseeing an effort by the Texas Capitol Historical Art Committee to find historic Texas paintings, which she hopes to display in the capitol. And as a well-known literacy advocate, the governor’s wife chooses a different Texas artist each year to decorate the printed program for her Texas book festival. State artists have played a role in the Bushes’ holiday celebrations as well: Laura Bush picks a Texan artist every year to design the family’s Christmas card, and last Christmas, Orozco decorated the governor’s mansion with Mexican lanterns and piñatas.
“Art speaks to us in a language we all can comprehend, and it has a wonderful ability to bridge generations and bring people together,” Laura Bush commented in a statement to ARTnews. “When we give somethin
g to the arts—as students, artists, teachers, enthusiasts, collector, or patrons—we contribute something vital not only to the arts and museums, but also to each other and to the community as a whole.”
The primary target of the Bushes’ institutional support has been the Austin Museum of Art. “Laura Bush has been really important to us,” says Elizabeth Ferrer, the museum’s executive director. “A lot of people don’t realize that she really loves the visual arts. She has a special interest in modern and contemporary art in Texas.” Ferrer met her when, as curator of the Americas Society of New York, Ferrer organized an exhibition of work by María Izquierdo, a contemporary of Diego Rivera, that came to Corpus Christi. “I gave her a tour of it,” Ferrer says. “It was obvious she was very drawn to the paintings. She asked a lot of questions. I saw that she was very comfortable around art.”
Still, garnering public funds for art in Texas can be difficult. Artist Tony Sherman—who is also the author of a book on black cowboys and the second African American to be named to the 18-member, governor-appointed Commission on the Arts—has witnessed this firsthand. Sherman, whose work focuses on rural scenes of Texas and Louisiana and on blacks and athletics, was appointed by Bush to the commission in 1997. In his official capacity, Sherman depends on the political support of state legislators who are often suspicious of government support for art. “A lot of them come from small towns, where their interest is oil and gas,” he says. “They hear about art and they think about what’s happening on the national scene—people putting urine in bottles. We have to get across to these legislators that what’s happening in Texas is not what’s happening in New York.”
Jack Nokes, the executive director of the Texas Association of Museums, says that most cultural institutions get only marginal support from the state. “If you’re an art museum, the largest grant you’re going to get is $20,000; it’s not a significant part of your budget,” says Nokes. “If it was a big priority for Bush, he could lobby the legislature to increase funding for the arts and get us out of last place.”
In fact, Bush has presided over the decentralization of arts funding in Texas, says Nokes. Instead of the arts commission doling out money to individual projects and museums, now it delivers individual block grants to the respective local arts commissions, which, in turn, give it to institutions. “George W. Bush could probably care less about the arts. Laura, on the other hand, is real interested and real dedicated,” says Nokes. “The best we can hope for in a Bush administration is that Laura makes sure he doesn’t get rolled over by a Republican Congress that wants to eliminate arts funding.”
Seth Gitell is the political writer for the Boston Phoenix.