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Can Rocco Landesman make the NEA relevant again?

May 13, 2009 |  8:40 pm

Nea

When word leaked Wednesday that highly regarded Jujamcyn Theaters impresario Rocco Landesman would be tapped by President Obama as the next chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, I was startled. Not because a commercial theatrical producer in New York would be running a federal agency that is all about the nonprofit sector. For-profit and not-for-profit arts organizations are symbiotic entities in the American cultural system, and achievement matters most.

No, what startled me was that the NEA was making any news at all. I’d pretty much forgotten the place exists.

As far as the visual arts go, the NEA has been a cipher for years — nearly two decades, in fact, ever since the Ronald Reagan wing of the Republican Party decided the little agency would make a big squishy target in a long-range plan to dismantle the New Deal philosophy of government ushered in by Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Lynne Cheney, wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney, had considerable success as a culture warrior when she was appointed as Reagan’s chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1986 — and she didn’t have the general American indifference to the arts as a sharp arrow in her conservative think-tank-funded quiver. (In a typical ideological slur, Chairman Cheney decried a PBS series, “The Africans,” as “propaganda” because it described Africa’s historic problems as a consequence of European exploitation.)

Slaughtering the NEA, the NEH’s sister agency, would be a piece of cake.

And so it proved to be. There’s no need to rehearse the long, shabby history of events. Just go to the agency’s website and take a gander at the most recent list of visual art exhibition grants to find out how effectively neutered the NEA has been.

I’ve got nothing against crafts, folk art, decorative design or Great Depression and Cold War-era photography, which got most funds in the last go-round. But, as a representation of abundant and wide-ranging artistic accomplishment, this abbreviated list (14 grants! $1 million!) is pathetic.
We live in a nation of more than 300 million people. What’s left out from the list is far more telling than what’s included.

“Government has no business supporting the arts,” goes the mindless (but politically effective) opposition mantra to all things NEA. To which one can only shake one’s head and reply: Name one great civilization in world history whose government did not support the arts. The question isn’t if, but how.

The how is specific to — and difficult in — a democracy. It may well be that the NEA’s organizational structure, established in 1965, is as out of date as a Pontiac GTO. It may be that a top-to-bottom overhaul is in order, or that something as yet untried (even not yet conceived) would be a vast improvement. 

Conversely, a simple return to former practices might be in order.

Clearly, though, the current NEA hodgepodge of conservative-appeasement programs is nonsensical. Should an arts endowment really be funding programs that encourage citizens to read? Sorting out that cockamamie mess will be one pressing task for the new chairman.

Whatever the case, I was frankly embarrassed by the arts community’s ecstatic recent response to a $50-million temporary bump in the NEA’s budget, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 — a.k.a. the economic stimulus package. (The NEA’s regular budget for 2009 is $145 million; Obama requested $161 million for 2010 — still down from 1992 levels.) Politeness is one thing, but crumbs are crumbs.

According to a study by Americans for the Arts, across the nation 100,000 nonprofit arts organizations support more than 5 million jobs and return nearly $30 billion in government revenue every year. Giving some creative thought to the ways an appropriately funded arts endowment can most productively interact with a huge American industry that doesn’t have any (or shouldn’t have any) profit motive is long overdue. For years, most agency attention has instead been directed at hanging on by its fingernails.

The answers to these questions are not just fiscal, either. Administrative moves can have a major impact on the nation’s cultural life. If, for example, endowment exhibition grants were restricted to art museums that make their collections open and permanently free to the public, much the way American libraries don’t charge patrons to browse in the stacks, we could begin to take seriously institutional claims that the unique visual experiences offered by art were their highest priority.

People deeply knowledgeable about theater will be required to fully address Landesman’s particular strengths and weaknesses as a nominee for NEA chairman; as an art critic, that’s not me.

But this much is certain: Any guy who could bring Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” to Broadway, as Landesman did at his company’s Walter Kerr Theatre in 1993, represents a big step in the right direction.
The reason is simple. The NEA cannot be successful, whatever its format, unless successful people working full-time in the arts are addressing the powerful work of their most talented peers. A rigorous peer-review system is as critical to the success of the National Endowment for the Arts as it is to the National Science Foundation — which, incidentally, received a total appropriation of $6.5 billion for fiscal year 2009.

Now those ain’t crumbs.

— Christopher Knight

Photos: Lynne Cheney, left; credit: Lawrence Jackson / AP; Rocco Landesman; credit: Getty Images

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