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Rocco Landesman, from the Great White Way to the White House

August 25, 2009 |  9:20 pm

The new chief of the National Endowment for the Arts, Broadway producer Rocco Landesman, told The Times today that his "big topics" include arts education, bringing more artists into the nation's cities and communities, and beefing up the federal arts agency's  support of "more relevant artistic activities, the more active and engaged forms of art, as well as those more traditional art forms." That list includes new media as well as music, dance and theater forms that have engaged younger performers and audiences in the inner city and elsewhere.

"I went a few weeks ago to an event at the White House, they had a poetry slam there; you heard hip-hop, you heard kinds of artistic expression that haven't been traditional at the NEA," Landesman, 62, said during his first official round of interviews. "We want to be there."

Landesman, who assumed the post July 11 (his greeting to the nation is in the video above), added that he would also like to see the NEA return to its commitment to supporting individual artists, which has dwindled since the so-called culture wars of the 1990s, in which political and religious conservatives attacked the endowment for providing funds to what they termed "obscene" art through individual artists' grants.

"That's up to Congress to decide," he said. "But I think the mission of the NEA is to support artists, and the best way to do that is to support them directly. ... I don't want to lose that powerful, visceral connection with the artists that the NEA once had.

"I mean, it's very encouraging to the whole artistic community that the guy sitting in the White House is a writer, a president who writes his own books," Landesman continued. "That probably hasn't been done since Teddy Roosevelt, and maybe not brilliantly since Lincoln. It is a tremendous boost for artists to see one of their own is the president of the United States."

Rocco Landesman While he is pleased that the House of Representatives has approved $170 million budget for the NEA -- a  9.7% increase over the current $155 million -- Landesman admits that "it's going to be difficult; there are some exigencies created by the economy that are inescapable."

But then, Landesman asked for it.

"I'd like to say that the president and his advisers thought long and hard about it and decided that I was the best person for the job," said Landesman, who was confirmed by the Senate in August and replaces California poet and literary critic Dana Gioia, who stepped down in January.  "Anything but. I put my hand up for it; I volunteered.

"It's now or never, I thought. This was the one opportunity to serve the country and serve this administration, and I thought, 'I'm going to take a shot.' "

But Landesman added that the administration might also have been attracted to his straightforward style. "First of all, I'm a theater guy, so that's colorful right off the bat," he said. "I think they wanted someone who was going to lead and be out there forcefully. Otherwise, why would they pick me?"

In a wide-ranging conversation, Landesman -- the former chief of Broadway's Jujamcyn Theaters and who was involved in producing such high-profile fare as Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" and Mel Brooks' "The Producers" -- said he was as attracted to the idea of being a part of the Obama administration as to the job itself.

Although a Republican contingent groused about the cost to taxpayers, Landesman said, he was encouraged that this year the Obamas went on a date to a Broadway show,  August Wilson's "Joe Turner's Come and Gone."

"They are obviously into the arts," Landesman said. "Michelle Obama, in several of her speeches, has talked about the importance of the arts in education, and the president has talked in his speeches about the arts; it's very encouraging, I think, to artists across the country."


But even this early in his tenure, Landesman already has one minor fence to mend -- with Peoria, Ill.  A minor culture war ensued after Landesman was quoted with this comment in an August story in the New York Times: "I don't know if there's a theater in Peoria, but I'll bet it's not as good as Steppenwolf or Goodman," referring to two well-regarded Chicago regional theaters.

Landesman said he will definitely respond to an invitation from Peoria civic leaders to visit soon to see what, er, plays in Peoria. "Absolutely, I'm looking forward to it," he said. "I love the back and forth as long as it's friendly. ... We're pals, and we are looking forward to having some interesting symposia there and hopefully seeing some good theater."

-- Diane Haithman

Photo: Rocco Landesman. Credit: Michael Eastman.

Related coverage:

Rocco Landesman: From Broadway to NEA Nominee

Obama eyes NEA head


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