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NEA's Rocco Landesman: no more culture wars

October 21, 2009 |  2:30 pm

Rocco The first eight weeks of Rocco Landesman's tenure as head of the National Endowment for the Arts have not been easy.

Conservative politicians and pundits have launched vigorous attacks on the organization's activities. In September, a high-ranking NEA communications official resigned following accusations that he was involved in recruiting artists to create works in support of President Obama's policies.

In an interview with The Times today, Landesman downplayed the recent partisan fighting that has dragged his organization into the media spotlight, saying that he remains optimistic about the power of art to help heal the national economy.

"We don't want to spend hours responding to attacks on us by whomever," he said by phone. "We want to go out and talk about arts education and the arts as it relates to the economy -- we're going to be aggressive."

Landesman acknowledged that he has had to spend time dealing with attacks by conservatives who have accused the NEA of promoting Obama's legislative agenda and of funding pornography in California.

"That's part of the landscape and we have to accept it," he said, referring to the aggressive tactics of conservatives.

When asked if he thought the attacks signaled a renewal of the culture wars, he responded, "I think the culture war stuff is receding in history and people are focusing on much more important issues."

In November, Landesman will begin a nationwide tour that will combine speaking engagements and visits with local arts leaders, including planned stops in California, during which he will promote art as a viable tool to help local economies recover from the current recession.

The tour was announced today in a speech Landesman gave in Brooklyn to a conference of arts grant-makers in which he highlighted some of his objectives for the trip as well as his administration.

"While I want to state in no uncertain terms that the NEA is not a political agency and that when art becomes propaganda I lose all interest in it, I also want everyone to know that the days of a defensive NEA are over," he told the audience.  

During the speech, he emphasized his personal philosophy of optimism and the new NEA motto: "Art works."

He told The Times that during the tour, which begins in Peoria, Ill., he will be working to find partnerships with local political leaders and the private sector to initiate new projects that will use a combination of NEA funding, local political support and private contributions.

Landesman, who worked for many years as a theater producer and head of New York's Jujamcyn Theaters, said that his transition to the public sector has required some adjustments to his blunt, take-charge personal style.

"There are nights when I come back home to [my wife] Debby and say, 'Why can't I just do this?' In the old days, I just did it," he said.

"I wish we could push the whole agenda faster.  There are times when I just want to make a statement -- but there will be comments from the press office and a whole group of people."

One issue that Landesman wishes he could resolve faster is the debate over NEA funding for individual artists.

"If it were up to me I would give grants to individual artists but it's a congressional issue," he said.

Landesman added that he will be pushing arts education and the use of arts in urban renewal as major projects during his tenure. 

The NEA will have to accomplish this within its annual budget of approximately $155 million. Earlier this year, Obama proposed a 4% increase in the NEA's 2010 budget, to $161.3 million.

Landesman said it was unlikely the budget would grow more than that. "I'm not sure that's in the cards given the state of the economy. I would hope so, but it's just not likely," he said.

-- David Ng

Photo: Rocco Landesman. Credit: Peter Kramer / Getty Images

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