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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

Comments () | Archives (4)

Ironically the way to mollify the Right and improve the art world is to fund more high profile examples of art that Republicans can understand. It's doesn't have to be cowboys and sunsets, there are some fantastic artists out there who can paint in a way the masses can understand, are skillful and ground breaking. Continuing to exclusively pander to the tiny group of investment oriented intellectuals who control the art world by shoving incomprehensible conceptual art (that is decoratively abstract at best) down an uncomprehending public's throat will continue to erode funding for the arts. It’s also called being fair and balanced, so much talent out there overlooked for grants because academic underpinnings can be detected in their art.

I take a different view. I think the Right don't want to be mollified. I think the main problem is that attacks on the arts have worked very well for them as a political tool with which they can energize their base through easily manufactured outrage.

Ivey and Goia did indeed manage to quietly dodge and parry and avoid this happening much over the past decade. Their effectiveness could be measured by the fact that $50m of arts stimulus funds managed to make the cut this year. However, this must be qualified by the fact that these funds were essentially crumbs that reached the table late. Both France and Germany came up with over three times the amount of arts stimulus funds, six months earlier, for around a third of the amount of people. Moreover, 75% of the arts groups that applied for NEA stimulus funds were turned down, and the ones that got through got a maximum of $50,000.

I think Landesman is absolutely on the right track to change this and other dismal scenarios which have been dogging artists and arts organizations in the US for years. It's exactly the right time to have someone like him, who's ready to go out and fry the wafer-thin arguments of the Right like they've been frying the arts community for years. Taking the comment in this column as an example, anyone who knows anything about arts funding knows that funding for conceptual art represents a miniscule fraction of arts funding as a whole, whether public or private.

So, Bravo, Rocco! I look forward to watching you go out and cook all those red herrings. Cook 'em real good.

Mr. Wray - your lack of knowledge is beyond belief. Republicans, me included, are way more erudite than that of our contemporaries. Culturally, academically, and otherwise. Yes it is true, envisage that - the throngs of people that have led entrepreneurship through good and dreadful times are those who are sophisticated enough to protract such an idea.
Hailing from Brooklyn, NY, budding up in a housing project, on welfare - I found myself longing for culture. I visited art galleries, museums, as well as many, many off-off, off, and Broadway collaborations. Cowboys and sunsets? That's pretty funny; I never saw one of those cowboys walking around Canarsie! Get a clench and become conscious that persons like Landesman and the sort of character that he represents is nothing more than a tool of haughtiness brought to you by the head of egotism, your great "O".

You may fantasize that your benefactor is Julius Caesar. But the benefactor who calls the tune to which NEA and your uber marionette "Julius" dances from day to day is George Soros. Why on earth do you want to advance his cause - one that will ultimately destroy your right to speak (or paint)as you please? Is your petty bureaucratic position really worth betraying the cause of free experession?


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