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NEA chairman Landesman encounters the arts on Skid Row

March 15, 2010 |  4:02 pm

Rocco A few weeks ago, Rocco Landesman, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, was in the East Room of the White House as President Obama conferred this year's National Medal of Arts on Jessye Norman, Rita Moreno, Maya Lin and Michael Tilson Thomas, among others.

On Monday, the cowboy-booted country music fan and self-described "recovering producer" who made his name on Broadway spent about 90 minutes in a very different neighborhood.

"We're in an area of 44 blocks. It's called Skid Row," Cynthia Harnisch, president of Inner-City Arts, told Landesman, his wife, Debby, and the small entourage that had arrived with them in a white chartered van through the automatic gate that secures the placid, palm-treed campus from the tough streets outside.

Landesman was beginning a day in L.A. whose itinerary would later encompass tonier precincts of the local arts scene, including the Music Center and the Museum of Contemporary Art. It's part of his ongoing "Art Works" tour, named after the new catch-phrase he coined in hopes of crystallizing for a nation the idea that the arts are intrinsic to its spiritual well being and socioeconomic fate and not just an accessory. Having checked out developments in Peoria, Ill., St. Louis, Memphis, Tenn., Miami and Philadelphia since November, Landesman has made it to California for a swing that began over the weekend in San Diego and also includes San Francisco and Oakland.

Inner-City Arts is a nonprofit organization that contracts with public and parochial schools to provide arts education. It isn't trying to mold the next generation of famous sopranos, conductors and architects but to help improve the odds that students living in one of the nation's most famously disadvantaged neighborhoods will find a spark that carries them through to a high school diploma and a productive life. All but 5 percent of the students who attend live below the poverty line, and 90 percent come from families where English is not the native tongue.

It's not every arts institution where the person in charge can tell a visiting federal agency head, as Harnisch told Landesman, "Our street dwellers are very proud of this place. We never get broken into, knock on wood."

The 15-minute tour proceeded through a glassed-in, converted 1930s Studebaker repair shop that houses performing arts classes, a ceramics studio with colorful, swooping orange architectural adornments, and past a mosaic of ocean life in the courtyard.

"You're not shy about taking on the tough cases and the tough stuff. It's very inspiring what you're doing here," Landesman said when it was over.

A round-table discussion of ways to advance arts education ensued in the campus' black-box theater. Landesman started by saying the NEA has $8 million set aside for arts-education grants and that at least one such grant will be made in each of the nation's congressional districts. Left unsaid: The NEA's annual budget is in line to be cut from $167.5 million to $161.3 million.

Still, Landesman said, he plans to carry the struggle for arts education forward in a "major address" next month in which he'll advocate for making the arts part of each school district's core curriculum rather than an elective that is often cut in lean times because knowledge and achievement in visual and performing arts can't easily be gauged by a standardized test.

The discussion focused on ways of getting across the message that money invested in arts education reaps a substantial payoff as an effective way to fan the spark that makes students want to learn, period. 

Engaging with Landesman were representatives from the James Irvine Foundation, Sony Pictures, the Music Center, Los Angeles County Arts Commission, Otis College of Art and Design, Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, the after-school program L.A.'s Best and the HeArt Project for teenagers who have dropped out of school or been expelled or incarcerated.

In an interview before Landesman arrived, Harnisch said that a five-year study funded by the U.S. Department of Education had focused on 3,000 students who attended Inner-City Arts. It showed, she said, that their overall academic performance was 20% or more above peers who weren't in the program. The difference, she said, isn't just the arts learning they get from the specialists who teach at Inner-City Arts but an emphasis on working with regular classroom teachers so they can use what goes on in arts classes to engage students in every subject.

The 30 hours of arts instruction students get "are just like a long field trip," Harnisch said. "But working with their teachers, we change the climate, the whole world of the classroom itself."

It's beyond Landesman's authority to cope with the most immediate challenge facing Inner-City Arts as it tries to maintain a $2.5 million annual budget: Harnisch, the organization's chief executive since 1999, said the Los Angeles Unified School District's budget crisis led to the cutoff of $200,000 a year it had paid toward tuition for 10,000 students' twice-weekly visits. She has her fingers crossed that the school district will continue covering about $350,000 a year for busing students to and from their regular schools. A campus expansion was finished in 2008, just as the economy tanked; it was aimed at doubling the number of students Inner-City Arts could serve but in this climate that's not possible.

"The kids need us, so we continue to raise money," Harnisch said. "I've never seen a more difficult fund-raising environment, and the need is so terrific. I've never seen so many homeless children and families."

-- Mike Boehm 

Above: Inner-City Arts President and CEO Cynthia Harnisch, left, leads Rocco Landesman, chairman of National Endowment for the Arts, center, on a tour of the facility during his visit in Los Angeles. Credit: Christina House / For The Times

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