Straight Talk from a Guy Named Rocco

Surely you've heard that Rocco Landesman has been confirmed as the new chair of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Folks are expecting (and hoping) that Mr. Landesman will shake things up after his predecessor, Dana Gioia, made the political calculation that we ought to treat the arts as a warm glass of milk: comfortable, familiar and soothing. That may have been the appropriate response for the times, but Mr. Landesman is making noises like he's ready to kick out the jams. A successful businessman and theatre entrepreneur, he steps into the position at the NEA with a reputation for candor and for possessing "sharp elbows."

The following are a few select quotes from a profile of Mr. Landesman which recently ran in the New York Times.

Regarding the place of the arts in American politics, he said, “The arts are a little bit of a target. The subtext is that it is elitist, left wing, maybe even a little gay.”

I'm sure the folks in Peoria weren't too happy to read this statement about artistic merit vs. geographic representation in awarding NEA grants: “I don’t know if there’s a theater in Peoria, but I would bet that it’s not as good as Steppenwolf or the Goodman. There is going to be some push-back from me about democratizing arts grants to the point where you really have to answer some questions about artistic merit.”

Then there's his goal of making sure the arts are included in economic recovery planning: “We need to have a seat at the big table with the grown-ups.”

As for the former agency slogan, “A Great Nation Deserves Great Art,” Mr. Landesman had this to say: “We might as well just apologize right off the bat.”

Let's wish him luck.


GeorgeTaylor said...

I have cringed every time I've heard that old NEA slogan. Well, to be honest, my response has often been a bit more vocal than that. Rocco is right, it is apologetic and long past its sell-by date. In his profile, he mentioned a possible new one: Art Works. Not sure if that was top-of-mind or a considered candidate, but it's a damn site better than the old one

I'm far less pleased by his Peoria comment: To people in NY and Chicago (and SF and Seattle?) everyplace else looks like Peoria.
If art does indeed work, it works everywhere, and the Peoria's may need a bit more of an NEA boost than the Chicago's.

MightyToyCannon said...

Whenever I see the NEA slogan, "A Great Nation Deserves Great Art," I can't help but imagine an addendum:

"A Great Nation Deserves Great Art. We, on the other hand, ..."

But then I also chuckle at the Americans for the Arts billboards that read, "Art. Ask for More," thinking they ought to have a version that says, "Art. Ask for Better."

Thank you for bringing up Rocco's suggested alternative slogan: "Art Works," though that might also be appended easily: "Art Works for Cheap" or "Art Works the Room," for example.

Finally, I agree with your sentiment about poor Peoria. Artistic quality, and art that makes a difference in the lives of Americans, is not found only in the vaunted cultural centers. I fear that Portland might be ranked right there with Peoria in the minds of some folks. That wouldn't be so good.

One last thought: Someone ought to write a musical with a song titled "Poor Peoria." Can you get on that?

Mead said...

Well, I for one will be glad to have a Chair who acts like the NEA has more to offer than reader response and art appreciation. Years of appeasement and kow-towing have gotten us worse than nowhere, nationally and locally. Rocco impresses me as the kind of change agent who just might say hey, let's go for broke and see what happens.

MightyToyCannon said...

As might be expected, Bob Hicks at Art Scatter has a few things to say on the topic. Also as expected, what he has to say is more coherent and thoughtful than my regurgitation.