NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman Answers Your Questions

BY Tom LeGro  January 28, 2010 at 1:54 PM EDT

rocco.jpgI recently had the chance to talk with new NEA chairman Rocco Landesman for an interview we aired earlier this month, and invited you to send us your questions and comments for him. We compiled them and put them to Mr. Landesman last week.

Here are his answers:

JEFFREY BROWN: Rocco Landesman, nice to talk to you again.

ROCCO LANDESMAN: Good to be talking to you, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: We got a number of comments, questions and etc. from the audience. I’ll just start with a few.

ROCCO LANDESMAN: Fire away, go ahead.

JEFFREY BROWN: Alan Eccleston, he writes, President Obama announced early on that he intended to bring political factions together to make every effort to mend the political, vitriolic divisiveness. In the past the arts have frequently pushed Congress and others toward divisiveness. How do you see your role with the NEA in all this?

ROCCO LANDESMAN: Well, I think I am as alarmed about the partisanship all around, the vitriol and the kind of dug in anger in the country. I’m probably more appalled by it than anyone, and I think we’ve seen it in both camps. You saw it from the Republicans during the impeachment, and you saw it from the Democrats during the Bush administration, where you know people you think of normally sane were comparing him to Hitler and Cheney to Satan, and it was pretty ugly and still is. I do think that conservatives respond to art just like liberals do. There’s no ideological divide when you’re having an artistic experience, and I think the arts are one place where I think there can be a real coming together and people can share a response, an activity, a passion. I think the arts potentially are a great unifier.

JEFFREY BROWN: I think what Alan Eccleston must be referring to is, does that mean decisions have to be made about spending for the arts that won’t rile up others?

ROCCO LANDESMAN: I’m taking a pretty optimistic view of all this. I do feel that the cultures wars at least as we’ve known them are receding. I think on the conservative side, and I am probably echoing Frank Rich and a few others on this, they are really more and more engaged by major substantive policy issues — foreign policy, domestic policy, health care, taxation and the deficit — and are no longer, I don’t think, as focused on the kinds of things that we have been hearing about in the past.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Andy Rothschild writes, besides wanting to see the arts receive much more public financial support than they have traditionally received in this country, particularly in recent years, what should the NEA’s highest priority be in the coming years?

ROCCO LANDESMAN: Besides more funding you mean?

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

ROCCO LANDESMAN: Well, I think the big goal for us at the NEA is to become more and more part of domestic policy, to really have a seat at that table where priorities are being set for the future and for us to have a voice there. We’re starting to see some very good signs of this. I think that we want to be considered more than an afterthought or a stepchild; we want to be a part of the real agenda of this country. I think that in the biggest sense, that’s the goal.

JEFFREY BROWN: Does the seat at the table mean literally more of a place at the White House?

ROCCO LANDESMAN: It doesn’t mean having an arts czar or a minister of culture or anything with symbolic implications, no. The indications on a national level are that the country recognizes that arts are an important part of the equation. To me the arts are an important part of our humanity as eating and breathing and sleeping. There’s a lot of money spent on our physical health. I think the NIH got $10 billion dollars in stimulus, but I think our psychic condition, our emotional condition, our imaginative condition, those things are just as important. I think that there is increasing recognition that the arts should be part of the policy-making.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Several people wrote in wondering about what was happening to the Big Read and fearing some cuts there. This is Gary Daily: I would very much like to hear how the new director explains the huge cut backs in the very popular Big Read initiative put in place by Dana Gioia. Ballet may stumble in Peoria, but readers are in every community of every size all across the land. The Big Read not only helped non-readers get back on track, it encouraged and facilitated the reading of literary classics. Now it is being cut. Why?

ROCCO LANDESMAN: I wouldn’t say it’s being cut. Generally when there are major programs, there is start-up funding and then there is maintenance funding. We’re more in the maintenance funding phase on the Big Read. It’s still the largest funded program within the NEA, so it’s still a major commitment of ours. I think there are questions. A, whether this is more naturally a NEA or NEH program, and B) there is always a certain tension about major national initiatives, because while they can be very popular and certainly do a lot of good, they can take money away from the field, particular grants in the different arts. And I think a lot of the people working in those fields are wary of some of these national initiatives because they draw a lot of funding. So we’re trying to maintain a balance there between very popular national initiatives that have a great democratizing effect because they play well in all congressional districts throughout the country and also the need to be the cultural institution itself.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what does that mean for the Big Read? Does that it mean that where they have it already set they continue, but not expand?

ROCCO LANDESMAN: I can be corrected on exactness, but I think the Big Read is still either a million or a million-and-a-half dollars in NEA funding. It’s still a major commitment for us and is going to continue.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re talking about the difficult balancing you have to make between some of these national programs and other things, but what’s on the other side of the equation? Where would you be putting those dollars to?

ROCCO LANDESMAN: For one thing, into the field. There are so many cultural institutions throughout the country that are in dire straits. More of them are going out of business every week, and I think their financial condition is so precarious that we have to be mindful of trying to save as many of the important ones as we can, Number 1. And Number 2, as it happens with every chairman, I have some initiatives of my own that I want to see funding for. I gave a speech yesterday to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and I’m starting to talk about the world of art in the economy and the importance of building a presence of artists and art in the center of towns and using that as a means for urban revitalization and economic development.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yeah, I saw that yesterday. I did want to ask you about it. Explain it a little bit more. The idea is to help fund urban development that has an art component to it?

ROCCO LANDESMAN: Yes. We know that when we bring art and artists into the center of town, it changes that town. There are all kinds of good things that happen when you start to build an arts infrastructure downtown, and by downtown I am referring to small towns as well as large ones. There’s a fair amount of research and evidence that supports the fact that when you have a strong cultural presence, you have major changes in the community. For one thing, the community becomes much more stable and cohesive because people who are interested in the arts are much more likely to be interested in other civic activities and engage in other civic activities, as well. So you have more a stable community. You also have notable, measurable decline in rates of juvenile delinquency and truancy. So it has a very important effect on child welfare. And thirdly, the arts are a property finder. They attract people, who in turn attract businesses. One of the things we’ve learned is that businesses follow the people, not the other way around. And the people follow other people and what they are looking for in deciding which community to live in. And there have been surveys on this— at the top of the list are education and culture. So if you can bring artists into town, you are going to change that town in so many positive ways, not the least of which is the economy. And we’re going to be focusing on that over the next three-plus years, and that’s going to require funds, too, and some of that funding I announced yesterday to the mayors. We’re going to be funding design programs and we’re going to start being very involved in building up the presence of arts in communities.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Several people wrote in about something we touched on in our conversation, which is getting money directly to artists. Nicky N. writes about the funding and how none of this money goes directly to artists, and continues: Unemployment among artists went up 63 percent from 2007 to late 2008, and the numbers keep climbing. As an unemployed artist, I must say, I am concerned about my immediate future, so my question to you is how do you plan to help nurture emerging artists during these difficult economic times?

ROCCO LANDESMAN: We’re the National Endowment for the Arts and our mandate is to support the arts, and the best way to support the arts is to support artists. And I would like nothing more than to be able to make grants to individual artists. I think that’s the most direct way for us to accomplish our mission. One of my best friends is a photographer, now a nationally known photographer in St. Louis, and he got his start with an NEA grant so he could buy equipment. And I think there are so many anecdotes about the role of the NEA in people’s careers with direct grants. Unfortunately, that’s not federal policy right now. Congress has different rules about this, but one of the things I intend to do is to go to Congress and try to get that changed.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you are going to try to get the policy changed?

ROCCO LANDESMAN: Yes. I can’t be more direct. We’re not a regulatory or an enforcement agency. We’re a grant-making agency. We exist to support art, and we should do so directly.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Just a couple more here. Joyce Delario from Petaluma, Calif.: Mr. Landesman, can you discuss any plans the NEA might have to aid our public schools in maintaining arts education? It seems that as soon as funds become limited, classes in the arts are the first to get tossed out the door.

ROCCO LANDESMAN: Which is a terrible thing. I hate that most of all, and it’s so misguided. It’s the most important thing, and the first lady has made a couple of very, very passionate and articulate speeches on this subject, about the importance of arts generally, but particularly the importance of arts education. In fact I have an appointment with Arne Duncan on Monday, and he’s been a passionate supporter of the importance of arts education. It’s something we’re going to be pounding the table about at the NEA. It’s hard to imagine a vital and vibrant culture in the future without arts education. We’re initiating a new program now to make sure there is an arts education program in every congressional district.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. And there were of course people who wrote questioning the very existence and mission of the NEA. For example, Cindy O., she writes: Rocco Landesman’s non-sequitur attack on No Child Left Behind was bizarre. It showed me why government should not be in the arts. The best art is privately-funded period. I am not interested in Soviet-style creativity. People at the NEA have never understood this and apparently neither does Landesman. And then Jeff Davis writes, could you please explain why our hard-earned tax dollars are being used to fund someone else’s art. How can you possibly justify this unconstitutional, and dare I say, illegal use of the public’s money and trust.

ROCCO LANDESMAN: Well, it’s not illegal. The NEA was created lawfully and is acting within our mandate. The implication behind the first question is that we’re funding propaganda. I don’t think anyone has a bigger aversion to propaganda than I do. And we want to support and do support the best work out there. Our criteria are excellence and merit. And no apologies for being a supporter of excellent art. Now this whole notion that it’s other people’s art. I don’t know even what that means. All art that we don’t produce ourselves is other people’s art. And relatively speaking, we are well behind the curve in terms of public support of the arts. To go back to Mr. Rothschild’s question, in relative terms, we’re the weakest funder of arts in the developed world. England, which is the worst public supporter of the arts in all of Europe, has a national budget for the arts of about $900 million on a per capita basis. If you translate that to the United States, there would be an NEA budget of $4.6 billion. Now I don’t think we are going to have that in my grandchildren’s or great-grandchildren’s lifetime, but we are not the leader in terms of public art support by a mile. Now as far as the argument about whether this should be done publically or privately in this country, the position for quite a long time now has been both. We are a somewhat more stable funder, I think, than many of the private sources, which can go up or down according to the stock market or the particular trustee’s commitment to the arts. We are there on a pretty consistent and steady basis to support what I think is one of most important enterprises: the creation of meaningful works of art.

JEFFREY BROWN: I’m going to ask you one more question. It’s about your own work. Mary Dilg: Although I could not find it listed in the Yale University Library catalog, I understand that you wrote about women and Jacobean theater. Could you compare those powerful women with ones in Washington today? For example, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and Olympia Snowe, among others.

ROCCO LANDESMAN: Well, there certainly is not a direct comparison, because those women are the product of a movement toward women’s equality. The women in those Jacobean dramas, very, very strong, powerful women, were the result of a major change going on in court at that time, where in the transition from Elizabeth and James I, there was a major change in the society that reflected that. James was probably a homosexual and had a completely different tone in his court than Elizabeth had in hers. In fact there was a wonderful expression in the pamphlets at the time. Elizabeth was King James’ queen. And you have these very big, larger than life, almost terrifying women in the dramas, which was reflecting the kind of role-reversal that I know was happening at the court of James I. And the drama really reflected that major social upheaval. I think there’s no real point of comparison with strong women today. It’s an intriguing question certainly.

JEFFREY BROWN: It pulls together some of your interests from the past and where you are today, right, in Washington?

ROCCO LANDESMAN: It does, no question.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Let me thank all those people who wrote in questions and apologies to those we couldn’t get to. And Rocco Landesman, thanks for taking the questions and answering them and thanks for talking to us.

ROCCO LANDESMAN: Thanks, Jeff.