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From Broadway to the Beltway, Rocco Landesman Fights for the Arts

January 6, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Rocco Landesman is known as the producer who brought hits such as "Angels in America," "Big River," and "The Producers" to Broadway. But as the new chair of the National Endowment of the Arts, Landesman has given up the bright lights of the Great White Way for the halls of Washington's bureaucracy.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Now: Washington’s new arts chief. Jeffrey Brown has our profile.

ROCCO LANDESMAN, Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts: Let’s do it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Rocco Landesman is a successful Broadway producer whose company Jujamcyn owns five major theaters in New York and has presented numerous award-winning plays, including “Angels in America” and “The Producers.”

Now Landesman has given up the bright lights of Broadway for the halls of Washington’s bureaucracy. As head of the National Endowment for the Arts, he manages a federal agency that’s seen its share of ups and downs, started by Congress in 1965 to foster and bring the arts to all Americans, but a frequent target of conservatives for funding of controversial works.

Landesman wasted no time raising eyebrows. He called NEA funding pathetic, and suggested money should go to programs based on merit, not automatically to all congressional districts.

“I don’t know if there’s a theater in Peoria,” he said in an interview, “but I would bet that it’s not as good as Steppenwolf or the Goodman,” referring to top Chicago companies.

That didn’t play well in Peoria, but, recently, Landesman paid a visit, answered questions, and made amends.

ROCCO LANDESMAN: I now know that there are indeed some very significant theaters here.

JEFFREY BROWN: He also launched a six-month tour he calls Art Works to highlight the arts’ role in the nation’s culture and economy.

ROCCO LANDESMAN: This is an amazing painting.

JEFFREY BROWN: In his office recently, surrounded by paintings by his father, Landesman said he took his new job despite advice to the contrary.

ROCCO LANDESMAN: When I went around and polled my friends and friendly and people that I trusted the most about whether I should volunteer for this, every last one of them said, you are out of your mind.

JEFFREY BROWN: You are out of your mind to come here?

ROCCO LANDESMAN: They said, you are out of your blankety-blank mind. Don’t even think about it, to come down and run a small federal agency, a 170-person bureaucracy. It’s a backwater. The amount of funding that they can do ultimately doesn’t make that big a difference. I didn’t feel that was the case. I felt, in this administration, it was going to be something more. You have a president who is himself a writer, who cares about the arts. They go to the theater. They go to museums. They really are engaged with arts. Clearly, this is a president who has a different view of the arts than previous administrations. And I wanted to be a part of that.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what is it that you want to do?

ROCCO LANDESMAN: Well, I think the arts have always been a kind of stepchild in this country, a target for some people, something viewed as an extra or an add-on for others, something not essential. I believe the arts are essential. It’s a fundamental part of who we are as human beings. It’s terribly important. And I felt this was maybe one way I could make a contribution. What — the great thing about this particular post, whatever the limitations of the budget, is that it’s a great bully pulpit.

JEFFREY BROWN: But why do you think that the arts are undervalued, then, in our society?

ROCCO LANDESMAN: Well, compare our support of the arts with any other frame of reference you like. England is the worst supporter of the arts in Europe, about $900 million in public commitment. France is about $2.3 billion. Our current budget it about $160 million. We are, among all the developed world, the weakest supporter of the arts in this country on a public basis.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, you call government funding for the arts pathetic.

ROCCO LANDESMAN: Yes. And they don’t — the government doesn’t like it when I say that, because it sounds a little bit too — I sound too much like an advocate, but…

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, are you an advocate? Is that how you see your role?

ROCCO LANDESMAN: Well, this is an interesting question. You know, we are a grant-making agency. We are not a regulatory agency or an enforcement agency. We support the arts through grant-making. So, part of the, in my view, involves some advocacy. I do feel that we represent art and artists within the government and within the administration. And this is a source of always — you know, always a source of some tension.

JEFFREY BROWN: You created a stir early on with the Peoria comment. And it sounded as though you were saying that money should go to places with proven merit, as opposed to the more traditional sort of distribution geographically. That’s the way it sounded.

ROCCO LANDESMAN: Well, Peoria was really a figure of speech. I’m a Broadway guy, and there is that great old Vaudeville expression, will it play in Peoria? I didn’t mean anything personal to Peoria. And what I was trying to say was really that art that’s going to be supported by the NEA is going to be on the basis of merit and quality, not just because it exists in a certain place. And we’re going to be wherever it is.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, when you talk about quality merits, excellence, then, for some folks, that can to start to sound like a kind of elitism. And you are coming. Here you are, a big Broadway guy.

ROCCO LANDESMAN: I hate that.

JEFFREY BROWN: New York.

ROCCO LANDESMAN: I can’t stand that, that, somehow, standards is code for elitism or something worse. I don’t buy that at all. I don’t think that there is a disconnect between supporting quality and having some kind of standard and being democratic and being in many, many different places.

JEFFREY BROWN: But to go back to the funding question again, I mean, we have gone around the country and reported on different cities, states, and arts institutions that are suffering. When you get down to a Main Street, and there’s a lot of different needs out there, what’s the case for giving it to the ballet, or the dance, whatever, the modern dance company, as opposed to the — you know, the homeless shelter or the people who need food?

ROCCO LANDESMAN: Because you are making an investment in the future of that community. It’s one thing just to give someone a grant, or even to give someone a job that will last so long. You build an arts community in a neighborhood, it becomes an integral part of that neighborhood, part of the fabric of that place. Artists are entrepreneurs. They are place-makers. They are individual small-business men. And you put them into a community, it changes that place. It made me crazy when the stimulus package was announced, $787 billion, and the NEA got $50 million. You turn on the television, and here is a congressman saying, how can you spend $50 million on the NEA when that money could be spent creating real jobs like road-building?

JEFFREY BROWN: It drives you crazy to listen to a congressman, but you know you have to work with these congressmen now.

ROCCO LANDESMAN: I do. And I do. And I — and I will.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have started traveling around the country. Do you find a reception for the arts and a real awareness for it?

ROCCO LANDESMAN: I do. I think there’s a hunger for it. But to the extent that there are places and segments of the country where there is not, I think that relates to the lack of arts education in the schools. It’s always the first thing cut when there is a budget crisis. And I have to say — and I don’t want to sound terribly partisan about this, but this whole No Child Left Behind initiative, which is essentially a program to train teachers to train kids to take tests, leaves a lot behind. There are a lot of kids who have a talent, an idiosyncratic passion or something special about them. The arts catches these kids. And I think it’s very important to have arts education in — in these schools. This should not be just about performance on standardized tests.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, you say you don’t want to be partisan, and, yet, you are willing to say things like that, that will — you know, not everybody will like to hear that.

ROCCO LANDESMAN: I think the president knew who he was getting when he brought me there. I’m going to be outspoken. I’m going to be forceful in what I say. I’m going to be pounding the table about the arts. If people want to regard that as partisan, I can’t help it. I think he could have chosen a lot of other people whose resumes maybe laid out a lot better for this job than mine. I think he wanted change. Change was a mantra of the campaign. And I think he wanted change at the NEA. And he’s going to get it.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Rocco Landesman, thanks for talking to us.

ROCCO LANDESMAN: Thanks, Jeff.

GWEN IFILL: For the record, the National Endowment for the Arts is one of the funders of the “NewsHour”‘s arts coverage.