I have some advice for Rocco Landesman, the newly appointed Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, but first I have to convince myself it is worth offering.
In case he reads this, I’ll summarize my advice up front: Rocco Landesman, the intelligence, risk-taking and independence for which you are admired on Broadway will be of little use to this country unless you recognize how much you have to learn about the public interest in culture and democracy, committing to educate yourself, pronto. I sincerely hope you accept this challenge.
It’s funny about the NEA: this teeny-weeny federal agency, which invests well under a dollar in the arts per capita, packs a powerful symbolic punch. Think about all the headlines the NEA garnered during the Congressional debate over the stimulus bill back in January: as I wrote then, whenever Republican strategists seek a way to defeat social spending, the arts come easily to hand. Major print outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post have also followed speculation over the new head of the NEA with the obsessive attention. As the most visible symbol of American cultural policy, a little public arts funding for the NEA goes a long way.
And a very little funding is all the NEA has. In 1981, Ronald Reagan’s first year in office, the NEA budget was $159 million. Adjusted for inflation, it would take $372 million in 2008 dollars to equal that allocation. The 2009 NEA budget is$155 million; add to that the $50 million supplement that was part of the Recovery Act, and three decades of inept arts lobbying have produced a net loss in real value of nearly 45 percent!
Ever since the late 80s, when the organized right drummed up huge outrage over NEA funds going to artists whose work had challenging sexual or religious content, the primary political goal animating the agency has been to avoid controversy. Dana Gioia, who stepped down as Chair right after the Obama inauguration, distinguished himself by out-stupefying every other NEA leader with soporific programs such as touring Shakespeare to small towns and inducing high school students to compete in memorizing and reciting poems chosen from an official anthology. Fortunately, the Endowment continued to give some grants to exciting projects, so he wasn’t able to wring every drop of life out of the agency. But it was a close thing.
So whenever there is NEA news, I have half a mind to ignore it. If the goal is to support the types of cultural development I care about—community arts, innovative arts, arts work that give voice to ideas and aspirations, that illuminates what lies beneath the surface of ordinary reality and opens a window into possible futures—then in the long run, there is likely to be much more funding available through other public spending, foundation grants and money earned or contributed by community members.
But the other half of my mind can’t deny what a powerful symbol the NEA is, and that makes me want to care. Perhaps you now comprehend the ambivalence with which my friends and colleagues have received the news of Landesman’s ascension: the calls and emails have ranged from mystified to cynical to hoping against hope, with not much in between. You see, in choosing Landesman, President Obama has made an appointment that encompasses all that is puzzling in his own subtle ambivalence about democracy as a practice rather than a principle: an intoxication with celebrity that overwhelms his populism, a taste for the grand gesture that overwhelms his attention to its aftermath.
Indeed, what President Obama did may turn out to be the 2009 equivalent of President Clinton’s 1993 appointment of Jane Alexander as NEA Chair. Four clumsy and discouraging years later, she resigned without fanfare or comment. In between, just about every anecdote I heard about Alexander highlighted the downside of the Let’s-Appoint-A-Celebrity Strategy: according to one reliable source, well into her tenure, she continued to need last-minute help to comprehend even the basic terminology of the field. You know what I mean: I’m not an expert in the public policy field I was appointed to oversee, but I play one in the halls of the NEA.
In his own universe of commercial theater, Rocco Landesman is a hero to many for his successful productions of important plays like Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” and for the remarkably inflationary effect he has had on box office with his introduction of the “$480 premium ticket.” (This was justified as a device to combat scalpers, as Landesman told the New York Times’ “Freakonomics” blog: “When we instituted the $400 ticket for The Producers, we started to address this problem. In the new system, the price is printed on the ticket, and the money actually goes to the people responsible for the show — the investors, the creative team, etc. — instead of to the ticket brokers.”).
For Kushner, a ferocious talent who has benefitted mightily from his relationship with Landesman, “It’s potentially the best news the arts community in the United States has had since the birth of Walt Whitman,” he told the New York Times. “He’s an absolutely brilliant and brave and perfect choice for the job.”
The people who feel this way see Landesman as an intelligent and independent risk-taker, a no-nonsense entrepreneur whose remarkable commercial success will somehow translate into an era of thriving expansion for the NEA. The people who are dismayed by his appointment see the yawning gap between the skills, values and expertise of a Broadway producer and the qualities and abilities needed in the person appointed to nurture and safeguard a cultural democracy encompassing the entire arts ecology:
- A commercial producer needs to know how to convince investors to risk their money for the possibility of big returns; the guardian of our most powerful symbol of national cultural policy needs to understand the public interest in culture, to know how to convince voters to invest in work that advances the public interest, where the return is not measured in dollars and cents.
- A commercial producer needs a keen eye for what is likely to earn money; the guardian of our most powerful symbol of national cultural policy needs to understand that it is in the public interest to correct the imbalances of our over-commercialized cultural industries, creating protected public space in culture in much the same way we create protected public space in nature, such as national parks.
- A commercial producer needs to understand the stakeholders in his own corner of the for-profit economy; the guardian of our most powerful symbol of national cultural policy needs to understand the entire cultural ecology, from the informal arts to independent artists to small, largely volunteer groups in rural or urban settings to the largest nonprofit and commercial institutions. He needs to understand how culture-makers who don’t generate profit feed the wellsprings of our collective creativity, how they help us to know ourselves and each other, to find the source of our resilience and dynamism, to say what needs to be said but cannot find adequate expression in a marketplace dominated by the bottom line.
- A commercial producer needs a talent for spotting what will appeal to the greatest number, because the marketplace turns on economies of scale and thrives on selling the same product to the largest number of consumers; the guardian of our most powerful symbol of national cultural policy needs to love diversity, to recognize and love the fact that what’s good for one sector is not necessarily good for another, to love the fact that we have a public sector precisely to support the social goods that do not turn a profit, and that even in this moment of economic crisis—especially in this moment—the market cannot create or sustain a cultural democracy.
I have no doubt that Rocco Landesman has the intelligence to grasp these points, and certainly, a person of his intellect can do the reading, talk to the wise people, integrate the insights and ideas that animate the public interest in culture. But will he? It remains to be seen. To my knowledge, he has never published or declaimed from a podium a single word about community arts, independent media, the movement for cultural equity for artists and communities of color, rural communities or much of anything outside the largest cities, or dozens of other aspects of the arts ecology which will be his purview. Landesman reportedly loves country music, baseball and betting on horse races; he was a brilliant student, people say. I hope he can enlarge both tendencies to encompass the entire cultural landscape and all we know about public stewardship within it.
When I heard of his nomination, I searched for a 1994 New Yorker profile on him (“Betting On Broadway” by David Owen, June 13, 1994) that I vividly remembered reading not long after “Angels in America” rocked Broadway, winning a flock of Tonys and a Pulitzer. If you subscribe to the New Yorker, you can read it online. Two things especially stuck in my mind. First, his advice that “You should never carry less than ten thousand dollars in cash at any time….Walking around with anything less than ten thousand dollars is completely unacceptable. It’s a necessity of life. It gives you freedom. The most important thing in life is a sense of possibility, and you simply can’t have it with less than ten thousand dollars in your pocket.” Populism, anyone?
And, second, the lead paragraph:
“I am fundamentally a dilettante,” Rocco Landesman says. “My attention span is too short for me to do anything for very long, and I have done a bunch of quite different things in my life. But I am not one of these people who say, ‘Well, that’s best for me, and maybe other people should just become corporate lawyers for the rest of their lives.’ No. I think that what’s best for me is also best for everyone else.”
Having had fifteen years to reconsider these statements, perhaps this new job will offer Rocco Landesman a welcome opportunity to show that he can sustain a sufficient quality and duration of attention to questions of cultural policy and real cultural diversity to show us all that at long last, the NEA can symbolize something fully worthy of a true democracy, the public interest in culture. Here’s hoping.