Saturday, August 8th, 2009

Art Works :: Landesman Time Begins


Yesterday the Senate confirmed Rocco Landesman as new chair of the NEA and Jim Leach as the new head of the NEH. Arts advocates have been especially interested in what Landesman would have to say about his agenda for the NEA.

In an interview with the New York Times, he seemed to capture their restlessness. “Art Works” is his new brand for the agency, a step up from ““A Great Nation Deserves Great Art”, the old one. Of that, Landesman said, “We might as well just apologize right off the bat.”

Fire. That’s what many arts advocates want now: a national arts leader who won’t tiptoe through the three-decade wreckage of the culture wars, but one who will stand up and call for a new era. Landesman speaks like he’s ready to fill that role.

Here’s how he came out swinging yesterday–not without a little barbed wit and bare knuckling:

In American politics generally, he added: “The arts are a little bit of a target. The subtext is that it is elitist, left wing, maybe even a little gay.”…

On the subject of the endowment’s budget, too, Mr. Landesman did not hold back. Though he would not put a dollar figure on his own fiscal goals, he called the current appropriation of $155 million “pathetic” and “embarrassing.” And he seemed to imply dissatisfaction with increases proposed by Congress and by the president, which both fall short of the agency’s 1992 budget of $176 million.

“We’re going to be looking for funding increases that are more than incremental,” he said. …

“I wouldn’t have come to the N.E.A. if it was just about padding around in the agency,” he said, and worrying about which nonprofits deserve more funds. “We need to have a seat at the big table with the grown-ups. Art should be part of the plans to come out of this recession.”

“If we’re going to have any traction at all,” he added, “there has to be a place for us in domestic policy.”

To start, he proposed a new program called “Our Town” which might help artists finance moves into downtown centers. This idea seems to draw from the popular boom-era notion of “The Creative Class” being the key to urban revitalization.

But what about a “creative communities” approach that is less tied to issues of gentrification and boom-and-bust development? Why not identify and spur the development of arts organizations who are building stronger communities in the inner cities of places like Detroit or East Oakland? If the NEA wants to make the case for a creativity stimulus, then it should also be promoting examples of success on the ground.

Landesman also suggested that arts grants needed to be more carefully linked to “merit”. This idea may prove controversial with many arts organizations, especially given the way Landesman, a Broadway theater producer, put it:

“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,” he said, referring to two of Chicago’s most prominent theater companies. “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.”

(For those who didn’t live through the culture wars, the aesthetic debates over the words “quality” and “democracy” became a way to talk about just how much representation artists of color should or shouldn’t have without talking about race explicitly. Not unlike that Obama/Sotomayor “empathy” thing. Hmmm, there’s a book in that… oh yeah, I’m writing it.)

Many will be happy that Landesman seems willing to use his bully pulpit to reframe the importance of the arts for the country. But in the coming weeks, he may need to more closely engage with the people on the ground who can build the massive support he’s going to need to make his case.

posted by @ 10:52 am | 0 Comments

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