Former Jujamcyn topper takes on Washington

Say what you will about Rocco Landesman — and right now, people are saying — the guy sure knows how to make an entrance.

Even before his swearing-in as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, the blunt-talking Broadway producer and until recently head of Jujamcyn Theaters set tongues wagging with comments about his new job’s priorities. He derided current levels of federal arts support as “pathetic,” and said he would base future grants on artistic merit rather than disbursing money to arts orgs within every congressional district.

“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 told the New York Times, referring to the two long-established A-list Chicago companies.

Whoa.

As if that wasn’t enough, Landesman’s arrival at the agency in August coincided with a media firestorm triggered by comments from the NEA’s new communications chief, Yosi Sergant, during a conference call to promote volunteerism within the arts community. The exec was accused by conservative critics of linking the endowment with efforts to enlist support for the administration’s health care and environmental agenda. One of Landesman’s first moves was to send Sergant packing.

Landesmann prefers to move past the Sergant episode. “I don’t know what I can learn since these conference calls occurred before I got here. I had nothing to do with it. It’s not fair, but of course Washington isn’t about fair.”

Landesmann should know. His “artistic merit” remark prompted sneers within the arts community that upcoming grants might be made at the expense of small but worthy arts orgs, and that the former producer could even have future Broadway productions in mind.

The comment also triggered an invitation to Peoria by an indignant local arts advocate, which Landesman has accepted. He’ll visit Nov. 6 to tour the town’s arts scene and participate in a symposium.

So now that Landesman is firmly in the job, has the hard-charging Midwesterner toned down his rhetoric? Hardly.

“They knew who I was when they hired me,” he says. “I came out of the box too strongly for some people, but I have no regrets about that. I wanted to make the point that we’ll be a strong, aggressive and unapologetic NEA.”

Landesman concedes that he can be “outspoken to a fault,” and he’ll think twice before uttering comments that might get him or others into trouble. “But I don’t plan to change my personality,” he adds emphatically.

He says he’s “vexed” by the notion that discussions about quality are considered code for elitism or worse.

“I don’t get it,” he argues. “Quality is what we’re in business to encourage. I’m not saying that the only interesting art is in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. We’re going to support interesting and exciting art wherever it is.”

As for fears about blurring the lines between not-for-profit and commercial theater, Landesman assures that won’t happen on his watch. “It’s incumbent upon theaters to present works for their audiences, and not be guided by what may make a Broadway transfer,” he says. “Doing so eats at the very core of the artistic identities of these institutions.”

Along with fighting to double the endowment’s current $155 million budget, he plans to seek restoration of its individual artists grants program, which was eliminated in 1994 following congressional uproar over several controversial art exhibits supported by the NEA. Landesman appears undaunted by that challenge in today’s ultra-partisan climate on Capitol Hill.

He says he’s optimistic about working for a president who is committed to the arts and is personally a skilled writer. “He’s the first real writer in the White House since Teddy Roosevelt, and the first really good writer since Lincoln. That’s a very significant thing.”

Another proposed initiative would promote the role of the arts in the economy. Landesman has adopted the slogan “Art Works” to emphasize the importance of arts orgs as community economic drivers.

One arts leader who is impressed with the NEA topper so far is Robert Lynch, president of advocacy group Americans for the Arts. “I love his energy and entrepreneurial spirit,” he says. “He has lots of ideas, and this is the right time for them.”

Lynch says he’s particularly encouraged by Landesman’s proposed “Our Town” program, which would provide rent subsidies to artists as an inducement to relocate in downtown areas to help boost local economies. Lynch says his org stands ready to help promote the initiative before Congress while also fighting for a budget increase.

“We are also focusing on the value of the arts as a secret weapon against America’s problems like economic development,” adds Lynch.

Landesman has tapped Joan Shigekawa, an associate director at the Rockefeller Foundation, to become the agency’s deputy chair, its chief operating officer. He calls her “an iconic and legendary grant maker,” a skill he admittedly lacks. Following the summer gaffe, a new communications chief is also in place — Jamie Bennett, former chief of staff of the New York City Dept. of Cultural Affairs.

Yet Landesman’s appointment raises some bigger questions — namely just what the new administration’s policies toward the arts and humanities will be.

The prominence of the arts community in Obama’s election, along with the first couple’s clear appreciation of the arts, would augur well for strong support. But to date, no one of any stature has been appointed to an arts advisory post within the White House.That gap may partly be filled later this year, albeit from the outside, when Broadway producer Margo Lion and writer-producer-director George Stevens Jr. are sworn in as co-chairs of the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities.

“One of our jobs is to educate the public, to the degree that we can, that the arts and humanities are not decoration,” explains Lion. “They’re not luxuries, they’re necessities. The emphasis will be on three pillars: arts education, cultural diplomacy and looking at the arts as an economic driver.”

One person concerned about having arts muscle inside the White House is Leonard Garment, the former Nixon administration counsel and arts advocate who helped fashion the endowment during its early years.

“It’s indispensable to have a person on the White House staff who is not only knowledgeable, but who has real authority and respect from the president and first lady,” he says.

Garment is clearly rooting for the NEA topper’s success. “Landesman sounds like somebody with a sense of style, who knows that winning in the arts means filling the house,” says the recipient of the National Medal of Arts. Garment also points out that irrespective of Landesman’s personality, controversy will be part of his job. “There’s no avoiding trouble when you’re dealing with the arts. It’s the essence of the artist to be provocative, and to avoid straight lines in favor of curves.”

“Rocco is imaginative and he’s innovative, and he can make a very compelling argument for his point of view,” observes Lion. “If anyone is up to a challenge, it’s him. He’s a bold thinker, but he understands the terrain he’s working in.”

Gordon Cox in New York contributed to this report.

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