WASHINGTON — National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Rocco Landesman urged a key congressional subcommittee Tuesday to continue its longstanding support for the arts, money he pledged to spend wisely and without political favor during this period of economic stress.
The occasion was Landesman’s first appearance before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior, the influential panel that controls the purse strings of the NEA and other federal agencies. Coincidentally, it was also the panel’s first arts-related hearing under its new chairman, Rep. James Moran (D-Va.), who assumed the gavel last month from Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.).
That confluence of events served to heighten the interest level among arts insiders in the subcommittee’s initial meeting with Landesman, the outspoken Broadway producer with little prior experience in the non-profit arts sector. Let the record show that the hearing could not have been any chummier, as Landesman dexterously showcased his rapid ascent up the artistic and political learning curves. He was warmly greeted by the uniformly affable lawmakers in attendance.
The NEA topper’s official purpose for the visit was to dutifully support the administration’s $161.3 million budget request for the upcoming fiscal year. That’s the same figure Landesman initially derided as “pathetic” when he first arrived in the post last summer, since it represents a continuation of decreased funding levels for the agency. No such utterance was made by Landesman during Tuesday’s perfunctory hearing.
“I have challenged my staff to fund at least one arts education project in every Congressional district,” he shrewdly told the panel in his prepared statement, referring to the endowment’s $8 million budget for Learning in the Arts grants.
Indeed, the NEA chief has recently undertaken a whistle-stop tour of cities and towns throughout the country to hear arts-related concerns and promote two pet initiatives to link the arts with economic development. The two are “Our Town,” a $5 million plan to support design projects and arts engagement strategies in 35 communities this year, and “Art Works,” a project to convince municipalities of the hefty returns derived from arts investments.
“If you bring art and artists into a town, business will follow,” he said, referring to the large multiplier effect of arts-related spending. Landesman said he has recently met with representatives from leading foundations about ways to leverage both initiatives with private sector philanthropy, and has received welcoming responses.
Moran also noted the importance of federal arts funding during an era of reduced contributions from private and governmental sources. “It would be unfortunate for the states to supplant their own contributions with federal funds,” he said. “If a state is willing to hang in there and provide its own resources, it should be more likely to receive federal support.”
Tuesday’s testimony by the NEA chieftain again coincided with Arts Advocacy Day, an event co-sponsored by Americans for the Arts and the Congressional Arts Caucus, as well as numerous other arts orgs. This year’s event included participants from some 86 organizations, who made their assaults on Capitol Hill armed with notebooks full of talking points following a breakfast rally.
The subcommittee heard from a panel of arts leaders including Americans for the Arts topper Robert Lynch, who again urged the members to restore NEA funding next year to $180 million. “Arts support is at risk” due to reductions in revenue and contributions from all levels, he said. “Last year, state government arts appropriations dropped 10 percent, local government support fell 8 percent, and private giving fell 6.5%.” As a result, he said, “it’s one billion fewer dollars going into the arts in just one year.”
Also testifying was actor Kyle MacLachlan, who told of how his own career as a fledgling actor was kick-started by financial support from the NEA. “I am living proof of the importance of arts grants,” he said. Also joining him were actor Jeff Daniels and Charles Segars, CEO of Ovation cable network. Segars said that arts education funding has been proven to lower the incidence of crime, as it engages students in ways other studies do not.