Head of National Endowment for the Arts gets mostly rave reviews as he exits the stage

Marcus Yam/THE WASHINGTON POST - Rocco Landesman, chair of the National Endownment for the Arts.

Rocco Landesman began his tenure in 2009 as head of the National Endowment for the Arts with money on his mind.

After a successful career as a theater owner and Broadway producer, he made increased funding for the nation’s largest arts grantmaking organization a top priority — along with restoring individual artist awards. That program was killed in the mid-1990s after a barrage of conservative criticism halved the agency’s budget, and was nearly its undoing. It had been a slow, careful crawl back and Landesman, 65 — a country music aficionado, gambler, Yale drama school Ph.D., and minor-league baseball owner (named Rocco!) — was to herald a bold new era of agency expansion.

Landesman, who produced such Tony-Award winning hits as “Angels in America,” “The Producers” and “Big River,” was unapologetically strident, publicly decrying NEA funding levels as “way behind,” “almost invisible” and “pathetic,” according to a New York Times article.

“It is not up to me, it is up to Congress. But people will keep hearing hawkish comments from me about this, and sometimes intemperate comments,” he said in an interview with the Washington Post during his first month at the NEA .

But when Landesman stepped down Wednesday, fulfilling his intention to serve just one term, the agency had less funding ($146 million in 2012) than when he started ($155 million in 2009), although its $167.5 million budget in 2010 approached its 1992 high of $176 million. Individual grants to artists were still disallowed and critics charged that he minimized dance, jazz, opera and folk arts.

That Landesman still gets high marks from a broad spectrum of supporters is, in a word, artful. They say he put a finer point on the idea of art as economic driver, deepened and leveraged ties with other federal agencies and found new private sector money. It’s a nimble-on-your-feet, know-your-audience, improvisational kind of turn that perhaps draws from the St. Louis part of his colorful biography where his parents owned a theater club, and Landesman grew up watching Mike Nichols and Elaine May perform in the antecedent to the famed Second City improv.

“It became apparent right away that the money from Congress was going to be incremental one way or the other,” Landesman says ducking out of the NEA’s holiday/going away party to give a phone interview. Given the recession, he says the NEA wasn’t going to get automatic markups and “even if I spent all my time on Capitol Hill, what difference would it make? Maybe 10 to 20 million here or there. In the big scheme, vastly more is required. I had to figure out where the money was. Willie Sutton said he robbed banks because that’s where the money was. Money, in this case, is across other federal agencies and in private sectors.”

Early on, Landesman decried the policy, put in place by his predecessor Dana Gioia, of granting money to all 435 congressional districts, using Peoria, Ill., as a case of middling towns that perhaps lacked the arts infrastructure to justify their grants.

A gaffe-rectifying tour of the Peoria arts scene became the kickoff for his “Art Works” initiative to get eye level with the arts scene in dozens of communities across the country. Two years later, his “Our Town” initiative stressed the idea of “creative placemaking,” or art-focused projects as pillars of community revitalization.

“There are arts programs and enthusiasts and lovers all over America, including towns like Peoria, where Rocco is beloved and considered an honorary citizen,” says Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, who is from Peoria. “When Rocco came to me, we talked a lot about how we could leverage DOT programs and funding.” In 2010, a $75 million DOT and Department of Housing and Urban Development partnership began explicitly including arts organizations as potential partners in grant proposals for the first time.

Shelley Poticha, a director at the Housing and Urban Development Department, says the department now actively looks for art components to its projects. She cites a Denver development where HUD and NEA partnered on a senior housing project next to a sculptural plaza that connected to HUD-funded artists lofts.

“Why is this important? Why should they build artist housing instead of worker housing? Why is it important for the strength of the Denver community for arts to be a focus? What Rocco Landesman has done is he has really elevated that discussion. He has taken the role of art far beyond funding of symphonies and museums to a much broader topic of community revitalization,” Poticha says.

In spring 2010, Landesman met with the top arts funding foundations to explore options for collaboration. The resulting “ArtPlace” consortium of foundations, financial institutions and federal agencies, including NEA, has awarded 80 grants to 46 communities, totaling nearly $27 million.

More than half of that is new money, says Robert Lynch, head of Americans for the Arts, a lobbying and advocacy organization. The group just received a $100,000 NEA grant to study arts districts.

ArtPlace “is big and it’s new and Rocco was very much instrumental in making that happen,” Lynch says. He would have liked more NEA funding, “but the economy and the political times have kept us from having the kind of expansions of dollars that I know should be there. It’s not something any chair could have made happen in the environment we’ve been in.”

Stylistically, Lynch says some of Landesman’s comments have been ill-considered. In addition to the Peoria gaffe, he raised eyebrows in October at an arts-education conference with comments that the NEA was more bully-pulpit than funding organization. And last year, he publicly suggested that the ratio of arts administrators to artists was off: “There are 5.7 million arts workers in this country and two million artists. Do we need three administrators for every artist?” he wrote in an NEA blogpost.

“He’s said things a number of times he has to go back and explain,” Lynch says. “If there’s any big turkey in the room that’s probably it. Also it’s possible that there is a sector out there that thinks he should have done more for them.”

Last year, Landesman eliminated the Opera Honors because of budget cuts and tried unsuccessfully to eliminate the NEA’s National Heritage Fellowships for folk artists and the American Jazz Masters Fellowships, both of which were restored by Congress. A 2010 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (written by a former contract NEA employee and present freelance dance critic for The Washington Post) called Landesman’s elimination of grants for college dance programs “crippling.”

There is also concern that one four-year term doesn’t give an NEA chair enough traction, or continuity of signature programs. And, moving forward, some suggest that a chair who comes from the nonprofit world would be more attuned to the needs of artists that the NEA funds.

Joan Shigekawa, former deputy chairman, is the acting chair until the White House names a successor, who must be confirmed by Congress. Landesman says an artist or someone with deep connection to artists and the nonprofit world would be an ideal choice, though he thinks his private sector metabolism helped him get things done.

Now he’s done.

“You only have so much energy and momentum,” he says. He has a room stacked halfway to the ceiling with books he plans to read and he and wife Debby Landesman, a philanthropic advisor, will split their time among Washington, Miami and New York.

Landesman and LaHood have become fast friends, and he says LaHood gave him a sage piece of advice over dinner recently: “Leave the stage while they are still applauding.”

Of his sometimes “intemperate” comments, Landesman says, “I’ve not said anything that imperiled the arts, or support for the arts. I’ve spoken my mind and I’ve not been that controversial. I think the folks in Peoria are our best friends.”

He may be right. There’s a contingent from Peoria and from communities around the country, places he’s toured and charmed, who believe Landesman has strengthened their arts programs, given them a higher profile and found creative ways to get them funded. And they are applauding.

Landesman says that means it’s time for him to get off the stage.

 
Read what others are saying

    The ten best books of 2014

    50 notable works of nonfiction