But Rocco Landesman, the Broadway theater owner and producer, is a peculiar sort of NEA chairman, in the sense of how much he relishes a good dust-up. Because that's what he has incited, with his blunt remarks on the topic at aconference at Arena Stage late last month. Asked about the significance of the declining attendance figures for the arts in this country, Landesman gave a characteristically unequivocal response: "There are too many theaters," he said.
"Look," he explained. "You can either increase demand or decrease supply. Demand is not going to increase. So it is time to think about decreasing supply."
The observation has provoked the mix of ire, consternation and support that might be expected of such a statement. But most of all, it has generated powerful buzz in a field that rarely gets to chew publicly over a big, meaty issue.
"I disagree completely with the assessment," said Ari Roth, artistic director of Washington's highly regarded Theater J.
"When someone within the government structure is frank and clear, that's a reason to celebrate," countered Molly Smith, head of the venerable Arena Stage.
"My biggest problem with thinning out the field is that what people typically mean is: Thin out the smallest, weakest, least developed," said Michael M. Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center and an expert on helping troubled arts groups marshal resources.
Was Landesman really advocating the shutdown of temples of art, suggesting that subscription theaters be subject to the same economic laws as restaurants and shoe stores? Did he seriously mean to single out the art form in which he has made his name? Or was he playing devil's advocate, knowingly lighting a fuse so that people would be compelled to respond?
'An elephant in the room'
Diane Ragsdale, a scholar studying the economics of nonprofit regional theaters - and Landesman's interviewer at Arena - says she doesn't think there was any ulterior motive. "From the day he's been in office, his M.O. has been, 'I'm not going to be scared to say what needs to be said.' I don't think he's a crazy man to say it. I think there's an elephant in the room, and it's healthy for the sector to talk about it."
That obvious problem, in the minds of Ragsdale and others, is the conflicting trends: an expansion of nonprofit arts groups when resources and audiences are in retreat. Basing his position on statistics by the advocacy group Americans for the Arts and the NEA, Landesman notes that in the recession years of 2007 to 2009, the nationwide ranks of nonprofit arts organizations had grown by 3,000. At the same time, he says, a 2008 NEA survey of public participation in the arts showed a 5 percent drop from 2002 in the number of adults who had visited an art museum or attended a live performance.