Arts Agency Chairman Is Moving On

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 12, 2008

Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts since March 2003, plans to announce today that in January he will leave the federal agency he is credited with helping revitalize.

Gioia, a prize-winning poet and critic, said he will become the director of a new arts program at the Aspen Institute, an international organization that conducts forums on contemporary issues. It's a half-time position, which will enable him to return to writing for pleasure. "Six years is a long time in a job," Gioia said in an interview in his Pennsylvania Avenue office. "I have done most of the things I set out to do. I really want to go back to writing. I haven't had time for my own writing. I write all the time for the NEA, official writing. Since I have become chairman, I have not published a poem."

Gioia, 57, is scheduled to participate in a discussion today at the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies in Chattanooga, Tenn., and outline his plans.

During his term, Gioia spearheaded a vigorous program of initiatives that quelled much of the criticism of the agency, especially from conservative groups. Also, through a landmark study on reading, he gave adult literacy an unexpected platform.

The rebuilding of the NEA, the largest funder of the arts in the country, began after a ferocious attack on the agency in the 1990s by conservative members of Congress, who cut the budget from a high of $175.9 million in the early 1990s to $99.4 million in 1996. Gioia's predecessors, actress Jane Alexander and folklorist Bill Ivey, worked to restore confidence and save the budget, a process that Gioia continued. "We have taken the NEA into a more active position," Gioia said. Funding for the agency has risen to $144.7 million for fiscal 2008. "When I came here, it was an interesting job with unbearable pressure; now it is bearable with pressure," he said.

One of the first programs introduced under Gioia was Shakespeare in American Communities, where professional theater companies visited thousands of schools. The program eventually covered 50 states, which gave Congress something to brag about. And the NEA could tout giving nearly 2,000 actors work and introducing more than 1 million students to professional productions.

In 2004 the NEA released a report on reading, called "Reading at Risk," a survey indicating that adults weren't reading. It generated about 1,000 editorials and articles and perhaps helped kindle, along with Oprah's Book Club, a broader interest in books. "When I came here I would not have imagined literacy would become an area of interest," Gioia said.

The NEA co-organized "The Big Read," encouraging cities to foster the reading of classics, from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Zora Neale Hurston to Ray Bradbury. Discussion groups were organized, and now the program has 21,000 organization partners, Gioia said.

These programs are examples of Gioia's political savvy; he was able to demonstrate to Congress how the NEA touched every corner of the country -- not just New York or Los Angeles. Since 2005, the NEA has distributed grants to small and midsize organizations in every Congressional district. "I hope the next chairman really engages on the issues of arts education because Congress truly understands now," he said.

Other initiatives during Gioia's tenure included the Poetry Out Loud: National Recitation Contest, an activity for middle and high school students; Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience, a experiment to chronicle the observations of service men and women in Afghanistan and Iraq; and an expansion of the NEA Jazz Masters work to include classroom guides and tours.

Gioia, a 2002 American Book Award winner, spends two weeks each year on Waldron Island, a telephone-less locale that's part of the San Juan Islands in Washington state. He said his new position should provide the flexibility for him to focus on his writing. "We will be creating an opportunity for the best artists to speak to audiences different than their normal crowd," he said.

And he'll be shaping a different arena for himself: "There's a role for the poet and public intellectual" in society.

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