Obama Set to Nominate Broadway Honcho Rocco Landesman to Lead Arts Endowment

Obama's pick for NEA: Broadway producer and theater owner Rocco Landesman.
Obama's pick for NEA: Broadway producer and theater owner Rocco Landesman. (By Keyur Khamar -- Bloomberg News)

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By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 14, 2009

President Obama yesterday announced his intention to nominate Rocco Landesman, a major player in the commercial theater world, to head the National Endowment for the Arts.

Landesman, a theater owner and producer, has brought many of the past decade's biggest hits to Broadway, including the Tony Award winners "Jersey Boys," "Into the Woods," "The Producers" and "Proof." He produced Tony Kushner's landmark "Angels in America." And he is backing the current revival of the Tony-nominated "Hair."

A native of St. Louis, Landesman, 61, is president of Jujamcyn Theaters, owner of five Broadway theaters.

The appointment, first reported in yesterday's New York Times, was immediately read as a way to re-energize the agency, founded in 1965 and the largest supporter of arts in the country. Last week, the White House asked Congress to give the NEA $161.3 million in 2010, the highest request in recent years. The agency funnels grant money to almost every corner of the country and is credited with stabilizing the infrastructure of many arts organizations, though the economic turmoil has hit the nonprofit arts world extremely hard.

Landesman's reputation as a fighter, if not always a diplomatic one, pleased arts supporters in very different worlds.

Steven D. Lavine, the president of the California Institute of the Arts and a member of an arts advisory committee during the Obama campaign, said: "It's a wonderful appointment. He will be persuasive and fight for the arts. I don't know if he will be diplomatic, but I only know him by reputation." The first thing he'd put on the NEA chairman's to-do list would be to "rebuild the individual artists' grants," which were taken away by Congress during the cultural wars of the 1990s.

Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater, the groundbreaking organization in New York, said the announcement took him by surprise. "I was absolutely flabbergasted. For the theater community, it is the most concrete evidence of Obama's brilliance," Eustis said. Landesman, he said, initiated the move of "Hair" from the Public Theater to Broadway. "He told me for years he didn't like the play," said Eustis, but was converted by the new staging. "He is a man who doesn't recognize categories. You are talking about a man who earned a doctorate from Yale, then had a private investment company, then went to Broadway producing, and is a dyed-in-the-wool St. Louis Cardinals fan, for some unfathomable reason."

Robert Lynch, the president of the Americans for the Arts, a major lobbying group, said he found the selection "exciting." "He seems to be a bold decision-maker," said Lynch, noting Landesman's controversial statements about the eroding line between nonprofit and for-profit theaters. He also noted Landesman's diverse interests: "He's a producer and likes country music."

And Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), who co-chairs the Congressional Arts Caucus, called the choice "bold" and said she enjoyed meeting Landesman at the spoken-word event at the White House on Tuesday night. "He knows the power that arts can have in our lives and the role that musicians, artists and theater has played in our nation's culture," Slaughter said in a statement.

Landesman gave $2,300 to Obama's presidential campaign. He declined to discuss his appointment. His assistant said he "was under quarantine from the White House."

Although known for high-profile, and risky, commercial deals, Landesman was originally trained in the not-for-profit world. A graduate of Colby College and the University of Wisconsin, he earned his doctorate at the Yale School of Drama. He taught at Yale for four years. He became president of Jujamcyn in 1987 and company owner in 2005. He drew attention by being the first to charge $100 for a Broadway ticket, in 2001 for "The Producers."

In New York, he has been active with several education and city improvement groups, including the Times Square Alliance, which spearheaded the revival and cleanup of that district. Other productions of his that have won Tony Awards include "Big River," "Guys and Dolls," "Sweeney Todd," "Nine," "Kiss Me, Kate" and "Death of a Salesman."

This is not the first time the NEA has received a jolt from Broadway. Jane Alexander, the acclaimed actress, served as President Bill Clinton's first chairman of the agency. Landesman would succeed Dana Gioia, an award-winning poet, who resigned in January.

The Senate has to approve the nomination.


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