Rocco Landesman Takes on Chairmanship of National Endowment for the Arts

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 26, 2009

In the mid-1990s, Rocco Landesman made it a point to carry $10,000 in cash on him at all times, just in case a betting opportunity presented itself. Cellphones and ATMs have eliminated the need for what even Landesman would admit was a dangerous practice, but don't get the idea he's stopped betting.

In fact, on Aug. 7 the legendary Broadway producer made what might be the biggest bet of his career, becoming the 10th chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Perhaps it's the momentousness of the task at hand, or maybe it's trepidation in a new environment, but Landesman -- somewhat uncharacteristically -- is proceeding cautiously.

"I think the worst thing in the world would be going around with the message, 'I'm going to shake things up.' That would be a huge mistake," he said yesterday in the NEA conference room, even as his office was being painted and spruced up for a new era, one that arts supporters have eagerly anticipated for years.

As he moves into his third week on the job, Landesman's talking points are firm: The arts are central to the American identity; they define the pulse of many cities, towns and individuals. In short, the arts are indispensable. As for schools, they should encourage young people to soar, not just study for a test. He sneers at the goals of No Child Left Behind, which seem to have little use for arts education. "All the tests don't take into account personal creativity. There is something very American about individualism," he said.

Landesman, 62, has carved a sharply individual path himself, having made his name in the highly visible crucible of live theater. His producing credits include several Tony Award winners -- "Angels in America," "The Producers" "Big River" -- although he seems just as passionate about country music, horse racing and baseball. On the day we visited, he was dressed in summer beige with red accents in his tie, red shirt stripes and red alligator boots, a nod to his beloved hometown team, the St. Louis Cardinals.

And while Landesman is treading lightly for the moment, he is an unabashed hawk on the issue of money; increased funding, he said, is one of the barriers the NEA needs to overcome if it intends to once more lead the country's sprawling network of artists and arts organizations. He also wants to reinstate grants for individual artists, a program that ended when the NEA was almost hounded to extinction by conservative critics in the 1990s. "One of my close friends is Michael Eastman, the photographer," Landesman said. "One of his pictures is hanging in [White House social secretary] Desirée Rogers's office. He got an early grant from the NEA, which was critical in his career."

Right now the White House has proposed a budget of $170 million for fiscal year 2010, and Landesman says he'll push for more in the next appropriations round. "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. At its height the NEA received $176 million in 1992 and has slowly climbed back to its current $155 million level. Landesman knows part of the job is to be a salesman. "If the president had wanted a timid NEA, he would have made a different choice," he said, with a slight smile.

On the Hill, his words and moves are being watched closely, especially by those who control the purse strings. "You have to show the rest of the country that the arts are a benefit to them," says Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson, the ranking Republican on the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the NEA. He liked the direction of Dana Gioia, the last chairman, who pushed for financial support to every single congressional district during the George W. Bush years. As a result, support for the NEA has steadily increased, Simpson said.

Big numbers seem to follow Landesman, who paid a reported $30 million for his share of Jujamcyn Theaters, his production company, in 2005. He is credited, and lambasted, for introducing the $100 Broadway ticket, as well as the $450 premium theater ticket, during the run of "The Producers." For 10 years, he headed up an investment fund, and has owned three minor league baseball teams.

Show business has been the other constant in his life. Back in St. Louis, his father owned the Crystal Palace cabaret, a routine stop in the young careers of Barbra Streisand, Miles Davis, the Smothers Brothers, Lenny Bruce and Mike Nichols. Fran Landesman, the chairman's aunt, is a well-known jazz lyricist.

He moved east, going to Colby College in Maine before earning a degree at University of Wisconsin at Madison and then a doctorate in dramatic literature at Yale. He taught at Yale drama school for four years. In the competitive world of Broadway, he ended up controlling one of the big three Broadway businesses that own theaters and produce works.

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