NEA chairman plans 'Art Works' tour of U.S.

HITTING THE ROAD: Rocco Landesman's U.S. tour will take about six months, during which he'll visit downtown sculpture gardens, free public performances andexhibitions, and subsidized workspaces.
HITTING THE ROAD: Rocco Landesman's U.S. tour will take about six months, during which he'll visit downtown sculpture gardens, free public performances andexhibitions, and subsidized workspaces. (Marcus Yam - The Washington Post)
By Jacqueline Trescott
Thursday, October 22, 2009

Rocco Landesman, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, announced Wednesday that he is taking a whistle-stop tour of the country to "spotlight all the ways that art works."

"I will visit downtown sculpture gardens, art walks along waterfronts, free public performances and exhibitions, historic-building renovations and subsidized artist workspaces and residences," said Landesman, making his first major speech since taking over in August. Speaking to the conference of Grantmakers in the Arts in Brooklyn, Landesman defined his "guiding principle" for the NEA. He also attempted to clarify what he called his own "blunt" positions and put out a few brush fires.

A national tour of arts organizations and sites has been a technique that previous NEA chairmen, going back to the tenure of actress Jane Alexander, have undertaken to introduce themselves to far-flung artists. It is also a way to bolster the NEA's knowledge about the complicated infrastructure of the arts, especially helpful when the chairman comes from a world different than that of a potter or architect. Landesman, a leading Broadway producer, is steeped in the high-stakes commercial world of entertainment.

Under recent chairmen, the NEA created a number of populist programs that delivered the arts to every corner of the country and, generally, sidestepped the controversies that almost killed the agency in the mid-1990s.

However, Landesman immediately set a tough agenda, putting Congress on notice that the agency's current funding of $155 million is what he calls pathetic. Then he stepped on the toes of the arts makers outside the main incubators of New York and Chicago by dismissing theater in Peoria, Ill., by name. Peoria is the first stop next month in what he is calling the "Art Works" tour.

Then a conference call, which occurred one day before he took over as NEA head, stirred up conservative critics. In the discussion, whose participants included the NEA's communications director, as well as staff from the White House Office of Public Engagement, the arts community was urged to become more involved in volunteerism. The comments by Yosi Sargent, the communications director, were interpreted as a lobbying effort for the Obama agenda, and several congressman warned the White House and NEA that the agency should remain nonpartisan. The NEA denied that the conference call was promoting any legislative agenda, although Sargent subsequently resigned his post.

"While I want to state in no uncertain terms that the NEA is not a political agency and that when art becomes propaganda I lose all interest in it, I also want everyone to know that the days of a defensive NEA are over," Landesman said in Wednesday's address. "We have a plan and we are going to, quote, advocate for it."

In a telephone interview after the speech, Landsman said he was both "trying to set a tone" and hold on to his feistiness. "There is a lot of going back and forth about whether we are political or propagandist. We are not going to be running away from what we believe," he said.

"I've been at the NEA eight weeks and already I have my own litany: The NEA is funding porn in California, the agency has become a propagandist for the Obama administration programs, and to truly add insult to injury, we've been told, vis-a-vis our share of the stimulus money, that we in the arts don't even work," Landesman told his New York audience.

Before his tenure started, the agency received $50 million in the recovery package and awarded the funds through an application process.

Landesman said 5.7 million people work full time in arts fields. Answering critics who say arts jobs aren't real work, he said, "If you are, say, a musician who through long study and practice and talent has risen to play first violin in a symphony orchestra, please understand that although you have two kids to put through college, you don't have a real job. Discouraging? Just a little."

The agency's funding for fiscal 2010 has not been determined, but the president requested $170 million; for now, the agency is working with the last approved budget of $155 million. "My colleagues in Washington cringe when I use words like 'pathetic' and 'invisible' and 'embarrassing' to describe the NEA budget, so let's just say that the funds we have to work with are not that large."

The tour, Landesman explained, will cover six months and include visits to Missouri, Tennessee, California, Idaho, Kentucky and Washington state. In Peoria, he is scheduled to see the Eastlight Theatre's production of "Rent." "It is very important for us to get out of Washington and hear what people are thinking," he said.

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