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NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman's Peoria arts adventure

"When I don't do this, I paint houses," Warren explains, as Landesman's wife, Debby, admires the piece. "Perhaps it'll end up in your garage or something."

Inside the meeting room, the atmosphere is not adversarial. Landesman, wearing his trademark alligator boots, offers a variation on the self-deprecating mea culpa he'll use all day: "It's nice when people are sympathetic to the ignorant, and that's what I've encountered," he says.

The mayor is equally conciliatory. "Peorians have really thick skins," Ardis tells Landesman, adding that while they're accustomed to being the butt of a joke, it's rare for the city to have "the opportunity to host someone who made one of those comments."

The bottom line

Under the surface of all these good Midwestern manners, though, there is a tension, and as is often the case, it has to do with the pocketbook. Landesman's published comments about Peoria had something of a chilling effect, fostering a worry that NEA funds -- however limited -- would now be channeled only to big cities. As Chitwood puts it, "We wanted to say to Rocco, 'We don't want all our money going to Chicago and New York.' "

So to prepare for Landesman's visit, Chitwood made a short promotional film that features images of a child with a dollar bill and local actors explaining that they are taxpayers, too. Landesman says that of the total NEA budget -- $167.5 million next year -- 60 percent is spent on direct grants to arts institutions. A small amount goes to Peoria, in the form of literacy program grants and aid to arts groups like the Peoria Symphony Orchestra. The remaining 40 percent of NEA money is distributed directly to the states. In fiscal 2009, the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, allocated $387,000 to arts groups in Peoria County, with the largest grants going to the local public television station and the Lakeview Museum of Arts and Sciences.

Given that the state arts council's budget is being slashed, small grants can carry outsize weight. After Landesman remarks that he's surprised New York's Joseph Papp Public Theater bothers to return his call, since the NEA provides that institution with only about $60,000, Chitwood emits an ironic little laugh. She says that if they don't want it, her nearly 20-year-old theater -- supported chiefly by ticket sales and in-kind contributions from agencies in the city of East Peoria -- will take it.

In the exhaustive series of events, Landesman is peppered with questions as if he were the Mr. Wizard of ballet and the philharmonic. How can the arts be made more accessible to kids? Can he help Congress to better grasp the value of the fine arts throughout the country? Does he have advice for a young actress who wants to make theater "more than just a hobby"?

What you hear comes across as a cry for galvanizing national leadership, for someone, perhaps, with a ministerial status, who can carry the message to official Washington of the vital nature of drama and music to the country's well-being. Landesman tells his audiences that it's their responsibility to convey these sentiments as much as it is his, and Chitwood hears him. "They have to take it on," she says. "To sit and wait is to sit and wait."

Landesman is headed soon to Nashville and St. Louis to continue his "Art Works" campaign, talking about how the arts contribute to the economy. In Peoria, he himself learned something about the power of his pulpit. But chastened he's not. Asked if he regretted his remark about the city, he replied, "Absolutely not. Everyone has regarded this as a big 'whoops' moment, but I meant what I said. I was upfront about my ignorance."

On the other hand, he's now fully aware of the potential for having a good time at a New York musical -- in East Peoria.

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