Playing in Peoria
NEA chief finds art in a midsize Midwest town anything but middling

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 9, 2009

PEORIA, ILL. --

Rocco Landesman is hitting the art scene hard in this modest city on the Illinois River, and he's liking it. Well, no, that's not quite correct: He's loving it! The new waterfront cultural area? "Beautiful!" Peoria artist Lonnie Stewart's model of a sculptural slave memorial? "Powerful!" And how about those plucky kids in the production of "Rent" over at Eastlight Theatre?

"I'm having a good time!" Landesman reports at intermission in the hallway of East Peoria High School to Eastlight's executive director, Kathy Chitwood. She's the local live wire who, outraged by a now-notorious Landesman crack about the city, dragooned the newly installed chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts here on Friday for an immersion in culture, Peoria-style.

It's the end of a grueling day of arts appreciation in Central Illinois, and while energy may be flagging among some who've been tailing him through 13 hours of tours, meetings and receptions, Landesman hasn't run out of steam -- or superlatives. Over the course of the day, his ardor seems only to grow, to the point that "vibrant arts community" becomes his default characterization of Peoria, an industrial city of 113,000 and home to Caterpillar, the construction equipment manufacturer. In the evening Landesman is still at it, standing onstage at the high school with his new pal Chitwood, beaming and declaring: "I've got a big crush on this woman!"

His ebullience is a reflection of his natural tendency to play the extrovert: He didn't get to be one of the most quotable people on Broadway by hiding a roguish charm under a bushel. But it should be remembered that he hasn't come all this way simply to launch his national cultural crusade, under the NEA slogan he dreamed up: "Art Works." He's also here because being off-the-cuff can land you in the soup.

'Kathy, it's Rocco'

He bruised feelings in these parts back in August when, a few days before starting the job as the country's top arts bureaucrat, he implied in an interview with the New York Times that Peoria didn't exist on the map of cultural significance. In speculating that the doling out of federal money to the arts had become too focused on spreading cash around equitably, rather than rewarding merit, he suggested a bit cavalierly that the city might not be worthy: "I don't know if there's a theater in Peoria," he said, "but I would bet that it's not as good as Steppenwolf or the Goodman," Chicago's preeminent nonprofit theater companies.

The remark reinforced another stereotype, that of New York City -- where Landesman, a St. Louis native, worked and lived for most of his career as a theater producer and owner -- as snooty and dismissive of middle America. For though it may indeed be the case that few theaters in the heartland accomplish what Steppenwolf can, there's more than one way to look at artistic achievement.

Peoria wanted Landesman to absorb this, to learn something beyond the connotations of the famous question: "Will it play in Peoria?" The phrase, coined as a reference to the baseline appeal of shows on the old vaudeville circuit, gave rise to an image of the city as both an embodiment of mainstream America and a numbingly average place.

"My first reaction was just mad -- not again, not again!" Chitwood recalls when someone forwarded her the Times article. She talked to her friend Suzette Boulais, who heads ArtsPartners of Central Illinois, a regional arts umbrella group, about inviting the chairman to come out. She shot him an e-mail.

To her astonishment, he called her, at home. "He really did start the conversation with, 'Kathy, it's Rocco!' " Chitwood says, attempting to imitate the galloping pace of Landesman's speech patterns. The disarming call ended with the commitment of a visit. "I couldn't believe he said yes," she adds. "It's a big country and everyone wants him. I didn't think we would be important enough."

It wasn't quite the red carpet that another Midwestern town, the fictional Sweet Apple, Ohio, rolls out for Conrad Birdie in the musical "Bye Bye Birdie," now being revived on Broadway. But Peoria did seem eager to give Landesman a hearty welcome, from the tour of the rehabilitated warehouse district, where a new Peoria Riverfront Museum is to be built, to the hoots and applause that greeted him on the East Peoria High School stage.

"It really is, sir, an honor to have you here," Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis tells Landesman at a morning meeting at the sprawling Peoria Civic Center, at which the region's arts purveyors gathered for a discussion of "how art works in Peoria." The 130-year-old Peoria Art Guild has sent its leadership, as has the less-than-year-old Heartland Festival Orchestra. On a balcony outside the conference room, local artists have been given space to create art on the fly, and one, Tom Warren, has airbrushed a portrait of Landesman himself, from a photo of him in a tuxedo.

"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.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company