CAN LARRY NEAL, the poet, succeed as Larry Neal, the bureaucrat?
It's a classic situation. A poet and essayist takes a job as executive director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. His task: to put new vigor into the city government's fine arts program.
"There is precedent for combining art and work in government," says Neal, 39, who has a play being read for Joe Papp's Shakespeare Festival Theater in New York and a book of essays about Afro-American culture in the 1960s scheduled for publication this fall. "Malraux did it. So did Neruda. Government is people. What is life without art and ideas? Government can help take art to people. Look at what happened in the '30s with the WPA."
On Neal's desk in Room 1050 of the Muncie Building sits T.S. Eliot's "Selected Essays" along with stacks of government reports. "I'm fascinated by the language of government," he says. "I'm often looking at situations with a sense of irony. I'm talking about people using terms like 'input,' 'facilitate' and 'intake.' I often wonder how one can write a business letter that is not bureaucratese, that is warm. Government language is very depersonalized."
Neal says he still finds time to write, usually late at night or early in the morning. "I'm not pressed (for time) right now," he explains. "I keep a journal and I revise my essays."
The play, "The Glorious Monster in the Bell of the Horn," a drama about a jazz musician that takes place on the day before the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, has taken much of his writing energy recently. Poet-percussionist Stanley Crouch is writing the music for it and actor Roscoe Lee Browne is directing the reading. Woodie King, who had wanted to produce it originally but couldn't afford to, took the drama to Papp, who was interested. If Papp is impressed after the reading later this month, there's a good chance the play will be produced.
When he recently testified on Capitol Hill in support of a $100,000 city budget request for the Commission, Neal pointed out that it was his first appearance before a congressional committee. "My background is literary and academic," he told the House Subcommittee on District Appropriations. "I came to this job because I thought I could do something for the arts."
In the job since September 1976, Neal is slowly feeling his way into the arts and government sectors of Washington. He has come into a job that had been previously thought of as thankless - a dead end.
Neal is operating the eight-person staff Commission with $58,000 from the mayor's office and additional money from other sources such as the Department of Human Resources. His salary is $28,000 a year. How does he operate with such a small budget? "You have be heroic," he chuckles.
Heroism is indeed required. The District government has never matched grants the National Endowment for the Arts has given the Commission. The agency received $205,000 from the Endowment in fiscal year 1977, but got nothing from the city. The Endowment gave the the Commission $200,000 in fiscal year 1976.
In a recent listing of appropriations to 50 state arts councils, the District government ranked 48th, with idaho and North Dakota bringing up the rear (Louisiana, which is reorganizing its state arts agency, was not listed).
The Commission would receive more money for grants if Congress approves a city budget request $100,000 for fiscal 1978. The request marks the first time the city has earmarked funds for Commission grants.
The Commission has been a point of contention between establishment arts groups and community arts organizations that have vied against each for Commission grants. Sometimes battle lines in this in-fighting fell around issues of class and race.
Another problem has been placement of the agency. Originally, the Commission was nominally attached to the D.C. Board of Recreation. It was moved to the mayor's office. From there it was funneled to the Department of Human Resources. Now it is back under the mayor's wing.
Neal succeeds Leroy Washington, who was frequently criticized for advocating projects that some people thought would be better off as Recreation Department undertakings.
The establishment of Gallery I, the now-defuct community art gallery and coffee house, is cited as an example. Some observers say it was not a cultural institution but a youth activity center.
Neal's appointment reflects Mayor Washington's renewed commitment to the arts, says James Gibson of the Potomac Institute. "Larry is credible," explains Gibson. "He has a background in the arts. The question is whether an artist can work his way through this bureaucratic maze."
WTOP-TV producer Peggy Cooper, who was once a member of the Commission herself, says: "He's coming into a job that's been a nightmare. But if Larry Neal fails, then the job can't be done."
Most observers say Neal has taken a giant step just by his visibility at events - art exhibit openings, concerts, dramatic performances, poetry readings. He's even read his own poetry to music at a local jazz club. Despite his flurry of activity, onlookers say it's too early to appraise his performance. "The Commission had made grants before he got here," says Cooper. "He's just getting established."
Neal may have newness working for him. His enthusiasm is contagious. Commission staff members move briskly and brim with enthusiasm when they describe their roles.
"I find the community bursting with creativity," says Neal. "People don't know how great they are. There's a strong poetry movement in Washington. The city is strong in dance. It may rank second behind New York in dance. Columbia Road is developing a strong pluralistic culture.
"The community needs more resources. It also needs more commitment from audiences. There are highly educated audiences in Washington. But there's a need to expand the range of these audiences. People should go to Back Alley Theater and also see the Bleecker Street Players in Georgetown."
Before coming to Washington, Neal taught at Williams College. Prior to that he had taught at Yale, Case-Western Reserve, Wesleyan and City College of New York.
He has written two books of Poetry and edited with LeRoi Jones (now Imamu Amiri Baraka) a book and poetry.
During the '60s, Neal was most important voices in the movement. As arts editor magazine, a black periodical and social commentary, he cism and lectured widely.
Since taking office last Neal says he has moved [TEXT ILLEGIBLE]