I’ve written before about how excellent the books/art coverage is at Bloomberg.com, and how much this surprises me. (It shouldn’t, I know.) Still, when I came across this editorial by Jeremy Gerard about the new NEA chairman Rocco Landesman, I assumed it would be some sort of anti-arts funding diatribe . . . but no!
[Landesman] told the Times that he has a new slogan for the agency: “Art Works.” The phrase, he said, is “something muscular that says, We matter.” As in: We matter “as an economic driver,” the Times explained.
Those words make Landesman seem less like a game-changer than someone versed in a tired and dubious argument that goes like this: The arts should be funded because they generate income by providing jobs and supporting ancillary businesses, as when people attending concerts or Broadway shows hire babysitters, go out to dinner, park in garages and so forth.
If that’s the criterion for funding, however, the NEA should just support the Broadway producers and movie studios that employ the most people and sell the most tickets. They “work” on an economic level. Even there, however, it’s a flawed argument, because the numbers will never match those of businesses — legal, financial, service — that also provide customers for garages and restaurants, and in much greater numbers.
Market-driven culture is all well and good, but it’s not what John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson had in mind when they laid the groundwork for a federal agency dedicated to the arts. They supported creativity that isn’t beholden to a bottom line. Not every artist will be Isaac Stern or Meryl Streep or Jennifer Bartlett, but for each one who makes it into the mainstream, a hundred more are struggling to move the form forward, creating a cultural identity. The payoff for encouraging them will rarely be measurable in economic terms.
So here’s a different strategy for the arts endowment. Take a leaf from the Broadway producers’ playbook. Create a public-private alliance to fund the NEA so it can really begin making the arts central to the lives of all Americans. Commercial producers pay publicly subsidized companies to get new shows on their feet before taking the plunge on Broadway. Such commingling used to be verboten; now it’s business-as-usual.
I say, do it on a grand scale. Just three commercial cultural industries — Hollywood studios, the recording industry and Broadway — together generate $20 billion in domestic sales annually, according to their trade associations. A minimally invasive tax of one-half of 1 percent would instantly add $100 million to the NEA’s coffers. [. . .]
Drop the motto, Rocco. Art matters, period.
I’m not sure how well something like this would work (although I am sure that every one of those industries would complain about such a tax, as would numerous Republican congresspeople), but it’s an interesting idea worth exploring. And any proposal that wants to make “arts central to the lives of all Americas” is cool with me.
From the NY Times article after he was confirmed:
But in his first sit-down interview since his nomination by President Obama, Mr. Landesman’s comments suggested that he may nevertheless raise hackles on Capitol Hill after he is sworn in in the next few days. Speaking recently in his office above the St. James Theater on West 44th Street, where Tony Awards abut baseball trophies — testament to his prowess as a producer and as a pitcher in the Broadway Show League — Mr. Landesman, 62, made clear that he has little patience for the disdain with which some politicians still seem to view the endowment, more than a decade after the culture wars that nearly destroyed it.
He was particularly angered, he said, by parts of the debate over whether to include $50 million for the agency in the federal stimulus bill, citing the comment by Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” in February, that arts money did not belong in the bill. That kind of thinking suggests that “artists don’t have kids to send to college,” Mr. Landesman said, “or food to put on the table, or medical bills to pay.”
In American politics generally, he added: “The arts are a little bit of a target. The subtext is that it is elitist, left wing, maybe even a little gay.”
And while he praised the way recent endowment chairmen have carefully rebuilt the agency’s political standing, Mr. Landesman — who is known more as an independent entrepreneur than as a diplomatic company man — said he was not planning to follow too closely in their footsteps. While Dana Gioia, his immediate predecessor, made a point of spreading endowment funds to every Congressional district, for example, Mr. Landesman said he expected to focus on financing the best art, regardless of location.
“I don’t know if there’s a theater in Peoria, but I would bet that it’s not as good as Steppenwolf or the Goodman,” he said, referring to two of Chicago’s most prominent theater companies. “There is going to be some push-back from me about democratizing arts grants to the point where you really have to answer some questions about artistic merit.”
“And frankly,” he added, “there are some institutions on the precipice that should go over it. We might be overbuilt in some cases.”
Oh, Peoria. Poor, poor Peoria. First you can’t even get a heartless corporate giant to name your minor league stadium and then you get picked on in the New York Times. The world is not just.
But seriously, this guy sounds like he’s going to screw with the status quo, which will make a lot of people nervous, may well backfire, or could help out the organizations that most need it. (cough Open Letter produces high quality art cough) Regardless, sounds like arts orgs are going to be in for a bit of a ride . . . and arts reporters should have some good material for the next few years.
Here are some of the other salient points from the article:
Mr. Landesman does believe that the agency should be “perceived as being everywhere,” he said. “But I don’t know that we have to be everywhere if the only reason for supporting an institution is its geography.”
On the subject of the endowment’s budget, too, Mr. Landesman did not hold back. Though he would not put a dollar figure on his own fiscal goals, he called the current appropriation of $155 million “pathetic” and “embarrassing.” And he seemed to imply dissatisfaction with increases proposed by Congress and by the president, which both fall short of the agency’s 1992 budget of $176 million.
I can think of a few other four-letter words for the size of the NEA budget, most of which end with “Republican.”
As for grants to individual artists — which were eliminated in 1996 after years of complaints from conservative legislators about the financing of controversial art — Mr. Landesman said he would reinstate them “tomorrow” if it were up to him. (It’s up to Congress.)
And most interesting:
He was less clear about the details of this ambitious agenda, though he talked about starting a program that he called “Our Town,” which would provide home equity loans and rent subsidies for living and working spaces to encourage artists to move to downtown areas.
“When you bring artists into a town, it changes the character, attracts economic development, makes it more attractive to live in and renews the economics of that town,” he said. “There are ways to draw artists into the center of things that will attract other people.”
As someone about to move to a decayed downtown, I’m all for this. Maybe he can find some funding (I think a million or so will do it) to buy all of downtown Detroit and make it into a artist utopia . . .
It still has to be approved by Congress, but Rocco Landesman has been appointed to serve as the next chairman of the NEA, a post most recently held by poet Dana Gioia.
I’m not much of a theatre-goer, so Landesman is new to me. Based on the info in the New York Times article, he sounds like a lot of fun:
Mr. Landesman, who would fill the post vacated by Dana Gioia, is expected to lobby hard for more arts money. But he is not famous for his skills as an administrator or diplomat. Rather, he is known for his energy, intellect and irreverent — and occasionally sharp-elbowed — candor.
In 2000, for example, he caused a stir by accusing nonprofit theaters of being too much like their commercial counterparts. And, as a producer of “The Producers,” Mr. Landesman created the controversial $480 premium ticket to combat scalpers.
And I love Tony Kushner’s over the top comment:
“It’s potentially the best news the arts community in the United States has had since the birth of Walt Whitman,” said the playwright Tony Kushner. “He’s an absolutely brilliant and brave and perfect choice for the job.”
Now let’s just hope that he keeps (or increases) the core funding for nonprofit publishing, audience development, and translation in place . . . Gioia created a lot of new literary initiatives that, although most didn’t directly fund publishers or writers, funneled a lot of endowment money into the “literature” category. I have to admit that I’m sort of worried about a discipline backlash, with literature money being redirected towards other arts . . . which is a chairman’s prerogative, but for the sake of nonprofit literature, hopefully the core funding available for presses like Open Letter remains unchanged. (This is probably a needless fear.)
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