10 August 09 | Chad W. Post

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 . . .


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