"While I want to state in no uncertain terms that the NEA is not a political agency and that when art becomes propaganda I lose all interest in it, I also want everyone to know that the days of a defensive NEA are over."
New NEA chief Landesman sketches an encouraging agenda and addresses the challenges the org faces but downplays the danger of revived culture-war attack on arts funding in today's LA Times interview. The jury remains out, of course, but I'm prepared to give the man who cajoled a great musical out of Roger Miller the benefit of the doubt.
UPDATE: The full text of Rocco's speech at Grantmakers in the Arts National Conference is here. It's hard not to be stirred by the following excerpt, particularly the references to his own theater background:
I've been at the NEA eight weeks and already I have my own litany: the NEA is funding porn in California, the agency has become a propagandist for the Obama Administration programs, and to truly add insult to injury, we've been told, vis-ý-vis our share of the stimulus money, that we in the arts don't even work.
One congressman summed up this view perfectly when he stated, "How can we spend 50 million dollars on the National Endowment for the Arts when we could spend that money creating real jobs like building roads?" I should pause here to note that that $50 million is one six-thousandth of one percent of the money in the stimulus bill. But more importantly, if you are, say, a musician who through long study and practice and talent has risen to play first violin in a symphony orchestra, please understand that although you have two kids to put through college, you don't have a real job. Discouraging? Just a little.
But here's the thing. The rational and appropriate response is the wrong one. The right response is the irrational and inappropriate one: Optimism. I will elaborate.
My first interview in the White House for the job of Chairman of the NEA was with Valerie Jarrett. I did a rather odd thing. I brought to the interview a prop (I'm a theater guy), which I placed down on the table in front of me. It was a book written 3 decades ago by a zoologist, Lionel Tiger. The title was: "Optimism. The Biology of Hope." This book made what now seems to me to be an obvious point: that optimism is a core survival mechanism of the species. It may be unrealistic, misguided, maybe even irrational, but vital. It is hardwired into our DNA. Every day we make decisions because we assume--often foolishly and mistakenly--a positive outcome. We get married, have children, buy stocks, bet on horses, change jobs, you name it.
I'm a theatrical producer. Fewer than 20% of the shows that open on Broadway earn back their investment, it is an absolutely terrible business and the people who invest in it know that. So why do they do it? Because they're optimistic.
Which brings me to President Obama, our Optimist in Chief. He is a writer, an artist but we'll come to that later. His second book had a title that would resonate with Lionel Tiger: "The Audacity of Hope". This is much more than a felicitous phrase that he found in a sermon: it is the manifesto of this presidency and will lay the groundwork for the most arts-supportive administration since Roosevelt.
I'll revise what I said above: The jury is in, as far as I'm concerned. I think we've got the right man at the NEA. RTWT.