Pugilistic NEA Head Will Testify Arts Create Jobs: Commentary

Rocco Landesman
National Endowment for the Arts chairman Rocco Landesman. Photographer: Keyur Khamar/Bloomberg

Republicans have declared war on federal support for the arts (again). The National Endowment for the Arts is facing massive budget cuts (again).

“I’m having a ball,” says NEA chairman Rocco Landesman. “The arts are now part of domestic policy.”

This may come as news to domestic-policy wonks in other government agencies. But Landesman, 63, says that since taking over the perennially underfunded agency in August 2009 “we have gained a seat at the domestic policy planning table.”

To substantiate his claim, he points to joint initiatives with the departments of Education, Housing and Urban Development, and Transportation, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency.

Those programs -- several at the $100 million level -- will make housing and studio space available to artists in downtown redevelopment projects. They also include the NEA in establishing “sustainable communities.”

The project closest to the chairman’s heart is the new $5 million Our Town initiative. Linking urban planning, design, public-private partnerships and arts support in development projects around the country, it epitomizes Landesman’s determination to make an economic case for public arts support.

“This is a big win for the arts,” he said. On April 6 the cowboy-booted chairman will make his case before Congress. That’s when discussion begins about arts funding in the 2012 fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.

Never one to shy away from critics, he heads into the hearing buoyed, no doubt, by the fact that “The Book of Mormon,” the biggest hit of the Broadway season to date, just opened in one of his theaters.

$25 Million Cut

For next year, President Barack Obama chopped NEA funding, already an embarrassing pittance, to $146 million from $161 million. But we’re not yet done with FY2011. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives has troops calling for the immediate dismantling of arts programs and such invaluable contributors to quality of life as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio.

On April 8, Congress will vote to approve the budget or stay open for business while continuing to negotiate, or shut down the government. The long knives have been out for the arts endowment, with calls to cut an additional $20.5 million or more.

Landesman says he’s gotten support from Democratic Representatives Jim Moran of Virginia, Louise Slaughter of New York and Patrick J. Tiberi of Ohio. A significant addition to this group, he says, is Representative Mike Simpson. The outspoken Republican from Idaho chairs the House appropriations subcommittee that will set his budget.

Playing in Peoria

Illinois Representative Aaron Schock was one of 23 Republicans to vote against the proposed amendment slashing funds. This is what passes these days for bravery.

Among the projects supported most recently by the NEA were grants to the Omaha Symphony for outreach, including 22 workshops and 55 performances ($15,000). And in the Bronx, New York, to the DreamYard Drama Project for an out-of-school program for teens (a $37,000 matching grant). Critics would get rid of everything.

Landesman insists he’s unfazed by the threats.

“We’ve gotten so much done so fast,” he said. “It’s the opposite of what I expected. I want to be graded -- and the NEA to be graded -- on what we bring into the field.”

Asked why the government should underwrite art that some might find offensive, Shock lived up to his name with this comment to the Peoria Journal Star:

Public Service

“One thing you learn in public service is that anything you do in public service can be objectionable. They may not like where the highway was built. You’re never going to make everyone happy.”

Such reasonableness made him an instant friend of Landesman, who will need all the support he can muster in the coming weeks.

“My hope is that we’re not going to be cut disproportionately,” Landesman said. “I don’t sense that will happen. I think we’ll be OK.”

His mantra lately has been “points of intersection.”

That means providing places where art comes down from the mountain and meets real people. For example, “Blue Star Museums,” an NEA program that gives the families of active servicemen free admission to museums from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

The cost is minimal -- average museum admission nationwide is $8 -- while the impact is great, though undoubtedly some children are being exposed to nudes. Does John Boehner know about this?

(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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