The Man Who Saved the NEA

Businessman-poet Dana Gioia has steered the once-moribund arts agency in mostly mainstream directionsand it's thriving

Soon after Dana Gioia took over as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts three and a half years ago, he began a project that would encourage U.S. troops and their families to write about their wartime experiences. The idea was to try to capture, in a world of instant messages and phone calls, some permanent record of their lives.

It sounds innocuous enough. But the effort was, in fact, a big departure for the NEA. For one thing, Gioia had initiated the idea himself. Typically, the NEA reacts to grant proposals.

The project's audience—the military—was also one the NEA had never focused on before. And it was funded in partnership with Boeing (BA), a first as well. The essays and letters have now been published in a Random House anthology, Operation Homecoming. And the NEA is bringing in opera and musical theater companies to perform at 39 bases in the U.S. as well.

For Gioia's NEA, these are much more than a pair of successful programs. They are evidence that the Endowment, against all odds, is once again thriving.

Weird Art

Back in the mid-1990s, conservative members of Congress, particularly Newt Gingrich, intended to abolish the NEA. Painting the Endowment as a way of getting taxpayers to foot the bill of the avant-garde, they voiced outrage at examples of government-funded outre art, including the homoerotic photography of Robert Mapplethorpe and a crucifix suspended in urine by Andres Serrano.

In the end, the Endowment survived, but it was battered and bruised. Its annual budget, as high as $176 million in 1992, had been cut back to $98 million. Congress limited the Endowment's scope, eliminating direct grants to most artists and requiring that 40% of its budget (after expenses) go to the states, to be divvied up by local arts groups.

So when Gioia (pronounced JOY-uh) arrived in Washington in February, 2003, it's not too surprising he was quickly advised to keep a low profile. He was well known in intellectual circles, but a Washington neophyte.

In those early months on the cocktail party circuit, invariably a "wise old man" would offer advice: Lay low. "You can't change the situation," Gioia remembers them counseling him. "The inside opinion was that the institution was impossibly mired in the past." Ambitious and highly visible programs like Operation Homecoming were exactly what Gioia was told not to undertake.

Politically Astute

But Gioia felt, in every bone of his body, that he should do the opposite of what he was being told. Raised by working-class parents in Hawthorne, Calif., Gioia, 55, is both an accomplished poet and a Stanford MBA who helped rejuvenate the Jell-O brand at General Foods before leaving to write full-time in 1992.

The marketer in him felt strongly that the NEA should make its presence felt, show its impact, sell its importance. Gioia believed he could best revive the agency by explicitly serving the voting taxpayer—not just the arts community—and he made an early, politically astute promise to fund at least one project in every congressional district. He launched a series of national initiatives that few could object to: the military programs, Shakespeare in American Communities, a national recitation contest called Poetry Out Loud, and a push in 120 communities called The Big Read.

Not everyone saw the opportunities. His own staff, for example, was "caught off guard" by the idea of mixing the military and the opera, says Wayne Brown, the NEA's director of music and opera.

Fewer Readers

Brown initially guessed half a dozen opera companies would be interested. Twenty-four signed up. Arts writers criticized the new focus as overly mainstream. A.O. Scott, a film critic for The New York Times (NYT), has written that "once embattled," the NEA under Gioia is "now emasculated."

The chairman's defense: that there is no typical grant among the 2,000 that the NEA awards each year, that they are given out on artistic excellence alone, and that many are indeed to new and challenging arts groups. He also has bigger worries, he says, especially sharp declines in reading and indications of audience disenchantment with some live arts performances, like dance.

In a way, Gioia is echoing at the NEA an "arts for the mainstream" message he's argued within the poetry community for many years. It's a philosophy rooted in his personal history. When he was born, his father was driving a cab, his mother worked as a phone operator. From the age of 9 he'd spend downtime working bit jobs on his uncles' construction projects.

Sicilian on his father's side, Mexican on his mother's, he early on was indoctrinated into "a kind of male religion of work." Gioia knew at a young age that he wanted to be an artist, and by 19 had chosen poetry over music as his form. The first in his family to attend college, he graduated from Stanford University in 1973 and ventured east to Harvard University for further studies, imagining he would teach comparative literature and write poetry on the side.

"Broader Life Experience"

But Gioia found he disliked the cloistered academic world and the fact that he was being trained to write a kind of poetry his own family would never enjoy. "It's bad as a society if you have all your poets at a university. There should be a broader life experience open to writers," he says. "I was being taught a professional language that was spoken by about 600, 700 people in the world."

When he decided to leave Harvard to study business at Stanford, most of his professors couldn't understand his decision to abandon a promising academic career. But Gioia saw himself following poets like T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens, who had worked in commerce and wrote on the side. His questions about the system would crystallize in one of his most famous and debated writings, a 1991 essay for The Atlantic, "Can Poetry Matter?" in which he argues the form has become too elitist.

While most people are happy to walk away from failure, Gioia likes to joke he has a "pathological drive to walk away from success." The next time would be 15 years later, after a highly successful run as a brand manager at General Foods that began in 1977.

He had been attracted to business as a way to maximize his knack for getting things done—honed editing the Stanford literary journal and his high school newspaper. But Gioia promised himself that he would keep reading and writing three hours a night, a goal he hasn't always met, though he has always written consistently.

Twice as Much

If nights were for writing, Gioia spent his days breathing life into brands previously being, in his words, "elegantly managed out of existence," including Jell-O and Kool-Aid. His team's introduction of Jell-O Jigglers, a project for kids that used twice as much Jello to make something that set in one hour instead of three, turned around 20 years of stagnating sales.

To Gioia, the brilliance of the product was the opportunity it gave the modern mom, who's often working and always busy, to make Jell-O a fun project done with her children, rather than a chore to add to so many others. He credits those insights to his ability to think creatively, stoked by the evenings devoted to writing poetry.

"Everyone's waiting for that period in life when they have lots of free time, lots of energy, and no distractions," says Gioia. "That's called death. You've got to find a way of working in a crowded life with other priorities and constant distraction."

Gioia finally made writing his full-time job in 1992, after he and his wife Mary, a fellow Stanford MBA, went through the trauma of losing an infant child to SIDS. But he credits his success in business to his continued work as an artist, the fact that he had developed the disciplines of creative thinking.

Prestigious Award

And just as he worries that poetry has become too rarified, he thinks business, too, has become overly quantitative. To his mind, the absence of creative thinking in business is a crisis for corporations today.

"When we're 15 years old we do all these various things—sports, music, this, that, and the other. But as we get older we keep narrowing," says Gioia, "By keeping the creative part of my mind alive and alert and by essentially seeing society and humanity through a different perspective, I was able to see business problems and address them differently."

Although Gioia has had creative success—his 2002 collection of poems, Interrogations at Noon, won the prestigious American Book Award—he retains the manner and comportment of a businessman. Dashing around Washington most days in a typical blue suit, white shirt and tie, hair cut short, he could easily be mistaken for any corporate executive in for a day of lobbying, though he has a lot more to say.

He's as happy debating the nitty gritty of how to gain momentum for the Big Read as he is talking jazz with a gathering of state art councils, or watching a Shakespeare skit at a fund-raiser five seats down from first lady Laura Bush. He has a knack for peppering his comments with everything from classical quotations to the intricacies of the dialects in which Spanish television is broadcast, yet he never seems pompous.

Good Data

He's also happy to poke fun at himself and his erudite interests, telling with relish the story of the great distress of his sons Ted, 17, and Mike, 13, when they learned he had been at a gathering of high-achieving Latinos at the White House with a bunch of famous baseball players, almost none of whose names he could recall.

Gioia's efforts may be paying off for the NEA, but he's not backing down on his one-man marketing campaign. He never visits a member of Congress without a list of grants made in his or her district and a printout of every high school there that uses the NEA's educational materials.

He likes to mention the names of teachers who requested those materials, since young Hill staffers often recognize them. "Good business decisions are made with good data," Gioia explains. He also makes sure the product is part of the pitch, often opening these meetings by reading a poem of his own or another writer's.

The data, combined with the NEA's focus on programs with patriotic themes, helped increase the NEA's budget to $124.4 million last year. That's up 7.5% from the level when Gioia came in.

Boeing Bravos

Even more surprising is that Gioia will get the same amount this year under Bush's proposed budget—even though the budget includes $183 billion in nonmilitary cuts over the next five years. The House of Representatives has approved an additional $5 million for the NEA, though a final budget is still not set.

Last month, President Bush declared his intention to renominate Gioia for another four years, though he probably will step down when Bush's term ends. And it's not only the politicians who like what Gioia has done so far. Companies like Boeing and phone giant Verizon Communications (VZ) are embracing the chance to work with the NEA.

After several years of success on Operation Homecoming, "we trust them so much, we give them our money and say, 'Just tell us what you're doing with it,'" says Pat Riddle, director of branding and advertising for Boeing Integrated Defense Systems. And the artists who continue to benefit admire him as well. Ben Donnenberg, artistic director of Shakespeare Festival/LA, a grant beneficiary, describes the NEA as "alive now. It was a moribund agency, and he has transformed it magically." Well, more methodically than magically, but in the NEA's case a little artistic license is always in order.

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