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Michael Dorf, Yates Protégé, Said to Be a Frontrunner for NEA Chairmanship

Michael Dorf

I don’t know Michael Dorf, the attorney reported by Allan Jalon of the LA Times to be a frontrunner for the post of chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. But any friend of the late Congressman Sidney Yates, the best political advocate the arts ever had, is a friend of mine.

Dorf’s bio on the website of his law firm, includes a six-year stint as special counsel to the Illinois Democrat, for whom “he helped to develop national policies on arts
funding.” Orchestra consultant Drew McManus, on his Adaptistration blog (from which I got the link to Dorf’s bio), says this:

I am familiar with Mr. Dorf’s work here in the Chicagoland area and I
feel he would be an excellent chairman of the NEA. He brings an
unusually high level of understanding about the complexities of arts
issues from a legal, financial, artistic, and administrative

I have long believed that seasoned experts who are savvy about administration and government relations, not artists (such as writer Dana Gioia and actress Jane Alexander, past NEA chairmen), should be the heads of government arts agencies. The job requires not just commitment to the arts, charm and the ability to generate good will, but also well honed administrative skills and, above all, political smarts. Dorf has represented President-elect (for one more day) Obama in matters related to election law and campaign finance compliance. So he’s already got that political base covered.

It is also critically important that the NEA chairman understand his primary constituency to be artists and cultural organizations of professional caliber and the audiences for their work—not educational organizations, not amateur groups, not labor unions. The LA Times’ report of several favorable responses to Dorf’s possible appointment makes me a little uneasy on that score. But the views of the endorsers do not necessarily represent those of the endorsee.

What I particularly like is Dorf’s role as adjunct professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he teaches Arts Administration 5505—a graduate course in Law, Politics and the Arts. From the description, it sounds like its professor may well have mastered the curriculum for the NEA administrator’s diploma:

“Law, Politics And The Arts” provides the student with an understanding
of the legal system and the political process as they relate to the
arts. The first part of the course is a survey of the American legal
system and laws affecting arts organizations. The second part of the
course explores the philosophical foundations and the practical
experience of the relationship of government and the political process
to the arts.

His personal “practical experience of the relationship of government and the political process to the arts” may soon become a lot deeper.

an ArtsJournal blog