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How Will NEA’s Landesman Play in Peoria? Congressman’s Spokesperson (and readers) Speak Out

Aaron Schock,  freshman Republican Congressman from Peoria

Rocco Landesman, the new chairman of the
National Endowment for the Arts, virtually guaranteed that there would be
backlash against his plans for that agency by shooting from the lip before he had located his Washington office’s paper clips. Sometimes the best management style (especially as a government bureaucrat) is to start a new job by patiently elucidating one’s ideas and seeking to build consensus, rather than by precipitously ramming change down people’s throats. I like Landesman’s plans (most of them, anyway). But I disagree, so far, with his method for realizing them.

CultureGrrl readers (below) have already weighed in with objections to his merit-based, rather than geographically driven, priorities for grants—a shift in emphasis that I happen to agree with, even while cringing at his rhetoric.

But first, let’s go to the Republican Congressman from Peoria, proud product of that city’s school system, who (at 27) is the youngest member of Congress. Landesman, as you will remember, made some unflattering remarks about that Congressman’s town in his interview with the NY TimesRobin Pogrebin.

So, is Rep. Aaron Schock shocked? I wasn’t able to get direct comment from the Congressman himself, but here’s what his communications director, Dave Natonski, had to say:

I find it ironic that the incoming head of the NEA would belittle the contributions of Peoria to the arts community. The term, “Will it play in Peoria?” was created during the height of the Vaudeville arts renaissance, in which, of course, Peoria played a major role.

Perhaps Mr. Landesman would benefit from a trip to Peoria to see a production of “Rent” at the Eastlight Theater and learn about Peoria’s historical contributions to the humanities. Additionally, if the Steppenwolf and the Goodman are so superior, they should be self-sustaining.

It seems to me, Mr. Landesman makes a strong case for weaning them off taxpayer funding.

That’s just the kind of reaction from a Republican Congressman (or his spokesperson) that Landesman should strive not to provoke. I think the new NEA chairman had better take Natonski up on his invitation, even if he’s already seen enough performances of “Rent.”

Here’s the (more temperate) commentary from CultureGrrl readers.

Michael Ching, Artistic and General Director, Opera Memphis, writes:

Most NEA grants are already more predicated on excellence than
geography. If it gets any MORE so, I think the NEA will lose support
from states with more modest arts communities.

Arts funding could
always be channeled to state arts agencies instead of through the NEA.
My company, Opera Memphis has been fortunate to get small NEA grants
for the last two years, but I know of a colleague who says he has a
mind to complain about the NEA to his Congressperson and Senator
because his company can’t seem to get funded. He is from a state where
the population is small and it’s easier to get to his Senator.

regional company cannot measure up to the Metropolitan/Chicago Lyric
Opera standard for excellence in our field. But if art is
fulfilling a need, then isn’t that need just as great in every state
and community?
I think that the case for excellence vs. geographical distribution has
already been carefully and delicately balanced by the NEA and Mr.
Landesman had best be careful lest the arts communities in “Peorias”
end up in revolt.

Composer William Osborne writes:

Concerning the geographic distribution of NEA funds, we might remember
that culture is by its very nature local. I have lived for
the last 30 years in Europe, where public funding for the arts is often 50 to 80
times that in the USA. Europeans thus have a great deal of experience
managing public funding systems. They take pride in their opera houses
like La Scala and Covent Garden or their Philharmonics in cities like
Berlin, Vienna, and Amsterdam, but they make certain that any city with
a population over about 500,000 has a fulltime, year-round opera house,
spoken theater, and symphony orchestra.

For Europeans, local cultural
expression is far more important and meaningful to people than the
famous institutions in big cities. Local culture expresses their own
identity and ties them to their communities in very meaningful ways
that are almost beyond quantification. It’s a bit like saying Denver
didn’t really need a football team because they could watch teams in
Chicago or Dallas on TV, or that we need only one newspaper, the NY Times, since it covers “all the news fit to print.” (No need
for our dear CultureGrrl.)

The necessity for well-funded, locally
based cultural expression in the high arts is patently obvious—except, of course, for New Yorkers like Landesman who think the West
Coast of the United States is on the Hudson River.

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