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NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman Downplays Importance of His Own Agency (with video)

NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman, delivering opening remarks yesterday at an arts-education panel in Newark, NJ
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

More than three years after becoming chairman of the what (if Mitt Romney is elected President) could be the lame-duck National Endowment for the Arts, Rocco Landesman still has foot-in-mouth disease. (You may still wince at the memory of his Peoria flub at the very beginning of his largely uncontroversial tenure at the federal arts agency.)

Yesterday, when I briefly chatted with Rocco (after identifying myself and pointing my digital tape recorder at him) he muffed an opportunity, which I had purposefully handed him, to defend the importance of his agency’s role against those who would zero its budget.

We were at an arts-education conclave at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, NJ, where he had just spoken about the importance of arts education and of NEA’s role in supporting it. He and NEA’s arts education director, Ayanna Hudson, spoke as if their agency would last forever, saying nothing during the public program regarding the distinct possibility that this and the rest of NEA’s work may soon be cut short, if Mitt Romney is elected and makes good on his pledge to kill that federal agency.

Speaking: Ayanna Hudson, NEA’s arts education director
Listening: Panel moderator Clement Price, Rutgers University history professor
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

So I buttonholed Landesman afterwards with two brief questions, confidently expecting a ringing oration on why axing the NEA would be unthinkable, or at least undesirable.

Instead, I got this:

Rosenbaum: Can you speak to the issue of what’s going to happen to the arts in this country if the NEA is zeroed?

Landesman: Well, I think we’re a small enough agency that I don’t think necessarily it’s going to have that powerful an effect [emphasis added]. What we are, more than a funding organization, is a platform, a bully pulpit. And I think that’s our great value. [That might come as a surprise to the many grateful recipients of NEA’s financial support.] I would hate to lose that pulpit to be an advocate for arts education everywhere.

Rosenbaum: Since this is a neck-a-neck battle for the Presidency, are you doing anything to foster connections with the Republican side?

Landesman: We have conversations across the aisle every day. I think support for the arts is not a partisan issue. I think there’s support for the arts across the political spectrum and we’re going to keep that conversation going. [Even with a Presidential candidate who has repeatedly and unequivocally stated that under a Romney Administration, the NEA would be eliminated?]

Given my own strong support for NEA’s longevity, I gave thought to discreetly deleting this exchange from my recorder, so as not to give ammunition to anti-NEA hitmen. But journalistic imperatives prevailed: It’s not my proper role to censor what’s newsworthy.

This lack of ardor for his grant-making agency made me wonder whether Landesman might be “seeking new challenges” next year, even if Obama is reelected. So I posed that question to Jamie Bennett, NEA’s director of communications, who replied:

Not a clue. We have all said we will wait and have those conversations on Nov. 7, when we know whether we have an option.

For now, below are CultureGrrl Video excerpts from what Landesman said yesterday regarding arts education and its need to impose more rigorous “standards and assessment” [aka student testing]. He added that “It may be time to stop investing as much effort in figuring out what else works, and doubling down on what already works.”

For eloquence in defense of governmental arts and humanties support, we must turn to the subsequent comments by Clement Price, Rutgers University history professor (and husband of Newark Museum director Mary Sue Sweeney Price), who moderated the four-person panel discussion that followed Landesman’s opening comments.

Clement Price, Rutgers University history professor
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

A member of Obama’s NEA/NEH Review Team during the transition period after the last Presidential election, Price yesterday noted that the Culture Wars aren’t over and described how “the inherent freedom of unencumbered artistic expression coincides with the nation’s great leaps forward in democratic life and democratic sensibilities”:

an ArtsJournal blog