Rocco Landesman’s departure from the NEA and Barry Hessenius’s interviews of Rocco and his Chief of Staff, Jamie Bennett, provide an occasion to reflect a bit on Mr. Landesman’s legacy in federal arts policy and advocacy. (Disclosure: Jamie has been very good to me in providing support, advice, access to NEA staff, a brief “meet and greet” with his boss, and the Foreword that Rocco wrote for my book.)
I suspect (hope) that the lasting impact of Mr. Landesman’s tenure will not focus on the Peoria or “supply and demand” kerfuffles. (The former was just silly, while the latter did spark worthwhile discussion.) Instead, his work to bring the arts out of their interior world and into cross-sector partnerships (Dept. of Defense, HHS, HUD, the Dept. of Agriculture, etc.) and support of robust research should be what we remember. (Creative placemaking, the third of his areas of focus is probably the “big dog” of his accomplishments now, but I am a bit leery of its “flavor du jour” nature and the potential for economic development interests to overwhelm the cultural components. Plus, it can easily be understood as a subset of the cross-sector partnerships framework.)
But I think the root of my appreciation for Mr. Landesman’s leadership of the NEA is in his “no nonsense” understanding of the relationship between the arts and the non-arts world. I suspect this is comes from his experience as a Broadway producer. Hard-headed realism is a prerequisite for success there. My favorite quote from his Barry’s Blog interview was:
One of the things that I found a little dismaying in this job is that for most people in this country, “cultural policy” is a synonym for “give us more money and get out of our way.” Far too often, the conversation stops there. But there are big issues that need addressing.
I would quibble about “most people,” but his critique of a sense of entitlement inside the arts world is one worth taking to heart. I am a bit of a Johnny One-Note on this issue, but more work needs to be done inside our community to further public value as seen from the public’s point of view.
I was particularly struck by Mr. Bennett’s expression of surprise that Landesman’s NEA tenure was not focused on his core discipline, theater. All of us had assumed it would be. That he worked from a much bigger perspective is something for which we can all be grateful.
Thank you, Mr. Landesman, and fare well in the next phase of your life.