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Landesman Exits the NEA, Taking A Surprise Bow

Rocco Landesman has left the building. The now-former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts departed the other day, but not without granting an exit interview to The Washington Post. Interesting choice — maybe The New York Times didn’t ask (it probably didn’t) but as I recall Landesmann made a small mistake at the start of his term by giving the NYT his first interview instead of the Post, which of course is what everyone in Washington reads first. He learns.

RoccoLandesmanLandesman — not my favorite NEA chief, as Real Clear Arts readers know — exits taking a bow, according to the Post. Despite early gaffes, he earned credit by building ties to other federal agencies, which had more money, and eliciting new support from the private sector for investing in arts places in various communities. According to the Post:

The resulting “ArtPlace” consortium of foundations, financial institutions and federal agencies, including NEA, has awarded 80 grants to 46 communities, totaling nearly $27 million.

More than half of that is new money, says Robert Lynch, head of Americans for the Arts…

That’s not bad, if only a drop in the ocean in terms of money.

While I don’t agree with everything he said or did by a long shot, I give Landesman credit for being practical. Despite early comments about restoring grants to individual artists, for example, he recognized it wasn’t going to happen and moved on to other things — but not without finding a small way around the restriction.

There’s been way too much hand-wringing about that particular aspect of NEA funding, anyway. As long as the battle lines are formed around that issue, NEA funding is not going to grow. And maybe it shouldn’t — that’s heresy to some people in the arts, I know, but it’s time to rethink it.



  1. Steven Miller says:

    Rocco was no socco and frankly I am not sorry to see him go. I found him to suffer from what a lot of so-called arts leaders suffer from when they get nice jobs = huge egos full of talk. When he blamed nonprofit arts organizations for causing their own problems and suggested they get their acts together if they hope to succeed, i was agast. Whoever heads the NEA or any similar organizatioin should be a champion not a chastizer of arts organizations and the thousands who work hard every day to help them fulfill their missioins. Let’s hope the next NEA chair has some love of the arts and is not afraid to say it loud and clear.

    • As a key-note speaker at the Arts Presenter’s annual conference early in his tenure, I asked if he would encourage the President to be more visible at arts events, especially as he traveled the world, seeing that Bush was never seen at a world museum nor live performing arts event. I pointed out that by merely ‘showing up’ would go a long way in demonstrating support and sending a big message. Rocco’s reply was, ‘well, he did attend a b ’way show last week.” The comment demonstrated the long learning curve ahead of him. Now that he has exited, the question, what did he really learn and what is his legacy. What is the role of NEA in today’s environment? Is that a possible discussion? I happen to live in a city where the arts budget (and its public profile and image) is larger than that of the entire country.

      • Leonard Jacobs says:

        Mr. Carzasty, that was an excellent question, and I’m curious to know how Landesman would answer it now. That said, your question would have been nearly impossible for Landesman to answer, in particular at the start of his tenure. True, he could have said “yes,” and made it clear that one of his priorities would be putting the arts more forcefully and publicly on the President’s agenda; equally true, blurting out “Well, he did attend a Broadway show last week” is a little glib. But I think we have to realize that it’s one thing to answer a good question like yours in the affirmative, as we all would have liked him to do, and it’s another thing to actually put such a promise into action. The simple logistics of the President’s time and schedule dictate a great deal. I suspect whether Landesman answered your question as we in the arts world would have liked him to or not, the White House views people like Michelle Obama as easier to deploy toward the service of the arts than the President. Landesman could absolutely have been savvier, but from what I can tell, based on your anecdote, he wasn’t prepared for the question and clearly didn’t want to mess up the answer. It wasn’t a perfect reply, to be sure, but I can sort of sympathize the challenge posed by a very good question. (Such is the essence of journalism, by the way. Would we had more of that.)

        • Peter and Leonard, you may be interested to recall that I made the same point in May, 2010, in a post entitled “The White House and the Visual Arts: Found Lacking,” in which I contrasted Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who while on a state visit to Berlin had visited a Frida Kahlo exhibition with the Obamas, and in an article I wrote for Forbes in January, 2009, in which I wrote:
          “Obama could provide monumental support for the arts if he became an avid and public consumer of them. Just as his affinity for basketball is expected to create new fans for the sport, his regular appearance at the opera, at classical music concerts and at the National Gallery of Art would do wonders for America’s arts institutions. Having Michelle at his side will leave an even greater impression, given her roots in working-class America.

          Support for local arts institutions is even more essential. When Obama visits, say, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in the state that gave his campaign life, why not stop in to see the studio used by American Gothic painter Grant Woods, along with the standard factory tour? When he has a stop in San Francisco or Houston, how about an evening at the ballet?”

          It hasn’t happened.

    • Leonard Jacobs says:

      Sorry, Mr. Miller, but Landesman was perfectly right to speak the truth to the nonprofit arts world. It was—and it remains—my steadfast and unapologetic observation that the screams and howls and hysterical cries of foul very often emanated from precisely those institutions and standard-bearers whose maniacal refusal to acknowledge the tectonic shifts in the sector, whose refusal to investigate alternative methods of running their businesses, led to many of the chronic problems that are still hobbling the community today. Perhaps Landesman was a flawed champion because he refused or didn’t know how to slather the media with feel-good savvy. But the fact that he didn’t embrace decades-old received wisdom does not make him a failure, either. When you call him as a “chastizer,” you’re almost certainly referring, in part, to the supply/demand kerfuffle. But there, too, Landesman told the unpleasant, un-pretty truth—truth that the nonprofit arts world did need to hear, does need to hear and will need to hear in the future, sad as that is. Allowing for the possibility that we may respectfully agree to disagree, what I cannot understand is your implication that he had no love of the arts. The man, for all his flaws, is an entrepreneur who believes entrepreneurial principles, spirit and thinking have a place at the nonprofit arts table. I respectfully submit that an equal shame is the fact that the nonprofit world was, is and will remain too offended by the ugly truth of his message to learn, if you’ll pardon the pun, how to effectively profit from it.

  2. Perhaps the new NEA cheif should put together a think tank comprised of both non-profit and profit CEO’s to see exactly why non-profit arts organizations are failing at such an alarming rate. If you were to ask me, I’d say that too many symphony orchestras, for instance, are top heavy in costly management personnel who know little or nothing about classical music.

    Another prime area for ALL to “think tank” is how to get funded and non-funded arts education back into our elementary and secondary schools. We’ve already lost several generations to an exclusively “pops” culture with the results evident at box-office and grants giving funding sources.

  3. One question that seems to be not widely discussed nor it seems to have been a concern of Mr. Landesman is the situation that most NEA money goes to organizations that are already financially secure. In fact, most would continue fine without the money. Grants are often given for projects that were designed to receive the money and not necessary to the function of the groups. Much of the money goes to salaries of those who design the grants. Clearly they are self serving in nature. I feel that it would be better if the money were used to create opportunities for the arts such funds for rent, heat, insurance, buildings, equipment, etc. This would require the employees to be fiscally prudent in order to find money for their own salaries. I believe that Mr. Landesman criticism of non profits is based on the results of the current grant situation that he supervised.

  4. Even with recent drastic cuts, the arts in EU countries are much better supported by their governments compared to the US and the NEA. After administrative costs and the support mandated by law to each of states, there is hardly anything left of the NEA grant making to be considered a national “policy.” And the NEA continues to be a lightning rod for conservative legislators – Landesman couldn’t reinstitute grants to individual artists. It is not that the Federal government doesn’t support the arts. Congress’s allocation to the NEA pales compared to funding of The Smithsonian, the National Gallery and the Kennedy Center. The implicit Federal arts policy is to allocate significant and meaningful amounts to a select few national arts institutions. In my opinion, the NEA is more trouble than it is worth; it continues to search for relevance and its grants process requires a great deal of effort for little return to many arts organizations. Forget about the next NEA Chair, the NEA is a distraction that should be eliminated.


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