“And the beat goes on…………………………….”
INTERVIEW WITH NEA CHAIRMAN ROCCO LANDESMAN
BARRY: What do you hope to accomplish in the next year; what will you use as the criteria to measure your agency’s success?
ROCCO: Since I arrived at the NEA, you have heard me saying two words over and over again: “art works.”
And as I have often explained, I use these two words to mean three things: 1) “art works” are the output of artists; the paintings, plays, dance, songs, operas, and books that artists create; 2) “art works” on audiences; the stuff that artists create has an effect on audiences – it transports us, inspires us, provokes us, and ultimately changes us, and 3) “art works” reminds us that arts workers are real workers with real jobs who are part of the real economy.
I announced last fall in Brooklyn, New York, that I would be going on an art works tour to see how art works in different communities across our country, and I have now been to Peoria, Illinois; Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee; St. Louis, Missouri; right here in Washington, DC, and soon I will be heading off to Miami, Florida, and Detroit, Michigan.
On each visit, I have seen the same thing: when you bring the arts, artists, and arts organizations into the center of town, you change the ethos of that town. You certainly improve the quality of life, as people like living near cultural activity. But recently, I have been reading the work of Mark Stern, Susan Seifert, and Jeremy Nowak; and I learned that there are at least three other things that we can prove happen when the arts move – literally and figuratively – to the center of town:
1. The arts are a force for social cohesion and civic engagement. In communities with a strong cultural presence, people are much more likely to engage in civic activities beyond the arts. Community participation increases measurably results in more stable neighborhoods.
2. The arts make a major difference in child welfare. To quote Stern, et al., "Low income block groups with high cultural participation were more than twice as likely to have very low truancy and delinquency rates."
3. Art is a poverty fighter. Artists form clusters; cultural institutions are built; people gravitate to them; businesses follow; businesses hire; and the virtuous cycle continues with arts jobs leveraging other jobs. When you buy a ticket to see a play, you are supporting the actors on stage. But behind those actors are administrators, designers, ushers, stagehands, costume makers, and just outside the building are parking lot attendants, cooks, and waiters.
These lessons, combined with the past two-and-a-half decades of work by the Mayors Institute on City Design (http://www.micd.org/http://www.micd.org/), led us to create and announce “MICD25,” a grant initiative that makes up to $250,000 available to cities that are using the arts at the center of a plan to create and sustain a livable community.
Over the next year – and over the balance of President Obama’s presidency – you will see us focus on the themes that are part of this initiative: artists as entrepreneurs; artists as placemakers; and the arts as central to public spaces in cities and towns.
We will continue to work with mayors on this because they are our natural allies. They see every day the myriad ways that art works in their towns and cities. But I will also continue meeting with other agencies to see where we can work together and how existing programs and funding in those agencies can be used to support the arts.
In short, over the next 3 (and hopefully 7) years, you will see the NEA working to make sure that the arts are at the center of our country’s cities and towns, that the arts are included in domestic policy discussions, and that the arts are throughout our public schools. If we can do even one of those things, I think I will count my tenure a success. Hopefully, we will do all three.
BARRY: Do you plan to restore direct funding to individual artists?
ROCCO: In many ways, this is the question for any Chairman of the NEA. My answer is relatively straight forward and short: we are the National Endowment for the Arts, and one of the best ways to support the arts is to support artists. I know this in a personal way through my friend Michael Eastman, a photographer who received a grant from the NEA early in his career, and he still points to the importance of that support to his career.
And there are endless other stories from artists who received individual grants. But at the moment, the NEA is prevented from providing direct funding to artists in most circumstances. We do give literature fellowships to writers and poets, and we have annual honors through which we give support directly to folk and heritage, opera, and jazz artists. But that’s it.
Taking up this issue isn’t at the top of my list for the next year, and it is not anything that I can change unilaterally, but it is certainly something I hope to take up before I am done with this job.
BARRY : How is public investment in the arts different than private support?
ROCCO: On a certain level, it doesn’t differ at all. Foundations and corporations are grantmakers, and we at the NEA are grantmakers. In fact, we are the largest, national grantmaker in the arts and reach almost every community across the country.
But an NEA grant has an impact beyond its actual dollars. Because our grants are awarded through a process that uses nationally seated peer panels, when an organization receives NEA support, it is taken as a sort of good housekeeping seal of approval. You can be assured that an NEA supported project is of “national, regional, and/or field significance,” and you can be assured that our panels are charged with making their decisions based on two simple criteria: excellence and merit.
An NEA grant can act as a spotlight for an organization and leverage other support – not just because of the matching requirements around our grants, but because other funders often feel more comfortable investing their dollars alongside public support.
BARRY: Do you think that the formula that allocates forty percent of the NEA’s budget to the states on a per capita basis should remain in place?
To keep sports strong in this country, we need fathers (and mothers) to play catch with their kids in the backyard. We need gym classes. We need Little League teams. We need community and parks district leagues; we need farm teams; and we need Major League Baseball.
This food chain holds true for the arts as well. We need young people in this country to be able to experience the arts with the families, learn about the arts in school, get involved with local and community arts organizations, and eventually be able to participate in well known and highly professionalized arts institutions. Sometimes as artists, and sometimes as audience members.
As I mentioned earlier, the NEA invests in projects that have national and field significance. But in order to have a healthy arts community in this country, we need support for every part of the ecology it takes to support it. Our state arts agencies are able to be more closely connected with the local arts scene, and they can best make this investment. Partnering with the states is one of the most important ways the NEA helps to ensure that every American has access to the arts.
BARRY: I recently hosted a forum on my blog about the vision for and future of the NEA. Forum participants suggested that the agency move to address the needs of the arts infrastructure, and they suggested initiatives ranging from assistance in the improvement of basic and business organizational skills to the provision of technology, research, and professional development opportunities. How do you envision the NEA becoming involved; do you see a role for the NEA in this work? Perhaps the single most common suggestion from the forum was for the Endowment to expand its role as convener.
ROCCO: I want to thank you, Barry, for hosting those. We are actually using them as a jumping off point to inspire and provoke conversation within the NEA. One of our colleagues at the NEA read through the screens (and screens and screens…) of discussion and summarized each of the sessions. We have posted these summaries on the agency’s intranet and are encouraging colleagues to post comments, thoughts, and other response on an internal blog. We are also going to be doing some informal lunchtime discussions around the summaries of your forum because online technology is great, but it can never entirely replace actually being in a room with people.
As you know, I recruited Joan Shigekawa from The Rockefeller Foundation to be my senior deputy. One of her signatures as a grantmaker has always been to encourage conversation and shared thinking about innovation and the future. This impulse of Joan’s was readily apparent at this fall’s release of the NEA’s most recent Study of Public Participation in the Arts. Joan convened some 40 national service organizations and had them sit around a table with the NEA’s discipline directors to talk about the report, what it means for the arts, and how it should inform all of our work going forward. We webcast that session so that people from across the country could listen in to the conversation, and some 1,100 people across the country logged on to watch.
We will do everything we can to make sure Americans know that the doors, phones, and emails in the Old Post Office are wide open. We are encouraging everyone to engage with us in discussions about the future of the NEA and the directions of our grantmaking. Perhaps we might even be able to partner with you and WESTAF on a future forum about the NEA in which the actual NEA also participates.
BARRY: What do you view as the agency’s role in further promoting and facilitating advances for arts education in this country?
ROCCO: Arts education is one of the most important investments that this country can make to support the arts. Sometimes a young Belle Silverman sitting in her public school classroom in Brooklyn will grown up to be a Beverly Sills. Sometimes not. But even when that doesn’t happen, little Belle may grow up to be an arts teacher, a stage manager, an usher, a fundraiser, and hopefully, an audience member. To keep the arts going, we need all of those people and many more besides. Arts education helps ensure we will have them.
The first trip I took as NEA Chairman was to New Orleans. When I was there, we went to visit the Lusher School. Every day there begins with an assembly on the playground with an electric guitar and the kids singing and dancing to Fats Domino songs. From that point forward, the arts infuse every aspect of this magnet school. Yet despite that, Lusher isn’t really known as an arts school per se. It is known for its rigorous academics and the high achievement of its students.
This is where we should be headed as a country: the arts should be a fundamental part of any quality education. Americans for the Arts had a campaign some years back where they called for our schools to provide the four R’s: Reading, (w)Riting, (a)Rithmetic, and (a)Rt. I think that’s pretty much right.
BARRY: As part of such an effort and with your Broadway background and network of entertainment industry decision makers, would you consider brokering a meeting between leaders in the entertainment and nonprofit arts industries? …Such a change could mean moving toward project-based creativity and away from funding institutionally controlled creative processes.
ROCCO: I know of two major occasions when this has happened in the theatre – the First Annual Congress of Theatre met at Princeton in 1974 and convened the entire American theatre, from Broadway houses, to off- and off-off-Broadway companies, regional theatres, small collectives, etc., etc. As it happens, I covered that conference for The New York Times. And then almost three decades later, in 2000, ACT II (the second congress of theatres) met at Harvard. Ben Cameron (now at Doris Duke) and I have both written about ACT II (again in the Times), and it is interesting to look back on that, as neither of us was a grantmaker at the time.
There are lots of issues that come up around that intersection, but as the head of a public agency, I think specifically about the ways that the government has to support the commercial and the nonprofit. In general, the government supports commercial endeavors through tax incentives. Since nonprofits do not pay taxes, the same mechanisms do not work, and so we use subsidy. On a certain level, the NEA simply isn’t set up to work with the commercial sector.
However, that is too simple an answer. The average audience member doesn’t care about the mechanisms of support; s/he cares about the art being presented. It doesn’t matter if you are seeing Jimmy Scott at Jazz at Lincoln Center or at the Blue Note; it matters that you are seeing Jimmy Scott.
And audiences are increasingly able to curate their own arts experiences – from buying single songs on iTunes, to watching a single scene or even a shorter clip on a DVD, to running over to an art gallery when a friend tweets them about an opening that is especially worth attending.
If audiences are agnostic about the non/profit division, and if they are the ones in control of their own arts experiences, each discipline could only benefit from discussions with colleagues on both sides of the profit divide.
BARRY: Another oft made suggestion was that the NEA ought to develop better, deeper working relationships and collaborations with other federal agencies, and with other sectors. Where does this rank on your overall priority list?
ROCCO: This is absolutely at the top of my list, as collaborating with our sister agencies is central to ensuring that the arts have a role on the domestic policy agenda. When I spoke recently to the US Conference of Mayors, I said that I was a recovering Broadway producer, and know firsthand that theater is by far the most collaborative of the art forms.
I am happy to report that that same spirit of collaboration is a hallmark of this president’s administration. If there is a single, identifiable theme in this administration's domestic policy, it is that we need to do everything we can to promote complete, diverse, sustainable, livable communities. The federal agencies can only meet this challenge by working together.
I am meeting with Cabinet Secretaries and other colleagues, and we are discovering great potential for collaboration. Affordable artists housing might involve HUD. A city that wants to expand a limited tourist streetcar line into a real mode of public transportation connecting the arts district to the rest of the city might get a hearing at the Department of Transportation. The Small Business Administration might support the entrepreneurs known as artists. And so on. And so on.
It is my firm conviction that there is a current or incipient arts resource in every federal agency and that a focused, collaborative effort will produce meaningful results for our arts organizations.
BARRY: A policy debate is now underway regarding the degree to which certain art forms should be preserved whether or not there is a sufficient audience for them. What position should the NEA take regarding the funding of such “under-participated in” art forms?
ROCCO: I hate non-answers, and I promised myself that I would not rely on them when I came to Washington. However in this case, I think the real answer is that we need to perform a balancing act.
We have a responsibility to protect, preserve, and promote under-appreciated art forms. Both jazz and opera are showing declining audiences, for instance. Should we pull our support for them? Absolutely not. We should – and we do – work to make sure that Americans have access and exposure to great art works and great companies.
At the same time, we also have to support not just the traditional art forms that people often associate with the NEA. This agency funds jazz and opera, yes. But we also fund the blues, folk music, country, electronic music, hip hop, and musicals.
The same is true for all of the disciplines. We need to protect and preserve tradition, but not at the expense of shutting out innovation.
MoMA’s Alfred Barr described the ideal museum collection as being a torpedo evolving through time, with its nose in the present and its tail in the ever receding past. Yes, the art fields need to expand and evolve, but that doesn’t have to mean jettisoning everything that came earlier.
Thank you very much.
I am grateful to the Chairman for taking the time to answer these questions and share his thoughts with the field. I had a couple of other follow up questions to include, but his schedule and the recent east coast snow storms didn't allow inclusion of those questions at this time, and I didn't want to postpone publication. I am hopeful he will allow me to revisit some of these areas and share with me his further thoughts in the near term.
Have a great week.