Sunday, November 25, 2012

Naming Rocco's Successor

Good morning.
“And the beat goes on.............................

Let me add my name to the chorus of praise for Rocco’s leadership over the term of his three plus year tenure as Chair of the NEA.  Once he got the lay of the land, he effectively used his bully pulpit to champion the arts, and he launched several major initiatives that ought to have a positive impact on the future of the sector - including meaningful expansion of the Endowment’s relationship with other federal agencies, a long overdue stepped up research agenda and strategy, and the Our Town and Creative Placemaking projects.

I hope to post interviews with both Chairman Landesman and Chief of Staff Jamie Bennett before the year is out.

Now the question looms who should replace Rocco as the new Chair of the NEA?  Joan Shigekawa, Senior Deputy Director, will helm the agency until a new appointment is made.  I doubt this appointment is high on the President’s agenda, and I also doubt (though I certainly may be wrong) that they already have someone in mind.

I think it might be advisable for us to do two things:  First, openly discuss the kinds of qualities and skills that we - as a field - think any new nominee for the post should have, and Second, suggest at least a short list of names for the President to consider.  My own hope is that the next Chair of the Endowment might be someone from within our own ranks - someone with nonprofit arts experience and familiarity.

Here are some questions we might openly begin to discuss concerning a new Chairman:

  • What are the qualities an NEA Chair needs to be successful in the next four years?
  • What would a person rooted in private foundation experience bring to the NEA Chair position?
  • What would a person rooted in public policy experience bring to the NEA Chair position?
  • What would a person rooted in nonprofit arts organization experience bring to the NEA Chair position?
  • What would a person rooted in private sector business experience bring to the NEA Chair position?
  • What would a working artist bring to the NEA Chair position?
  • What would a person who is a celebrity  bring to the NEA Chair position?
  • What would a former elected official bring to the NEA Chair position?
  • Which of the former NEA Chairs have been successful and why?
  • What should be retained from the Rocco Landesman Chairmanship and what should be jettisoned?

Perhaps we might form a small select Blue Ribbon Committee to formally suggest a small list of vetted names to President Obama.  I think this might be an opportunity to establish a small precedent wherein the arts field itself is at least tangentially involved in the section process to name its most visible and important leader, and so I hope the field will insert itself into these deliberations, and come up with a list of names the President might consider.

Here then is my list of just a few of the possible candidates (by no means a definitive list, and I am sure you out there can come up with scores of other names we ought to toss around - AND I invite you to add to this list via your comments to this posting.)   I realize some names on the list would seem to be outliers, and perhaps they are, but in many respects virtually all the previous appointments to the Chairmanship have been outside the field.  Maybe this would be a good time to go inside the box.  And, in any event, I hope it sparks some debate out there as to what we ought to be looking for in the final selection.

BTW this list reflects my own personal thinking and my biases and limitations and in no way implies WESTAF’s sanctioning of these names or any endorsement on their part.

An Open letter to President Obama:

Dear Mr. President:

Congratulations on your re-election.  In recognition of, and grateful appreciation for,  your past, and continuing support for art and culture in America, the nonprofit arts community was highly supportive of your campaign, and thrilled at your victory.

As you begin the process of selecting Chairman Landesman’s successor, we respectfully suggest that you look within the nonprofit arts field to fill the post.  There are scores of qualified people who would do an outstanding job in that position, and would bring credit to your Administration, and the time has come to name one of our own.

Here are just a few suggestions for your consideration:

Bob Lynch - nobody has more experience, a better wider perspective, or a more intimate knowledge of the issues and the players.  Would be a fitting crowning achievement in an amazing career.

Janet Brown - has both experience with the philanthropic community and local arts agencies as well as a solid background in advocacy and legislative relationships.

Anthony Radich - brings a strong organizational / entrepreneurial perspective and complete familiarity with the Endowment’s state agency and regional partners.

Laura Zucker - knows all the issues and what is involved in trying to address those issues,  and more importantly how to get things done.  Doubtful anyone would be more effective.

Steven Tepper - would bring strong policy credentials to what is a policy centric agency, and would help elevate the national dialogue.

Adam Huttler - an innovator’s voice - his of the next generation of arts leaders and his appointment would signal a new era at the agency.

Dennis Scholl - a risk taker, with a commitment to quality, he worked closely with Rocco and he would add another dimension to the post.

Richard Kessler - would articulately champion Arts Education better than anyone.

Joan Shigekawa - why not simply name Joan the permanent Chair?

Aaron Dworkin - an artist with strong organizational skills, and with a national platform and reputation for his commitment to diversity.

Cora Mirikitani - former head of the Irvine Foundation arts program, and current head of the Center for Creative Innovation she is one of our best thinkers and fully understands the needs of artists in America.

Ben Cameron - certainly no one would use the bully pulpit better than he.

Alan Brown - would bring an academic and researcher’s perspective to the post.

Maria Lopez de Leon - a passionate and articulate voice for America’s fastest growing constituency and a proven bridge builder.

Colleen Jennings Roggensack - would articulate the Presenter’s point of view and build bridges to at least a faction of the private sector.

Thank you for your consideration.

Oh, and if you just can't find anyone to serve in the post, call me.  I'll do it.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit.


  1. Nice set of names, Barry. I think the question of who has been effective in the position in the past is an important one, and I don't think we've answered it. I readily acknowledge having incomplete information here, but it seems like Rocco has got to be up there in the "effective" column, relatively speaking. He has set the agency on a more technocratic course, pioneered new policy, and perhaps most importantly (and most fragile to regime change), forged new partnerships and relationships across government and in the private sector, increasing the NEA's relevance. About the only thing we can fault him for is the fact that the agency's budget has not grown under his tenure. But the best opportunity to make that happen, during the stimulus discussions of 2009, took place before his appointment, and since then it's been hard to make the argument for the arts in a recessionary environment. I doubt many others could have done better.

    Who else has been effective? Certainly Nancy Hanks. Dana Gioia worked magic at bringing an end to the culture wars, though at the cost of making programming dramatically less interesting. Everybody seems to respect Bill Ivey, but he seems frustrated with his tenure in retrospect, and I'm not aware of any major policy breakthroughs under his leadership. Frohnmeyer and Alexander seemed ill-equipped to handle the controversies thrown their way. Don't know much about Hodsoll, Biddle, or Stevens, maybe you can fill me in.

    Based on this, it seems like the qualities that we'd want in an NEA chair go something like this:

    - A good speaker
    - A first-rate communications jujitsu artist - it's quite possible that the NEA will have more controversies and unhelpful publicity ahead of it
    - A visionary who understands how the arts work in this country currently and how they could work better
    - An open-minded individual who is willing to listen and lean on the considerable expertise at his/her disposal
    - Someone who will represent the interests of the American people, not arts nonprofits

    That's a pretty short list, but I think it about covers things. The NEA is not a small institution - it is in comparison with other arms of government, but compared to most arts service organizations and funders it is huge. If the Chairman doesn't have total command of one area or another, there will be someone else either at the agency or in the field who does. It's up to the Chair to figure out how to use these resources effectively. I felt like Rocco was pretty good at that overall, and he definitely had the right mindset.

    So my short list would be Janet Brown (I think she would be amazing - rural state and advocacy experience combined with her current perch at the head of the most influential organization in arts funding), Cameron (has the speaker role down, plus he knows a little bit about the field), and Dworkin (unless I'm mistaken the NEA has never had a person of color in the top job, and he would bring a great youthful energy). Lynch is an obvious choice as well but the optics of hiring the head of the country's leading advocacy organization may be too much to overcome. Another interesting name might be Gary Steuer - experience at both Americans for the Arts and working for the government in Philly.

    Finally, I bet that your categories of private sector people, artists, and celebrities will get more serious consideration from the administration than arts administrators may initially think. I suspect one of the reasons Rocco got the job last time was because he did not work for a nonprofit arts organization. My personal preference would be to hire somebody with nonprofit organization management experience, but if we are going to go with an artist or celebrity I'd like for it to be someone who has a public track record of thinking deeply about these issues. When the LA Times did a feature on "If I Ran the NEA" three and a half years ago, playwright Jon Robin Baitz showed he fit that bill.

    1. Thanks Ian.

      I agree with your assessment of Rocco's contributions. I am sorry to see him leave. Bill Ivey succeeded in convincing much of Congress that the Endowment served constituencies across the spectrum (particularly geographically), and in so doing put to rest the criticism that the agency favored the larger urban areas. That was no small accomplishment and paved the way for Dana Gioia further moving the Endowment towards a nonpartisan stance.

      I also agree with your short list of qualities we need, and would add that we need someone comfortable being a political operative, who knows how to build collaboration and consensus. I think we also need someone who is a bit of a risk taker and who has vision about what is possible. I don't want to see just a maintenance of the status quo - I want to see some bold and innovative moves that rock the nonprofit arts world.

      I like Janet, Ben and Aaron as well. The appointment might actually be a step down for Bob, but, in my opinion, he would be excellent in that post. I would be happy with any of my suggested names, and there are, I know, scores of others that would be good as well.

      Gary Steuer was on my short list and I might add any number of people who have also long experience in running major municipal arts organizations - people like Victoria Hamilton or Michael Spring. One of the challenges we face is in addressing the needs of the arts ecosystem infrastructure and the succession of leadership, and people like Russell Willis Taylor might well fit the bill. As to diversity, Cora, Maria Lopez de Leon, and Aaron Dworkin might easily be joined by Moy Eng, Maria Rossario Jackson, Abel Lopez, Roberto Bedoya, Olive Mosier and others.

      I think Alec Baldwin would be a very interesting choice, but doubt he could get confirmed. The private sector people will always get more serious consideration, but I still believe it is time for one of our own, and think there would be an excellent chance we might prevail with the President. I personally found the LA Times exercise depressing in the comments, but maybe your guy is the exception.

      The point is that there is a wealth of our own people who would do well in the job.

  2. You're definitely right that the LA Times exercise was pretty stupid overall, but JRB was the exception. Here's the link:,0,50620.story

    And I realized that I was incorrect to say that the NEA has never had a POC at the top: both Patrice Walker Powell and now Joan Shigekawa fit that bill, albeit in interim capacities.

  3. Thanks Ian. Patrice is yet another person who might be on people's short list. The list goes on and on. From people like Scott Provancher to Michael Kaiser - names keeping popping into my head.