Thursday, December 20, 2012

Exit Interview with Rocco Landesman

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

A Christmas present to the field - a candid, in-depth exit interview with outgoing NEA Chair, Rocco Landesman

Barry:  Can you reflect on the major accomplishments of your tenure and assess the impact (current and future) on the field of the Our Town, Creative Placemaking, deepening relationships with other federal agencies, and expanded research initiatives?

Rocco:  It sounds like you pretty much have the list!

The one thing I might add is our increasing work with the military community, through Blue Star Museums ( and the NEA/Walter Reed Healing Arts partnership (

Blue Star Museums is a partnership among Blue Star Families, the NEA, the Department of Defense and more than 1,500 museums across America to offer free admission to active duty military personnel and their families every summer.  It has been amazing to watch this program grow from some 600 museums when we launched.  It has even inspired TCG to launch a Blue Star Theaters program with their membership.

Last year, we brought the Operation Homecoming program (started by my predecessor Dana Gioia) to the National Intrepid Center of Excellence at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.  The writing program now take place in a clinical setting as part of a formal medical protocol to help heal service members.  We have been working on launching a clinical research project, and have also been expanding the footprint of what we are doing by also bringing a neurological music therapist on staff for them.

I never would have guessed that one of my closest colleagues from my time as NEA Chairman would be the rear admiral in charge of a hospital, but Mike Stocks has been simply amazing in allowing this work to happen.

But back to your list, the creative placemaking work has -- I am beginning to believe -- really been launched as a national movement: from what Connecticut has done with their state arts funding, to what William Penn and Kresge have done with their arts portfolios, to Rutgers offering a certificate program in creative placemaking.

This all started with our work with the Mayors' Institute on City Design.  We had been working to help mayors conceive of themselves as their cities' chief urban designers for a quarter of a century.  And we decided to make some funding available to help realize creative placemaking projects in their towns (  This, of course, was the precursor to the Our Town initiative.

This past summer, we NEA announced our second year of "Our Town" funding, which included 80 grants totaling $4.995 million.  (

All of this work inspired the foundation community to come together in the creation of ArtPlace  (  Eleven foundations and six major financial institutions came together as a consortium to invest in projects that support the arts to help increase community vibrancy.   ArtPlace invited seven federal agencies to serve as advisors and offer lessons from those agencies’ own place‐based funding efforts.

We were perfectly positioned to convene those agencies, since we worked for the past three years to closely partner with other larger federal agencies where the arts have not traditionally been a focus.  In a series of firsts: the Department of Housing and Urban Development included the arts as a priority within a $100 million grant program focused on regional planning; the Department of Education included the arts as an invitational priority in its Promise Neighborhood funding; the Department of Agriculture will partner with the NEA on the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design; and the NEA has a formal role with the President’s Domestic Policy Council on both the Rural Council and the Urban Affairs Working Group.

Then there is the research.  I could highlight a lot of the work, but for me, two things really stand out.  The first is our work with the Department of Health and Human Services.  Over a year ago, we announced a new task force of 13 federal agencies and departments to encourage more and better research on how the arts help people reach their full potential at all stages of life ( The task force grew out of The Arts and Human Development (, a white paper that stemmed from the first-ever convening between the NEA and the HHS, which I co-convened with HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

Just this fall, we worked with the Bureau of Economic Analysis to announce that, for the first time, arts and culture will be measured on a macroeconomic level with their contribution to GDP explicitly calculated.  BEA is developing an Arts and Cultural Production Satellite Account (  I honestly believe that this account will begin a new era for national arts research efforts.

Barry:  In terms of President Obama identifying your replacement, which qualities would you advise the President to bear in mind in making his selection?

Rocco:  This may sound like I am ducking the question, but I honestly believe that the single most important quality is being a genuinely nice person.  In the arts and in Washington, DC, so much happens when people want to work with you.  It is all well and good to have collaboration mandated or legislated, but it works best when people ask for it themselves.

Going back to research for an analogy, one of the best things about our director of research Sunil Iyengar is his irresistible likeability.  It is vital that he has research chops, too, of course.  But when I look at the doors he has been able to open with Census, the HHS agencies, the BEA, it all started from personal and warm relationships.

Barry:  What do you think is the agency’s greater strength - the bully pulpit and the power to convene, or its grantmaking budget, and why?

Rocco:  I have gone on record repeatedly as saying that I believe our real power is in the bully pulpit.  People get exercised whenever I say that because they worry that people will use it as an excuse to take away our grants budget.  Sure, all of the dollars we invest across the country play a role in keeping the arts ecosystem strong.  But I think we make a bigger difference with the conversations we are able to start.  There may be nothing I have been prouder of than starting the "supply/demand" conversation that kicked off at Arena Stage here in DC (  Whether you think that we might be able to increase demand, or you think it is time to talk about a possible oversupply of arts organizations, or you think something else entirely, we were able to start a national conversation that caused organizations to look at themselves, look at the ecosystems they inhabit, and examine their own abilities to fulfill their missions.

If I was staying on at the NEA, the next conversation I would want to start is around arts education.  I believe we are almost at a national tipping point, where we can finally turn the corner in ensuring that every child receives a high quality arts education.  In addition to hoping that the next NEA chair is a good person, I also hope he or she has a strong point of view about arts education.

Barry:  From all your travels and meetings with arts leaders across the country, what do you think are the major issues facing the sector, and how might we best address them in the future?

Rocco:  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.

Let me take one in my own field.  When I was at Arena Stage for what turned into the "supply / demand" conversation, I had actually come to talk about something I consider to be an even bigger issue in the theatre: homogenization.

Too many artistic directors in this country define success as a combination of three things: attendance (or, “butts in seats,” as we producers say), income, and national attention.

The easiest way to achieve those three elements is for theaters to reorient themselves toward Broadway.  If a theater is producing a show that has been on or is headed to Broadway, they can count on robust ticket sales, some sort of commercial subsidy for producing the show, and perhaps a review in The New York Times.

But what is the result of defining success that way?  Too many resident theaters across this country whose seasons are interchangeable.  The plays that are being presented bear no relationship to their locality.

Yes, there are notable exceptions to this: Trinity Rep in Providence, Rhode Island defines success locally and is one of the few true heirs to the resident theater movement in this country.  The actors in residence at Trinity Rep do not want to make it to Broadway – in fact, many of them worked to get out of Broadway, in order to get to Trinity Rep.  The Trinity actors with whom I have spoken are interested in being artists, but they are also interested in being citizens of a place and being part of a community.

This brings us back to the creative placemaking reframing: we need artists to invest in the places where they live; and in return, we need those places to invest in their artists.

I also worry a lot about the future of arts criticism in this country.  I was trained as a critic at Yale by Bob Brustein, and I have very strong feelings about the importance of this sector.

We took a look at the landscape, and we realized there are basically 5 kinds of arts writing: purely factual (the theater is located at 123 Main Street); casual (facebook posts and tweets about how much someone loved (or hated) a dance performance); journalism (digging into a museum's antiquities acquisition policy); criticism (people trained and versed in the history of the art form, putting a piece into context); and academic (journal articles and dissertations).

We also realized that three of these are flourishing: factual and casual thanks to the growth of the internet and social media; and academic -- just look at the proliferation of arts degrees that the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) reports.

But the amount of print and broadcast space devoted to arts journalism and criticism is disappearing.  We knew what the problem was, but we had no clue about the solution, so we partnered with the Knight Foundation on a Community Arts Journalism Challenge ( to see if we could crowd source some solutions.  The projects are still ongoing, but we were heartened enough by the early results, that we have now baked arts journalism and criticism into the NEA's core grantmaking.

Barry:  What surprised you most about heading the Endowment and working in Washington D.C.?  What’s the one big lesson you take away from this experience?

Rocco:  I was amazed at how much we were able to get done and how quickly.  I have to admit that I arrived with the same prejudice shared by many coming into public service from the private sector, and I thought I would be wading into a bureaucratic morass.  However, It wasn't even six months before my colleagues got sick of me exclaiming, "This would have taken years in the private sector!"  I was amazed at the power and leverage that comes with being part of a federal agency.

Barry:   If you had it to do all over again, what would you do differently, and why?

Rocco:  My mantra has always been: "Often wrong; never in doubt."  I honestly would not change a thing.

Barry:  What do you see as unfinished business at the agency?  What areas do you wish the Endowment had been able to be more active in?

Rocco:  As I said earlier, I do think that arts education is next up in the queue.  We commissioned a study from James Catterall (, who used four longitudinal databases to look at the correlations between arts education and achievement for low socioeconomic status youth.  Low SES students who received high amounts of arts education outperformed the overall school population on grade point average, high school graduation rates, and enrollment in professionally oriented majors.  As far as I am concerned, that alone should be enough to convince every school leader to bake arts education into every school day.  Low SES kids never outperform their peers, and yet here we have consistent numbers to show it is possible.

The next arts education research project that I would love to see happen is a randomized control experiment that would get past correlation and get on to causality.  We need to find a population of students who are not receiving any arts education, and randomly assign half of them to receive some.  I think we could easily partner with a national arts ed organization that was going into a new town.  If they had the resources to work with 5 schools, we would ask them to let us select a cohort of 10 schools and then randomly assign the 5 schools with which they would work.  It would take no additional resources for the organization, and they would be the case study for what I believe would be the most nationally significant arts ed study possibly ever.  We could similarly partner with a school district or funder.  We have this as part of the arts ed and research offices' five-year plans.  And if anyone is interested in working with us, please let my colleagues at the NEA know.

Barry:  You’ve said you look forward to spending more time in Miami, but I can’t imagine you are yet ready to hang it all up.  Do you plan a return to Broadway, and what ways do you hope you can continue to be involved in the nonprofit arts?

Rocco:  I honestly have no interest in returning to Broadway. I hope this doesn't sound like I'm too full of myself, but I have had the opportunity to produce my favorite musical of all time (Big River), the most important American play of the twentieth century (Angels in America), and the most successful show in Broadway's history (The Producers).  I sort of feel that I have done everything I can do in that arena, and it is time for another generation to take over.

My wife Debby and I love the New World Symphony.  I think what Lin Arison and Michael Tilson Thomas have done with the symphony, the building, and creating audiences is just awesome.  We look forward to being involved there.  As audience members.

Barry:  If you could only offer one piece of parting advice to arts administrators across the country, what would that be?

Rocco:  Don't stay too long at the party.  Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and I were talking about my intent to retire, and Ray actually used a theatre metaphor.  He said, "Rocco, you always want to leave the stage while they are still applauding."

Knowing when to leave also has the added benefit of making room for a new generation of leadership.  There are some remarkable young administrators that I have met across this country, and I would love to see what they will do when they take over.

Barry:  If you had a ten million dollar war chest to spend (in your sole and absolute discretion) to address one specific challenge in the arts, where would you spend that money and why?

Rocco:  I believe that subsidy exists to free arts organizations from the exigencies of the box office.  I would want to use the money to allow artistic directors to make decisions about a season's repertory with zero input from their managing directors or boards.

There are so many more questions that come to mind, but I so appreciate your taking the time to respond to these.

Thank you Rocco, and thank you for your leadership, dedication and tireless energy over the past three plus years in your Chairmanship and service to the arts.  I know I speak for countless of those in our sector in wishing you all the very best in whatever you do in the future, and our hope that you continue to be actively involved in the arts for a long time to come.

Merry Christmas to all.

Don't Quit.