I don’t normally read Vogue magazine, but my daughter left the December issue behind after Thanksgiving, and I couldn’t help noticing a piece by John Heilpern on Rocco Landesman, the new Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. I confess that the reason I stopped paging through the issue (I would ordinarily only have looked at the advertising photos) was a really arresting photo of Landesman, garbed in alligator cowboy boots and a full-length length red leather coat seated on an old-fashioned wooden storage chest on the stage of Ford’s Theater in Washington. (In the unlikely case that Vogue had photographed Jim Leach, the new Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, they doubtless would have put him into a local university’s library stacks, and he would have been wearing his trademark pastel sweater.)
Heilbrun describes Landesman as “a Rocco — a fighter, a pugnacious, smart, educated man of passionate conviction now battling for the soul of the beleaguered arts community of America.” If this sounds like a rich, well-born, doctoral-educated version of Sylvester Stallone at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, it should. Landesman is quoted as changing the motto of NEA from “A Great Nation Deserves Great Art,” which he puts down as “apologetic” and “defensive,” to “Art Works.”
Well, admittedly, Landesman is not a poet (like his predecessor), but he knows where he is going with NEA. The new motto is “short, muscular, and a triple entendre. First, artworks. Then art works . . . And, finally, people in the arts are workers.” And the third meaning is the most important, since arts people are “part of the real economy. Someone who works in the arts is just as gainfully employed as someone who works in an auto factory or a hospital or steel mill.” When pressed on how hard arts people work, Landesman responded that “Artists are luckier in the sense that they’re able to follow their passion and love what they do, but I don’t think they work any less hard than anyone else.”
I don’t know to what extent Landesman influenced the decision, but of course NEA was given a very large chunk of money in the original Obama stimulus program, apparently on the theory that arts people had plenty of “shovel ready” projects.
Landesman now argues, just as most of his predecessors, that NEA is dramatically underfunded. He believes that the culture wars are over (or at least in remission), and sees no reason why the Obama administration cannot produce a significantly larger budget for his agency, which he contends can be one of the drivers of economic recovery.
Arts advocates have long argued that increased federal funding for the arts would have a multiplier effect on economic growth, and they now appear to have found their most articulate and free-swinging spokesperson in Mr. Landesman. I hope he succeeds in attracting larger budgets for the NEA, although I fear that he underestimates Congressional sensitivity to Endowment-funded programs.
One of the reasons there is less current controversy about NEA funding is that Congress has so severely restricted the categories of its funding, but an expanded funding agenda is likely to reopen old wounds. I also think that Landesman badly overestimates the possibility of significantly larger annual appropriations. And I worry that Landesman may be sorry that he has tied the case for funding of the arts so tightly to economic growth, since the good work that art does is notoriously difficult to measure. Would it help the NEH if Mr. Leach adopted the motto, “Ideas Work”? Or if he bought himself a red leather coat?