It’s true – Rocco Landesman is looking for a prime spot on the beach

For the east coast Landesman household, fireworks this New Year’s Eve will mark more than the incoming year. It will mean that, for the first time in his illustrious career, Rocco Landesman, Broadway producer, theatre owner, and overall pitch man for the arts will wake up the next morning without a job.

 

Rocco Landesman (Photo: Michael Eastman)

Rocco Landesman will end his tenure as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts at the end of 2012. As he explains it: “The time has come for me to become a cliché: I turned 65, am going to retire, and cannot wait to spend more time in Miami Beach.”

Landesman came to Washington at the invitation of President Obama in 2009 to head the NEA at a time when many political leaders were looking to defund the arts as a way out of the nation’s fiscal crisis. Landesman, like the biblical figure of old, brought not peace but the sword.

The man Newsweek called “the NEA’s new troublemaker” seemed uniquely fit for the job of shaking things up. He had an array of qualifications not often seen in the civil service. For example, he ran an investment fund for many years. A big one. And he owned and traded in racehorses, making him a “horse trader” for real. He came within an ace of buying the Cincinnati Reds. And he was an enormously successful theatrical producer: he started with Big River and had a long string of hits including Angels in America and The Producers and his Jujamcyn Theaters was Broadway’s third-largest theater chain.

His appointment stunned and delighted artists everywhere, especially theatre artists. Tony Kushner called it “potentially the best news the arts community in the United States has had since the birth of Walt Whitman.”

But Landesman’s tenure as head of the NEA was more than good news for the arts community. Landesman turned it into an art form in and of itself, if we understand art to be founded in truth.

Landesman was perhaps the bluntest NEA Chairman in the institution’s history. For example, his predecessor had established the politically savvy practice of placing at least one NEA grant in every Congressional District. Landesman’s analysis was that “this notion of putting a grant in every single county and congressional district because it’s a county and congressional district, even when there’s no valid recipients, when there are no arts organizations to speak of, is crazy.”

Or consider what happened in 2010, when Congress approved a $168 million budget – the largest in ten years – for the NEA. Landesman’s response:  he called the funding level “pathetic” and “embarrassing”.

Landesman’s candor was not confined to the subject of arts funding, however. Early in his tenure, he told the New York Times “I don’t know if there’s a theater in Peoria, but I would bet that it’s not as good as Steppenwolf or the Goodman [two prominent theatres in Chicago]”. The remark, as you might have guessed, did not play well in Peoria.

“There are 5.7 million arts workers in this country and two million artists,” he said in a post on Art Works, the NEA’s official blog. “Do we need three administrators for every artist?”

Another frank observation – this time made at a New Plays conference in 2011 at Arena Stage, indeed, in its theatre for new American plays, the Kogod Cradle: “We’re overbuilt.”There are too many theaters.” He was, at the time, considering whether the NEA should be giving larger grants to fewer organizations.

Landesman’s assertion earned him withering criticism from arts organizers, many of whom were worried that the NEA under Landesman would fund only large arts organizations like the Goodman and Steppenwolf Theatres. “What does he mean there’s too much supply?!?” wrote a furious Trish Mead, the public relations and publications manager at Portland Center Stage in Oregon. “What does he mean we can’t increase demand?!? Who determines which theater companies are wheat and which are chaff?!?”

Playwright/director Durango Miller was ready to send out a posse after Landesman. “Maybe the NEA is outdated and should be replaced by another system for funding the arts in the United States,” he wrote. “Or maybe the people who are running the NEA should be replaced.”

They weren’t, but Landesman did go to Peoria and charmed the arts organizers there. He did more than talk the talk. He also established the Our Town initiative, which provides arts funds for communities in dire economic straits. The initiative reflected Landesman’s belief that the arts were more than a way to elevate the human spirit. They were also a path to economic development.

In 2012, the International Business Times reported, Our Town issued 80 grants in amounts ranging between $25,000 and $150,000 to places such as Cleveland, Independence, Kan., Milwaukee, Rahway, N.J., and Roanoke, Va., where economic challenges have starved arts organizations of their anticipated local funding.

Amount received by arts organizations in New York City: zero.

Last month, Imagination Stage learned that will receive a $30,000 grant to support Anime Momotaro, the largest grant the theatre has ever received from the NEA. It was one of 832 announced by Chairman Landesman, totalling $23.3 million.

In the official NEA press release announcing his retirment, Landesman is quoted as saying “My intention has always been to serve one term, and we have been able to accomplish more than I had ever thought possible: sparking a national movement around creative placemaking, forging significant relationships with other federal agencies, creating an unprecedented healing arts partnership with the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and increasing both the scope and impact of our research office.

“We have continued to support and strengthen the entire spectrum of arts in this country, and we have been able to expand the national conversation through convenings, traditional media, and new technology. I am proud and honored to have served alongside such an amazing group of dedicated public servants.”

Still, his opinion of the federal government’s funding for the arts remains unchanged from the day he arrived. Alexandra Svokos reports that last week at the World Leaders Forum held at the French Embassy, he compared arts funding in France to that of the U.S. “‘one more time before I leave: it’s pathetic.’ The budget for the NEA is $150 million, he explained, while in France the arts budget is $9 billion–which would be merely significant…if the countries were the same size.”

Ah, we’ll miss him.

But the question remains – will this St. Louis native, whose love of theatre and performers may well have begun around the family dinner table, whose had more than his share of successes on Broadway, and who is one of those rare beings in Washington unafraid to speak his mind – will this guy be happy sitting on a Miami beach?

I asked if the right script came along, would he return to producing. “This had been an amazing, exhilarating ride, but now I’m eager to return to private life. No imminent producing plans, but never say never.”

The task is given to NEA Senior Deputy Chairman Joan Shigekawa to serve as the acting head of the agency until a permanent successor is confirmed.

Reprint Policy Our articles may not be reprinted in full but only as excerpts and those portions may only be used if a credit and link is provided to our website.
DC Theatre Scene is supported in part by the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities and by the Humanities Council of Washington, DC.