Obama shows he’s serious about the arts with NEA nomination

Rocco Landesman

Rocco Landesman

Is longtime Broadway producer Rocco Landesman the right man to lead President Obama’s National Endowment for the Arts?

It looks that way.  The Jujamcyn theater chain honcho’s nomination, first reported last night by The New York Times, seems like a no-brainer.  After all, he’s active, engaged and unafraid to speak his mind. That’s what he’s done throughout his career on Broadway. And there’s every expectation that he’ll be active and outspoken in Washington, too.

The nomination of Landesman, the producer who brought The Public Theater’s revival of Hair to Broadway this season, clearly shows that Obama is serious about focusing on the arts. The question remains, though, whether Landesman is Obama’s answer to widespread calls for creation of a Cabinet-level Arts Czar/Secretary of Culture or just the first step in that direction.

Landesman should really shake things up and put the arts and the NEA back in the spotlight where they belong. It will help reinvigorate the nation’s cultural life. But Obama really shouldn’t stop there. The nation needs an Arts Czar to ensure better arts education and support for the future of all arts, which have been neglected for far too long. If approved by Congress, Landesman will head the largest arts-funding agency in the nation, with a current budget of $145 million — although Obama is seeking to increase that to $161 million next year.

Landesman is a colorful, larger than life figure on Broadway, known for his passion for race horses and country music (he wrote this tribute to Roger Miller for The New York Times in 2003) as much as his love of making hits on the Great White Way.

He’s also known for speaking his mind. He slammed nonprofit theaters for becoming too much like for-profit houses (a view he may have moderate a bit, since the NEA job takes him into the nonprofit world).

Landesman would fill a vacancy created when Dana Gioia, head of the arts agency in the Bush administration, resigned on Inauguration Day.

Gioia played it pretty safe, pushing poetry and classics with vigor — Shakespeare and Tennyson — and approached contemporary art with great caution. His most memorable accomplishment came last year, when he created the first new U.S. government arts award in 28 years—the NEA Opera Honors, lifetime achievement awards for distinguished contributions to opera. (The first winners were soprano Leontyne Price, composer Carlisle Floyd, conductor James Levine, and opera general director Richard Gaddes.)

But nothing in his time at the NEA was much of a stretch for Gioia, since he’s a poet and the author of two opera libretti — Nosferatu (2004) with composer Alva Henderson and Tony Caruso’s Final Broadcast (2008) with Paul Salerni.

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