The NEA's New Troublemaker: Rocco Landesman

There are dozens of federal agencies in Washington, D.C., and dozens of men and women running them, but it's hard to imagine that any of these civil servants has a Tom Sawyer streak wider than Rocco Landesman's. His CV includes the kind of grown-up adventures that his fellow (if fictional) Missourian might envy. He started and ran a multimillion-dollar investment fund, owned and bet on racehorses, and faced the most ludicrous odds of all by becoming a Broadway producer. Nor did this exhaust his energies. He once came close to buying the Cincinnati Reds.

Looking back on this résumé today, maybe it should have been obvious that Landesman would react as he did when he heard that President Obama needed a new chairman for the National Endowment for the Arts—or, more precisely, when he overheard. Margo Lion, a Broadway producer who is co-chair of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, was talking about the difficulty of finding the right candidate for the job when Landesman, who happened to be within earshot, piped up: "I'll do it." But when his appointment was announced last year, the news came as a surprise. It jarred out of Tony Kushner, whose play Angels in America had been produced by Landesman, the hyperbolic assessment that it was "potentially the best news the arts community in the United States has had since the birth of Walt Whitman."

The high hopes didn't make it any easier to imagine how the self-starting operator who produced The Producers and has a reputation for outspokenness—not amid a cloister of introverts, mind you, but on Broadway—could survive at a federal bureaucracy that needs to watch every syllable. Would his energy and outsider perspective lead him to some groundbreaking new approach, or would his mouth land him in trouble? Six months after his swearing-in, we can tender an answer: yes.

After congressional Republicans nearly killed the NEA during the culture wars of the '90s, two careful stewards, Bill Ivey and Dana Gioia, nursed the agency back to stability. Landesman interprets this health as a mandate to be more aggressive. In speech after speech, he has vowed to abandon the agency's defensive posture and "to move the ball down the field." That mandate is reinforced every time he looks in the mirror, on the reasonable assumption that you don't hire an alligator-boot-wearing Broadway gambler to maintain the bureaucratic status quo. To judge from the early going, The Rocco Show offers a chance to watch a charismatic outsider say what needs saying and change the tone in Washington. In other words, it's a chance to see someone do what we elected his boss, the president, to do.

To understand how Landesman operates, look no further than The Peoria Incident. His rocky debut as chairman illustrates his MO so vividly that the story has the force of parable. Fittingly enough for a Broadway hand, it also unfolds in three acts.

In Act I, a newcomer says something he shouldn't. "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," he told The New York Times after his confirmation. In Act II, he travels to the aggrieved Illinois town and tries to make lemonade from his lemon. His charm and energy help him make friends, as do his shared regional roots: Landesman's family ran the Crystal Palace in St. Louis, an early home of Nichols and May, among others. But this is not a hat-in-hand, ritual-abasement sort of trip: though Landesman routinely says impolitic things, he has real political savvy. The much-hyped Peoria trip is actually the kickoff of a tour to promote his new slogan for the agency. "Art Works," he explains, is a phrase with three meanings: the actual art that the agency supports, the way that art shapes our lives, and its beneficial effect on our communities and economy.

Act III finds him back at his desk, chastened but wiser, and vowing never to make such an ignorant error again. That's the formulaic ending, anyway. The actual ending was different. "The general feeling about the Peoria thing was 'Whoops!' " he told me last fall. "Not my feeling at all. I'm sorry, but there's nothing I'd retract in what I was saying." Last month he said he "loves" the people in Peoria, but he still wouldn't take back a word.

When the 62-year-old Landesman says heterodox things like this, he breaks into a little grin: the more heterodox the sentiment, the bigger the grin. But this isn't stubbornness or a wicked streak talking. Landesman is asserting a principle here, one that marks the first real change of his tenure.

Throughout its 45-year history, the NEA has tried to strike a balance between fostering artistic excellence and broadening access to underserved communities. Landesman's predecessor, Gioia, emphasized access, boasting of sending grants to all 435 congressional districts—a policy that, not coincidentally, pleased the 435 members of the House. Landesman, for his part, makes a more spirited case for excellence. "Now art is not just in the big cities. It's everywhere—it's all around the country, and we support it where we find it. We're not limited to New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles," he says. "But I do believe 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."

Landesman acknowledges that this is "to some degree a shift in the NEA viewpoint." He knows that it might make life difficult on Capitol Hill, even though the new focus doesn't mean that the agency is going to abandon swaths of the country. The NEA's arts-education programs, for instance, will continue to reach communities everywhere. And he has just announced a new initiative that should alleviate the fear that this Yale School of Drama grad wants to give money only to fancy Manhattanites.

The just-announced Our Town program will use small, targeted grants to help arts organizations revitalize their communities. It draws on research showing that investments focused narrowly at the neighborhood level can produce social ties and a healthier local economy. In next year's budget request, the agency asks for $5 million to start work in 35 or so locations around the country: developing arts districts, sponsoring festivals, and commissioning murals and sculptures. This ground-up, community-building approach seems like an arts-world translation of some distinctly Obama-ish values.

While the unusually large 2010 budget of $168 million gives Landesman more funding options than any chairman has had in more than a decade, he still calls the level "pathetic" and "embarrassing"—language that risks insulting people in and around Congress who sweat to secure even that much. (It sure seems to unnerve the NEA staff. Landesman says he had to call a meeting recently to insist once and for all that he's not going to tone down his rhetoric. "I said, 'Look, get on the page with me, because I'm not getting on the page with you.' ") Beyond limiting how much Our Town and the agency's other grants can accomplish, the small budget doesn't suit someone with Landesman's rapid metabolism. His options, he told me, are "either to tilt against the windmills and try to get our budget expanded when everybody's been cut back because of the deficit—that's unrealistic—or just pad around the agency and decide that Pacific Opera should get X and New York City Opera Y. Anybody can do that. Don't you think there are a lot of people who could do that just as well?"

So Landesman has begun to make intriguing changes in the way the agency relates to the government. Historically, arts programs are scattered across the executive branch, and arts issues are all but ignored in the West Wing, the policymaking side of the White House. But the Obama administration has been unusually receptive. Last month Robert Lynch, the president and CEO of the advocacy group Americans for the Arts, and Sandra Gibson, the president and CEO of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, got to meet with members of the president's Domestic Policy Council. It's the kind of West Wing audience that arts leaders have sought for years.

Landesman's initiative works along the same lines: his conceptual breakthrough is to stop complaining that the cultural efforts of the federal government are disorganized and start actually organizing them. At a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors last month, he outlined a way for towns to build arts-related infrastructure: they could reach out to the NEA, which would facilitate contacts with relevant federal agencies that might have funds to spare. These initiatives—artist housing, say, or a redeveloped park—don't have to be NEA-branded projects to have the result he wants. (Or, in Rocco-speak: "I don't care so much about planting the NEA flag in any particular place, or 'how big is mine versus how big is yours.' It's about getting the programs going—it's about getting a public commitment to the arts.")

Landesman says that he's already met with several cabinet members, and he's gotten some immediate validation. When Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood addressed the mayors' conference, he asked Landesman to stand up in the audience and be recognized. "He's a part of President Obama's team and we're delighted he's here," said the cabinet officer—the Republican cabinet officer. "He and I just had a meeting recently, and we are going to collaborate on some things for really promoting the arts, because we know that the cultural activities in communities are so important to the work that all of you do."

Making relationships like these more central to the job of NEA chairman plays to Landesman's strengths. (I mean, he was an actual horse trader.) It also gives the agency a role that could survive a budget cut. That's a real danger, given how the NEA remains anathema in some corners. (Consider the outrage last year when Yosi Sergant, the NEA's former communications director, made comments in conference calls with artists that sounded like a plea to promote the Obama agenda.) And it's not as if Landesman will lose his zeal for dancing over minefields: just wait until he starts pushing for grants to individual artists, a capacity the NEA lost during its run-in with Congress in the '90s.

If Landesman pulls this off, he might shift the way the arts get treated: their value to our lives and our civilization might be trumpeted more loudly even as they're integrated more subtly into our towns and our government. The downside to these bright promises is that once the Whitman comparisons are in the air, you risk being a disappointment. (Here, too, a parallel with his boss is inescapable.) Of course, if anything makes Landesman feel at home, it's risk.

He'll need to be more dextrous than ever to thrive in Washington, but the demands of his gig aren't entirely new. After he described his plan for interagency cooperation, I told him it sounded familiar: it sounds like he's lining up backers for a show. He beamed. "That's right. That's exactly right. It's like what a Broadway producer would do," he said. "I feel like I've got a great show. Now I need the backers."

The NEA's New Troublemaker: Rocco Landesman | U.S.