NYT Interview with New NEA Chair

Today’s NYT has an eyebrow-raising and refreshing interview with Rocco Landesman, incoming NEA Chair.  I had never heard of this guy, but I like him already:

He was particularly angered, he said, by parts of the debate over whether to include $50 million for the agency in the federal stimulus bill, citing the comment by Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” in February, that arts money did not belong in the bill. That kind of thinking suggests that “artists don’t have kids to send to college,” Mr. Landesman said, “or food to put on the table, or medical bills to pay.”

In American politics generally, he added: “The arts are a little bit of a target. The subtext is that it is elitist, left wing, maybe even a little gay.”

And while he praised the way recent endowment chairmen have carefully rebuilt the agency’s political standing, Mr. Landesman — who is known more as an independent entrepreneur than as a diplomatic company man — said he was not planning to follow too closely in their footsteps. While Dana Gioia, his immediate predecessor, made a point of spreading endowment funds to every Congressional district, for example, Mr. Landesman said he expected to focus on financing the best art, regardless of location.

“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 said, referring to two of Chicago’s most prominent theater companies. “There is going to be some push-back from me about democratizing arts grants to the point where you really have to answer some questions about artistic merit.”

“And frankly,” he added, “there are some institutions on the precipice that should go over it. We might be overbuilt in some cases.”

Mr. Landesman does believe that the agency should be “perceived as being everywhere,” he said. “But I don’t know that we have to be everywhere if the only reason for supporting an institution is its geography.”

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