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Theater Producer Takes The Stage As New NEA Chair

Theater producer Rocco Landesman has been called loquacious, combative and "Broadway's favorite cowboy." Now, in his new role as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Landesman is about to embark on a journey that will take him way off-Broadway: Peoria, Ill., is his first stop on "Art Works," a six-month tour of arts organizations around the country.

From Broadway To Bureaucracy

Landesman's Washington, D.C., office in the Old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue is filled with paintings by his father, a St. Louis cabaret theater owner. Rocco inherited his father's theater DNA; Landesman owns five theaters in New York, and he produced Angels in America, The Producers and Big River.

Aug. 11 was his first day on the job at the NEA: "So far, so good. It's not boring," Landesman says with a laugh.

The job can be frustrating, though. Landesman is used to running his own show and getting things done right away. Not so in his new gig.

"Here, when I want to do something ... there are three or four people who immediately tell me why I can't do it," he says. "But I feel very engaged, and it's very exciting so far."

Landesman embarks on his Art Works tour on Friday — you can follow progress on the Art Works blog. First stop is the arts scene in Peoria, Ill. Early in his NEA career, Landesman said of Peoria, "I don't know if there's a theater there — but I bet it's not as good as Steppenwolf or the Goodman [two Chicago theatrical landmarks]." So Peoria invited him to stop by.

"There's great art everywhere," Landesman says. "Art can come from the most unpredictable places. And we're going to go around the country looking at what kind of art there is, and how that can support ... our program over the next few years."

'At The Table With The Grown-Ups'

The NEA budget will be $167 million in 2010. More and more arts organizations are cropping up — even as audiences decline. So it's legitimate, Landesman thinks, to ask if arts institutions are being overbuilt. Then again, it's equally legitimate to ask for money for the arts — they have a real economic impact in America, Landesman says, creating jobs and bringing in money.

In this economy, Landesman thinks its ineffective to approach the administration, Congress and foundations with hat in hand, looking to save specific, struggling arts organizations.

"I generally think the response will be: 'Gee, that's a shame ... But we have more important priorities on our plate right now than arts institutions,' " Landesman says. "If, on the other hand, I can go to Congress and the administration and say, 'The arts should be part of domestic policy, should be part of coming out of this recession, should be a part of the revitalization of our communities and neighborhoods,' then I think we have real traction in domestic policy, and I think we're talking a completely different conversation."

Bill Ivey, one of Landesman's NEA predecessors, said that in the White House, arts would always be an "East Wing" thing, never a "West Wing thing." Landesman doesn't buy it.

"We need to move [arts] into the West Wing, as well, in the place where they're making decisions about economic initiatives," he says. "We need to be at the table with the grown-ups, and that means the West Wing."

After Peoria, Landesman will travel to St. Louis, Memphis, Nashville, and points west. The one-time Broadway producer will be seeing and declaring, at each stop, that art works.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

United States & World Morning Edition
Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.