Link: Rocco and the death of theater(s)

By Bob Hicks

The big cultural flap out of Washington, now that people have mostly moved on from the Smithsonian chief’s craven caving-in to reactionary blowhards over David Wojnarowicz‘s ant-crawling video at the National Portrait Gallery, comes from the flip side of the channel: Rocco Landesman, boss of the National Endowment for the Arts, has been busy telling people that there’s too much theater in America for the demand, and it would be a good thing if a bunch of companies went out of business. (That theater companies are continuously going out of business without any help or hindrance from the NEA, and starting up again in new combinations, appears to have escaped his notice.)

National Endowment for the Arts chief Rocco Landesman, March 18, 2010.  Photo: Mike Linksvayer/Wikimedia Commons.Locally, arts marketing whiz Trisha Mead sounded the alarm (she was even quoted in the New York Times) and Art Scatter’s brother in arms, Barry Johnson, has been carrying the conversation forward with several posts at Arts Dispatch. Mr. Scatter has even sprinkled a couple of comments into his threads.

Barry’s worked up a fine lather, and for good reason: with friends like this, etcetera etcetera etcetera. Keep an eye on Arts Dispatch, because we have a feeling a lot more is going to be pouring out on this subject, and in Portland, AD has become Information Central on this topic.

Here at Art Scatter, we noted a year and a half ago when Congress confirmed Landesman for the top arts job that things were bound to get stirred up.

Landesman has a reputation as a provocateur, not a sit-back-and-balance-things sort of administrator, and his latest statements only follow through on the way things looked then. Here’s an excerpt from what we published in August 2009:

We’re going to get away from this democracy-for-the-sake-of-democracy idea, he told the New York Times, and back to setting some good old-fashioned standards. No more spreading cash around just to be geographically correct. Money’s going to flow to quality – and that’s much more likely to be found in a big mainstream operation like Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre than in some little theater in Peoria.

Gotta hand it to the guy: he didn’t lie about what he believes. Art Scatter believes Landesman has an incredibly New York-centric view of what’s important in the arts world, and — with his background in the Broadway commercial theater scene — a skewed view of the relationship between artistic quality and commercial success. We’re not all uppity about this art thing (we happen to believe that in a representative democracy art and popularity can do an enormously fruitful dance together, and artists from Charlie Chaplin to Billie Holiday to Jeff Bridges prove the point) but we insist that while popular success doesn’t preclude a thing from being good art, it doesn’t define good art, either. A lot of art simply falls outside the dictates of the pocketbook — and besides, if box office success were the determining factor, why would we need a National Endowment for the Arts, anyway?

Mr. Scatter believes that, as the director of a federal program, Landesman has a responsibility to look both skeptically and creatively at the programs he is called on to direct. The arts world (and particularly the not-for-profit arts world) has an understandable tendency to circle the wagons when it’s being criticized: after all, it’s not as if it isn’t already existing on a metaphorical buck-ninety-eight. Landesman needs to understand that. Whether he likes it or not, and whether or not it’s in his nature, the job calls for a certain amount of nurturing. Why kick the hungry puppy when the wolf pack’s chowing down all the food?

Some of Landesman’s questions are good questions. What Mr. Scatter fears is that Landesman thinks he already knows the answers, and that’s a dangerous game to play for everyone. What the NEA doesn’t need is to go off on some sort of half-cocked crusade to prune the bushes without understanding which twigs are truly deadwood and which are helping to keep the sap in circulation.

Again, we urge you to follow the conversation on Arts Dispatch. In the meantime, a few points to ponder:

  • If audiences at arts events are down across the country, how much of the loss is because people can’t afford the tickets? And if the already meager federal arts outlay is cut even more, how do you get ticket prices down to a popular level?
  • Is the answer really, as Landesman suggests, to follow the lead of massively popular but artistically questionable phenomena like Glee and Dancing with the Stars? Can companies successfully nudge those audiences toward Sondheim and Mark Morris, or is that a fools’ quest?
  • Could it be that some things that are good for New York aren’t good for Peoria, and vice versa? And could it be that a person in Peoria has as many rights as a person in New York?
  • If arts groups are indeed losing their audiences because audiences aren’t interested in what they’re offering, might the NEA lead a rational national conversation on the best ways to respond rather than simply giving up?
  • Is it possible that there really are, as Landesman suggests, too many arts administrators, or are all those people necessary to keep the modern not-for-profit engine running? Is the answer a return to artist-run cooperatives, which tend to burn themselves out because everyone’s doing too much? Is Landesman’s criticism of arts-group bureaucracies valid, or a tactically convenient mimicking of Tea Party politics? And if leading regional theater companies, for instance, did revert to the stripped-down company model, would the arts administrators at the NEA even notice that the stripped-down companies existed? Is there a middle ground for mid-sized companies, with enough administrators to provide stability but with most of the energy and money being funneled directly into making art?
  • If there really are only 2 million artists in the United States, as Landesman says, isn’t it weird that 500,000 of them seem to live in Portland?
  • With friends like this, etcetera etcetera etcetera?


National Endowment for the Arts chief Rocco Landesman, March 18, 2010. Photo: Mike Linksvayer/Wikimedia Commons.