Tag Archives: Dana Gioia

The Culture Wars, version 2009: It’s beginning to look a lot like infighting

Winslow Homer, Bayonet Charge, Harper's Weekly, 1862/Wikimedia Commons

Rocco Landesman has barely been confirmed as new leader of the National Endowment for the Arts, and already it’s beginning to look like Bull Run.

To be fair, Landesman fired first.

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.

Now the <100K Project (motto: “Bringing the Arts Back Home”) has fired back, branding Landesman as an anti-democratic elitist who equates art with money and power and who fundamentally misunderstands that art belongs to everyone. The post is worth reading, complete with comments.

It’s important to understand that these combatants, while they may be equally committed to the idea of art, are coming from very different places. The <100K Project is concerned with nurturing art in communities with less than 100,000 population: It believes that culture is everywhere, and has an intensely local base. Landesman is an urban high-roller, a big-deal Broadway producer who believes (and I hope I’m not putting false words in his mouth) that the best art and artists tend to accrue in large population centers — our New Yorks and Chicagos and the like — and are therefore the art and artists that must be kept flourishing. If “lesser” art sources in “lesser” places die in the process … well, that’s the price of ensuring quality.

It’s an old question, and always prone to pendulum swings. Who is art for? Is it participatory or inspirational? Do we travel to where it is, or bring it to where we are? There’s a history here: Too bad if you’re a Peoria or Portland and can’t afford the best. If you’re a Pendleton or Prineville, you’re not even in the discussion. The wealthy and otherwise privileged can travel to world cultural centers to experience the best. For the rest, well, there’s always TV. The abandonment of small towns and even medium-sized cities in the new economics is a social and cultural issue of real and under-discussed importance.

Yet quality IS an issue. We DO want to recognize that some things are better than others, and we do believe that those things should survive. So where are we: In a sectarian battle between big and small? Worrying about an issue that doesn’t exist? Jumping the gun on our ideas of who Landesman is and what he’ll do?

Oregon has consistently been treated as a colonial outpost in the national cultural game, as it has been in politics and economics. Even in the recent share-the-wealth days of NEA chairmen Bill Ivey and Dana Gioia, Oregon has had less NEA money returned to it than strictly statistical disbursement based on its share of the national population would dictate. One explanation (a pretty weak one) for that has been that money allotted to larger states can also be beneficial to smaller ones: Radio broadcasts of the Metroplitan Opera, for instance, that go to stations across the country.

Who’s right in this argument? Which way should the NEA go? Is it possible that both quality and geography can be served? Let’s hear your ideas.

Rocco at the NEA: The new arts czar shakes things up

What happens when you invite a rough-and-tumble whiskey guy to the vicar’s garden tea party? We’re about to find out. Last week President Obama nominated Rocco Landesman to be the next chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and suddenly crumpets beneath the arbor seem a little tame.

The NEA takes Shakespeare to AmericaLandesman, who owns and runs Jujamcyn Theaters on Broadway, is no not-for-profit guy. He takes chances and he makes money (and sometimes he loses it). He likes baseball, country music and horse racing, and he’s never been much for touchy-feely collaboration: He likes to run the show.

This is a guy, it seems, who’d as soon smash the not-for-profit cup as paint it with pretty posies.

So why are so many arts types beaming at the possibilities? “Rocco is no diplomat, but he’d blow the dust off a moribund organization that has contented itself in recent years with a policy equivalent of art appreciation,” Portland theater guy Mead Hunter writes approvingly on Bloghorrea. Christopher Knight at the L.A. Times’ Culture Monster says the whole thing startled him because he’d almost forgotten there was an NEA.

And a friend in New York arts circles is ecstatic, even if Landesman turns out to be a short-termer. “A lot of the time the guy who kicks a hole in the wall is not the same guy who goes through the wall,” she says. Of course, she adds, kicking a hole is no guarantee. The next person can either walk to the other side, or patch the wall and return to life as usual.

Certainly Landesman’s record as a theater leader — and increasingly, as an industry spokesman — is strong. Jujamcyn has five shows on Broadway right now, including “Hair,” “33 Variations” and “Desire Under the Elms,” and Landesman’s had a hand in shows as important as “Angels in America,” “Spring Awakening,” “The Producers,” “Grey Gardens,” the great August Wilson’s Broadway productions, the revivals of “Gypsy” and “Sweeney Todd,” “Big River” and “Doubt.”

He raised both hackles and hopes when he accused the not-for-profit theater world of acting too much like the commercial theater. It was an elephant-in-the-living-room comment, and not calculated to keep things warm and fuzzy. Is it true? In what ways? What’s the difference between for-profit and not-for-profit in the cultural world? I have my views. It’d be fascinating to hear yours. Hit that comment button and let’s start a conversation.


The National Endowment for the Arts is a federal bureaucracy, and that makes its chairmanship an intensely political position. What began in a burst of optimism in 1965 as a part of the Great Society — Lyndon Johnson’s push to expand the economic and cultural advantages of the urban East to all corners of the country — devolved by the 1980s into an unwilling infantry skirmish in the nation’s cynical “culture wars.” The NEA, a truly democratic bureaucracy, was targeted by right-wing radical warriors as a breeding ground of unAmericanism, and its survival was thrown in doubt, although enemies such as Sen. Jesse Helms and polemicist Pat Buchanan needed it as a whipping boy.

Oregon lawyer John Frohnmayer, appointed NEA boss by the first President Bush, quickly learned it was all about politics. Pressured from the right and challenged from the left, he tried to parse the difference and ended up pleasing no one, especially after fumbling the divisive “NEA Four” case in 1990. The upshot: The NEA was weakened further, Frohnmayer lost his job, and he was born again as a First Amendment crusader. Free speech, he learned, doesn’t come free.

In the new storyline Dana Gioia, George W. Bush’s NEA chief, is the nice boring guy who threw the tea party that Landesman’s about to smash up. And there’s no doubt, the NEA has been far more timid than most people in the arts world would like it to be.

But different times call for different politics, and Gioia was stuck with the time he got. The man was no dummy. Yes, he was a soothe-the-ruffled-feathers guy. Yes, he emphasized things like folk arts and tended to bestow honors on the obvious sort of people who get hauled out to perform on public television pledge week. Yes, he oversold the tried-and-true and ducked the controversial.

But he also saved the endowment’s skin. After years of shrinking budgets and Congressional threats to kill the agency off, he steered the NEA away from the culture wars and succeeded in getting some modest boosts in its budget. He emphasized spreading the money around to small-population states and rural areas as well as the country’s cultural capitals, and he finally succeeded in persuading most of Congress that the arts are a good thing, even if he had to slap a smiley face on the product to push the sale through.

One thing sticks in my memory. Oregon was going through yet another of its periodic budget crises a few years ago and the state Legislature, looking for ways to cut costs, was floating the idea of killing the already slimly financed Oregon Arts Commission, which among other things funnels money from the NEA to recipients in the state.

I called Gioia and asked him what he thought of it. Well, gee, he replied, the problem is, we have this federal money to give out, and if there’s no state agency to give it to, we can’t legally give any of it to anyone in Oregon. Oregon’s share would have to go to other states. And that would be too bad. But of course, legally, our hands would be tied.

Nice, quick, apologetic, to the point — and very effective. That’s politics.

If Landesman shakes things up, it’ll be because the time has come to do some shaking. That’s politics, too.