Saturday, August 8, 2009

Rocco, this won't play in Peoria

I was one of those people who cheered the selection of Rocco Landesman to be chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. I felt it would be great to have a theatre guy running the NEA, someone who would be a strong advocate for artistic expression but with an eye on today's economic realities.

I noted that as president of Broadway's Jujamcyn Theatres, he comes from a commercial background. But Landesman, 62, has a doctorate in dramatic literature from Yale, so he's certainly been interested in the arts from an intellectual standpoint, not just as a profit center.

Well, on Friday Landesman was confirmed by the Senate and he touched all the right bases in his statement:

"Art is essential to the civic, economic and cultural vitality of our nation. It reflects who we are and what we stand for - freedom of expression, imagination and vision. I am eager to work with our many partners to bring quality arts programs to neighborhoods and communities across the country."

Ok so far, so good.

Then I read this article in The New York Times, Landesman's maiden interview as chairman of the NEA. I liked most of what he said but this comment made me cringe:

"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 [in Chicago]. There's 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."

Rocco, was it wise in your very first interview to pick a fight with Peoria? Which, as a native Midwesterner yourself, you must know is in Illinois, home state of the president who nominated you to head the NEA.

I don't know whether there's a theater there or not. And if there is, maybe it's not as good as Steppenwolf or the Goodman. But that's not the point. The point is introducing more people to the arts. And not everyone can get to Chicago or New York.

The point is, good theatre, music, dance and other art is being made all over this country in communities large and small. As NEA chairman, you should be celebrating that fact and building it up, not tearing it down with a snarky comment.


Monica said...

I can think of plays I've seen in Iowa at community theatersthat have been better than shows I've seen in Chicago. Yes, the snark isn't very good since he is in charge of the National Endownment for the Arts, but I was a bit more interested in the quote that followed that about artistic merit being questioned, which makes me curious as to whether or not Roundabout will be getting any NEA grants.

Esther said...

Oh I know, it was a silly thing to say. I'm actually not sure which theatre companies get NEA grants now, and whether places like Roundabout are on the list. But I do think the limited money should be spread around the country because not everyone can get to a big city.

Kathy Chitwood said...

In response to Mr. Landesman’s NY Times interview, Suzette Boulais, executive director of ArtsPartners, and I extended invitations to the new NEA chairman to visit Peoria to attend a production at Eastlight Theatre (one of Peoria's theatres). He immediately responded by email his gratitude for the invitation and that he will come. Tuesday afternoon on his first day in office, I received a call from Mr. Landesman confirming that he is excited about visiting our community to experience our arts scene. Our goal is for Peoria to represent all of the smaller communities in the nation that are doing worthy and worthwhile work in the arts. In homage to the ‘The Beer Summit’, we are lovingly calling this visit, ‘The Lemonade Stand’…not because that is what we drink, but because that is what we do in Peoria – we take lemons and turn them into lemonade.

Esther said...

Hey Kathy, thanks so much for the comment. It would be great if the Lemonade Stand attracts as much national attention as the Beer Summit!