President Obama still has the political clout to appoint anyone he wants to the post of Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and on Wednesday he selected a cowboy, of sorts. Rocco Landesman, big-time theater producer, who is known more for his showy eccentricities (er, racehorse gambling?) than his administrative abilities, will assume the job most recently held by poet Dana Gioia. Landesman has been at the production helm of some of the biggest shows on Broadway in the last ten years; among them “Angels in America,” “Jersey Boys,” and “The Producers.” Infamous for slapping a $400 price on tickets for “The Producers” to deter scalpers, he’s said that he believes in a “free market system where the market ultimately sets the price for buyers.”
What does the choice of this free-market-favoring maverick producer mean for the future of non-profit arts funding? Gioia, who stepped down on inauguration day this year, was a part-time poet and a full-time businessman. He came to the NEA as an executive from General Foods and never quite shed his corporate ways. During his five-year tenure, he used his business savvy to sell the NEA to Congress in a way it hadn’t been before, through constituent-based touring initiatives like American Masterpieces and the easy-to-digest literary programs, The Big Read and Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience.
But this is what Gioia was always meant to do. Funding for the NEA steadily increased over the past five years, recently settling at $155 million, $20 million short of its 1992 peak. Those hyperbolic e-mail forwards begging me to save the NEA from annihilation by the political right appeared less and less in my inbox. Friends of a certain generation forgot the culture wars in the face of the war on terror. The NEA stayed alive by staying safe. But just because nothing is in danger of dying doesn’t mean nothing is at stake.
While Gioia came from General Foods, he also came from the old school of literature and poetry. When I worked at the NEA, the staff book club read The Odyssey at his recommendation, rather than the work of living, breathing (and often young) writers that exist on the pages of literary journals and are regularly funded by the agency’s creative writing fellowships. He relentlessly quoted Shakespeare at board meetings and I could tell that teleconferencing Ray Bradbury into a book club event was as contemporary and edgy as he was willing to go.
So while we can examine what President Obama meant by choosing a Manhattan mover and shaker to lead the country’s most important arts funding body, perhaps it is more important to examine what it can or should mean. The agency is no longer, as Gioia said when he found it, “demoralized, defensive, and unconfident.” Then this is the perfect moment for Landesman to step in and get risky. Maybe, instead of using The Big Read to get communities to engage with The Great Gatsby and Grapes of Wrath (however economically prescient those may be now) the NEA could get them to devour the likes of work by Junot Diaz and Jhumpa Lahiri. Maybe the NEA could revisit the definition and semantic impact of the term “American Masterpiece.” Maybe Chairman Landesman can use his own brand of business savvy, however conservative, to further support the living, breathing artists he worked with on a daily basis on Broadway.
We shouldn’t expect recklessness. The NEA creative writing fellowships are the only individual fellowships left over after the Mapplethorpe scandal decimated arts funding in the 1990s. Those fellowships have served my community of young, struggling writers well, providing over $1,000,000 to poets this year alone. But perhaps it’s time to do more than fund their survival. Perhaps getting risky means it’s finally time to start treating living artists as the reason for funding from Congress, instead of a quiet afterthought. Perhaps if that happens, they will become the new American masters.