Post authored by Communications Intern Olivia Brown.
The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is currently without permanent leadership. Former Chairman Rocco Landesman — an accomplished Broadway producer and country-western enthusiast — resigned from his position this past November, wrapping up a successful four-year stint. As President Obama is expected to appoint a new chairman in the coming weeks, now is a opportune time to reflect on what qualities we’d like to see in Landesman’s replacement.
1. Genre Agnosticism: Historically, arts funders — both private and public — have focused on genres with an established history of institutional support, such as classical and jazz. Such support is important, as these “invisible genres” are often underserved in the commercial marketplace. Still, there’s no doubt that music is incredibly diverse, and that diversity should be respected. Landesman and his team demonstrated real leadership in affirming the value and vitality of the full spectrum of American cultural traditions, even when doing so might be perceived as politically risky. Take, for example, this quote from a 2009 Wall Street Journal article that Landesman gave shortly after taking the helm at NEA:
“There are new forms of music … and the NEA should be there. We should be reflecting the reality in our world these days, whether it’s hip-hop, or whatever. There’s a lot going on that the NEA traditionally has no comprehension about.”
“Do you think that hip-hop would be an appropriate area for NEA to fund?” I inquired.
“Absolutely. And mural painting and graffiti are art. There are popular aspects of all the arts that I think shouldn’t be ignored.”“
Kudos to Landesman for recognizing that the “fine arts” are not the only forms of expression that are important to American culture. It is vital that the next NEA chair continues to deepen this emphasis on inclusion.
2. Building connections with other federal agencies: In July of 2010, the NEA partnered with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to offer grants to arts organizations seeking to partner with “state and local governments, metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), transit agencies, philanthropic and non-profit organizations.” These collaborations illustrate how art can be integral across communities and aspects of life. This kind of creative thinking around federal government initiatives helps deepen support for the arts at a time when budgets are challenged and funding scarce. It can also help spread the message of art as more than just a recreational luxury: it impacts peoples’ lives for the better where they live, work and play.
3. A holistic approach to the arts & economic development. Landesman’s guiding principle of “Art Works” is a creative layercake emphasizing this idea. Built on three facets (the “artwork” itself, the way that art “works” on audiences to effect change, and the “art work” that is produced by the “two million full-time artists and 5.7 million arts-related jobs in this country”) the concept looks at the arts as a key component of a healthy economy. A thriving arts sector requires productive relationships between the public sector, the non-profit sector and the private sector. We think that the future Chair should continue to harness NEA’s research and funding efforts in service of this idea.
4. Focusing on how art makes diverse communities stronger. Through the “Our Town” program, Landesman and his team emphasized the importance of Creative Placemaking, developing a program that “[invests] in partnerships among arts, cultural, or design organizations and local governments and “improve[s] communities by way of instilling a sense of value for the arts as a propelling force.” We hope this continues. Furthermore, we think that “creative placemaking” conversations help to forefront the basic needs of artists and musicians themselves — from affordable housing and health insurance to lower-cost, higher-quality broadband to building audiences for live music outside of major markets.
Finally, since so much of the NEA chairmanship is about bridge-building, it’s important to find a leader with the right blend of personal charisma and vision. Landesman was unafraid to rock the boat, but also had a deeply populist streak that allowed him to connect with diverse audiences. A rare combination of qualities for sure, and we’re hoping that the next Chair is up for the challenge.