It’s official: Rocco Landesman will be the next Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. He was confirmed by voice vote by the Senate yesterday along with Jim Leach for the National Endowment for the Humanities and a host of other public officials.

Sitting down for an interview with the Times‘s Robin Pogrebin, Landesman lived up to his reputation as a firecracker. Witness this series of no-BS quotes from the man who will be the most prominent public face of arts policy in the near future if not beyond:

In American politics generally, he added: “The arts are a little bit of a target. The subtext is that it is elitist, left wing, maybe even a little gay.”

“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,” he said, referring to two of Chicago’s most prominent theater companies. “There is 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.”

Though he would not put a dollar figure on his own fiscal goals, he called the current appropriation of $155 million “pathetic” and “embarrassing.”

The new chairman said he already has a new slogan for his agency: “Art Works.” It’s “something muscular that says, ‘We matter.’ ” …. As for the former agency slogan, “A Great Nation Deserves Great Art,” he said, “We might as well just apologize right off the bat.”

We also learn that Landesman offered himself up for the job, rather than having been recruited for it, and that he seems to harbor few feelings of reverence for his immediate predecessors at the helm. He indicates that he would reinstate the individual artist awards “tomorrow” if it were up to him, though it would take an act of Congress to make that possible again.

I have to admit that I kind of love the idea of a tough-talking NEA Chair, and feel that it will be a helpful weapon in the culture wars that the right seems itching to start up again. The fact that Landesman both has artists’ priorities at heart and is willing to fight for them is very promising indeed. The one quote out of the above that worries me a bit is his attitude toward arts in regional areas — sometimes it’s not all about artistic merit, and there’s certainly something to be said for developing local talent rather than continually losing it all to New York or LA. (Isaac Butler has much more on this here.) On the other hand, Landesman does recognize the arts’ importance to downtown urban economies–presumably, whether they’re in Peoria or anywhere else–and says that he wants to make this focus a “signature” element of his tenure. Landesman promises to be an entertaining figure at the helm if nothing else, and hopefully will end up accomplishing far more than that.

In related news, Joan Shigekawa of the Rockefeller Foundation has been appointed Senior Deputy Chairman of the NEA. While at Rockefeller, Shigekawa served as Associate Director for Arts and Humanities and led forward the notable NYC Cultural Innovation Fund. During her tenure, Rockefeller funded Social Impact of the Arts Project’s Dynamics of Culture and Culture and Neighborhood Revitalization initiatives (the latter a collaboration with The Reinvestment Fund), which collectively represent some of the most sophisticated research ever undertaken on the arts and local communities.

  • Anonymous

    The artistic merit section kinda threw up a red flag for me as well. I hope to learn more about Mr. Landesman's thoughts on the subject in the weeks and months to come. Apart from that, I was very enthused about the direction of his thinking. Will look forward to learning more about him, and his vision for the agency, as he settles into the post.

    Kira Campo