Friday, May 29, 2009

Arlene Goldbard's piece on the appointment of Rocco Landesman is laden with exactly the kind of smugness that makes me grind my teeth when I encounter it in the non-profit arts world. Check out the opening:

In case he reads this, I’ll summarize my advice up front: Rocco Landesman, the intelligence, risk-taking and independence for which you are admired on Broadway will be of little use to this country unless you recognize how much you have to learn about the public interest in culture and democracy, committing to educate yourself, pronto. I sincerely hope you accept this challenge.

Translation: you're an ignorant idiot—you probably can't or won't learn anything, but at least when you don't I'll be able to say "I told you so."

She does recognize that Dana Gioia was a disaster, so we're not disagreeing on everything—and I understand her ambivalence about even caring about what the NEA is funding, while simultaneously holding the symbolism of the NEA in regard as a long-dimming promise made to the American people.

Rocco and I don't agree on everything, but equating his appointment with that of Jane Alexander is insulting—Rocco has worked tirelessly in the theater for decades, producing some of the most critically-lauded shows of the last thirty years. He's studied and taught theater history and management at Yale, and has a long history publishing critical thinking on the state of theater and the arts in this country.

Tellingly she chooses to cherrypick quotes from a 1994 NewYorker profile of Landesman. More illuminating would have been if she had chosen to address
his 2000 essay on the non-profit theater movement, or any of his other writings on the subject. Rocco is extremely outspoken—there's no shortage of his opinion. It seems a shame to pick apart fifteen year-old profiles when one can actually wrestle with the man's ideas.

At one point Goldbard says:

The people who feel this way see Landesman as an intelligent and independent risk-taker, a no-nonsense entrepreneur whose remarkable commercial success will somehow translate into an era of thriving expansion for the NEA.

This omits an important detail: it's commercial AND critical success. Artistic success. And his success is tied directly to his skill at negotiating, and his personal charisma, both of which are high.

The counterargument is:

The people who are dismayed by his appointment see the yawning gap between the skills, values and expertise of a Broadway producer and the qualities and abilities needed in the person appointed to nurture and safeguard a cultural democracy encompassing the entire arts ecology.

We're dealing with the NEA, which just suffered terribly under Gioia's "leadership"—who would be a better fit? Who has the policy experience, tied to leadership and charisma to revitalize the NEA?

Rocco is a bold choice—I'd argue that arts in America have long been guilty of never making bold choices, accepting less and less, compromising and conceding and shrinking.

If not Rocco, who?