Aaron Krumheuer | Staff Writer
As President Barack Obama’s appointee to head the largest federal arts agency, Rocco Landesman’s job is to make “A Case for the Arts.”
Landesman is the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. He will be Week Four’s first morning lecturer and will talk on “Art Works: A Conversation in Three Acts” at 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater.
“We’ve never had the chairman of the NEA,” said Sherra Babcock, director of Chautauqua’s Department of Education. “This is really quite a coup.”
Landesman made a move from Broadway to the NEA in August 2009 after a long history with theater.
His father and uncle operated a cabaret theater in his hometown of St. Louis, and Landesman studied dramatic literature and criticism at Yale School of Drama. In 1987, he became president of Jujamcyn, a company that owns and operates five Broadway theaters, and he also has produced a number of Tony Award-winning shows, including “Big River,” “Angels in America” and “The Producers.”
Not only an arts worker, Landesman has had a varied career as an entrepreneur, operating a mutual fund in the 1970s and owning two minor league baseball teams. He owned racehorses for a time and once hit the trifecta at the Kentucky Derby.
His is the 10th chairman of the NEA since the independent federal agency was created by an act of Congress in 1965. Throughout the years, the agency has awarded $4 billion in grants to support the arts. In 2011, it was given $167.5 million to distribute to not-for-profit organizations, artist communities, local arts agencies and arts education.
NEA’s mission covers a broad array of mediums, including visual arts, dance, design, literature, opera and theater.
The new motto for Landesman’s NEA is “Art works,” a phrase with three meanings:
“The works of art themselves, the ways art works on audiences, and art as work — are the intrinsic values of the arts, and they are at the center of everything we do at the National Endowment for the Arts,” Landesman wrote in the 2011 Guide to the NEA.
His three-fold approach is at the heart of the NEA’s “Our Town” program, a new initiative to bridge local government and arts organizations, produce public art and stimulate local economies. Its initial funding was announced July 12 of this month and will grant $6.575 million to 51 different communities in 34 states, many to areas with less than 200,000 residents.
Funding to the NEA took a large hit in the mid-1990s in response to the “culture wars” of the previous years. Conservative groups like the American Family Association took offense to a number of NEA-funded artists, most notably the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The ability to fund individual visual artists was taken away from the NEA after the controversy and still remains disallowed.
Don Kimes, artistic director of Visual Arts at Chautauqua Institution, was an artist when he witnessed the attacks on the NEA in the 1980s and still defends their right to support challenging art.
“Art that is significant — when I think of late Titian or I think of Rembrandt or the Florentine painters who were all supported by the government, [they] would not have been able to do what they did without that support,” Kimes said.
However, the current NEA has seen an expanded budget from previous years, and Landesman is outspoken about his desire for more increases.
Before arriving at Chautauqua, Landesman visited the League of Historic American Theatres in Schenectady, N.Y., and met with Congresswoman Louise Slaughter to survey the art scene in western New York, Babcock said.
“People come to Chautauqua for an immersion in learning and the arts,” she said. “Theirs is a different kind of vacation … they’re going to participate in the arts in a way you really can’t do in any other place.”