Landesman: The arts build better communities


Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, is interrupted by Chautauqua Opera Young Artists performing a flash mob during his lecture Monday in the Amphitheater. Photo by Megan Tan.

Nick Glunt | Staff Writer

When Rocco Landesman was young, his uncle would give his brother and him $5 for every F they got in school. His uncle, after all, went on to found a personal management company, its motto being, “We take the sting out of success and put the fun back in failure!”

“For some reason,” Landesman said, “that business never really took off.”

Nonetheless, Landesman took his uncle’s motto to heart.

Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, opened Week Four’s morning lecture series on “A Case for the Arts” at 10:45 a.m. Monday in the Amphitheater. His speech, titled “Art Works: A Conversation,” spanned three “acts” regarding the arts as community-builders: embracing failure, motivating audiences and investing locally.

Act I: Embracing failure

As Landesman delivered the first commencement address he’d ever been asked to make, he spoke to the graduating class at the Pittsburgh School for the Creative and Performing Arts. He wished upon them one thing: failure.

Since the 1980s, success in art has been reviewed by analyzing attendance, income and national attention. Landesman said the simplest way theaters achieve those goals is by practically mimicking Broadway or by playing it safe with familiar, popular material.

“But what is the result of defining success that way?” he said.

Small playhouses attempting mainstream success across the nation, he said, lose their identities and their ability to take chances.

Failure, he said, is required to find “alternate pathways to success.”

If applied to schoolchildren, failure helps them to adapt and to try harder. Failure, to those children, is nothing but the “permission to try again.” Innovation, he said, can be called “the art of productive, noble, fun failure.”

Landesman said failure shouldn’t be stigmatized in schools like it is today. Instead, it should be treated as one absolutely acceptable outcome. Encouraging students to try again, he said, is where it counts.

In that way, Landesman said, failure can inspire success.

“I think we can use the arts to give the luxury of failure to our students,” he said. “The arts allow for experiment, for risk. The arts often engage students who are not succeeding in other arenas — those who know what failure is and who navigate it every day.”

In this economic recession, though, art is often the first thing cut in struggling education budgets.

He ended this portion of his talk by referring to various failures that ended positively: Christopher Columbus sailing for India but finding America and Alexander Fleming neglecting to clean his lab before a holiday and discovering penicillin.

Act II: Motivating audiences

One of the biggest problems Landesman has encountered at the National Endowment for the Arts — and one of the most interesting conversations — regards that of shrinking demand for arts, while the amount of arts organizations continues to grow. Nationwide, demand for arts has shrunk 5 percent, but not-for-profit arts supply has increased by 23 percent.

Solving this problem, Landesman said, is all about increasing the demand for arts.

In boosting that demand, he said, one of the only reliable predictors of arts participators is if arts education was offered to them when they were children. Factors such as age, race, ethnicity and income level fall short of arts education.

Secondly, singing and dancing are becoming more popular — as a result, he said, arts suppliers should take advantage. As primetime television is filled with shows like “Glee” and “Dancing with the Stars,” theaters should start producing shows to appeal to those audiences.

Lastly, Landesman suggested arts organizations should “offer free samples.” Contrary to popular belief, presenting clips of music and plays makes audiences more likely to attend shows.

Essentially, he said, it’s about taking the audience seriously.

He said to imagine an arts organization in the future that valued the audience as highly as the artists and curators. Alongside the artistic director, there would be an audience director. There would be audience residencies with artist ones — where audiences would receive stipends to attend other shows.

“What if we saw this as an investment in building a stronger, more committed, more literate audience?” Landesman said.

Some art houses have found ways to engage their audiences, he said.

At the Seattle Art Museum, some tour guides are paid to give their opinions on art they do and don’t like. The museum recognizes that every audience member won’t like every single piece of art — and they want to encourage that.

In tandem with this, the box office at the National Theatre in London tracks the likes and dislikes of audience members to suggest which plays to skip.

Though these aren’t necessarily specific changes Landesman suggests, he said they’re on the right track to engaging their audiences.

Act III: Investing locally

Before Landesman could begin to talk on this subject, members of the Chautauqua Opera Young Artists Program interrupted his lecture — a flash mob had begun.

Each singer stood up from the audience or appeared on stage, singing different operatic tunes in both English and Italian. Spanning almost 10 minutes, the group performance ended with all participants together in a full-stage finale.

Landesman compared the short performance to a group of Knight Foundation opera singers called Random Acts of Culture, which exposes people to opera in public settings. The Young Artists supported his point: Local arts need to be supported.

“At the NEA, I’m calling for the arts community to stop looking toward Broadway or the equivalent for other art forms,” Landesman said. “Indeed, we need artists to invest in the places where they live, and we need those places to invest in their artists.”

A study by The Knight Foundation found that people most like the places they live for three reasons: social offerings, openness and aesthetics — art.

Another study found that communities greatly benefit from high levels of cultural activity. Namely, those cultural cities have more stable governments, better child welfare and less poverty.

“So why isn’t everyone just wildly investing in the arts?” Landesman said. “That’s a question I’ve been asking for more than a couple of years.”

Q: When you were talking about acknowledging viewers’ tastes, I found myself thinking about your point about certain static demands and that sort of thing, but taste isn’t static. Taste is elastic, and exposure — a certain amount of surprise exposure, if you will — has a certain stimulative effect on expanding taste. How can we make certain, in the array of offering of the arts, that people are challenged enough to expand those parameters of taste?

A: Well, first of all, I think access is a part of this — to get more and more people into the experience of the arts, which means knocking down one of the chief barriers, which is cost. It also means getting the arts institutions out and around their communities. Sometimes, you have these high temples on a hill that are pretty forbidding as places to access. Then I think also, it is the dynamic between the people who know the subject and the audiences. People who are presenting the work of art do have to listen to their audiences, as I’ve said, but the audiences also need to be guided by people who know the subject. I don’t think that everyone’s opinion about art is absolutely equal, although everyone seems to think that it is. Art is one thing in which everyone’s an expert. S. J. Perelman had one of my favorite remarks. He said, “I don’t know much about medicine, but I know what I like.”

Q: Many universities and colleges are cutting dance programs. (The questioner) cites the UNC Asheville program that only has five students. How can this change? I guess that’s talking about the balance between dance and classics. Are you observing that balance at war, and who’s winning, and is it good?

A: Well, it’s certainly not good. A lot of these have to do with cost pressures. The performing arts, especially the very labor-intensive ones, are easy ones for cutting because they take a lot of people. The presentation you just saw was as powerful as it was because it wasn’t just two people doing it. It was a dozen. And I think we’ve got to find a way to preserve that kind of participation.

Q: Do you think there’s any correlation between attendance and the cost of theater, museums, et cetera? That is, that in tough times, attendance declines because it’s too expensive to attend?

A: Yes. Certainly. I think that’s true for everything. And one of the things we have to do is work hard on the subsidy aspect of the equation so the accessibility and the cost can be brought down. It’s one of the things that we in the commercial theater are facing on Broadway. As our costs keep escalating, eventually it’s going to have an effect on audiences.

Q: What would it take to revive funding to individual artists as the NEA does for writers and other artists?

A: I think that’s one of those questions that it’s the 11-foot pole rule, for the questions I shouldn’t be touching with a 10-foot pole, but I will anyway, even though I will get in trouble. We’re the National Endowment for the Arts. We should be supporting artists as directly as possible, not through every other intermediary. We should be giving direct support to artists. Unfortunately, that’s not what’s now mandated by Congress, and it’s one of the things I think we have to change.

Q: Can you give us examples of productive failures within NEA, and what are the consequences?

A: Yes, I can. As a matter of fact, it’s actually a very interesting question. When I first arrived there, I didn’t know better, and our budget was $168 million. The first thing I did was I went to the White House and to the key congressional people, and I asked for an appropriation for Our Town, my new signature program, of another $150 million. By the time they got done laughing and the eyebrows which had been raised went down, we started the conversation that resulted in, ‘OK, if you’re not going to get this money appropriated by Congress, and you feel this is such an important program, how can you get the money?’ And the answer is, there are other federal agencies in the federal government that have connections with the arts, that have big art aspects. If you look at, for instance, Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius’ agency, well, there are natural intersections of the arts and childhood development, early cognitive training, mental health, geriatrics. There are all kinds of points of intersection. HUD, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Education obviously, the Department of Agriculture. All of these agencies have natural intersections with the arts. So it became my job to go to each of these cabinet secretaries and start to commandeer some funds from them. We also started a major initiative in the private sector, which you’ll be hearing more about shortly. That was a perfect example of productive failure. We failed to get the appropriation, but we set about trying to find the money somewhere else.

Q: This question, I think, goes to the supply and demand question. It focuses on the phenomena of the Met’s use of live opera broadcasts. Is this expanding supply, and is its effect to limit demand in the sense of herding regional operas, or is it driving people to regional operas?

A: I think it’s a great program, and it’s expanding both supply and demand. People you know, they beam it in two times squared. They beam it into theatres all across the country. People will see opera who have never encountered opera before, who have never experienced it, and some of them are going to become opera fans, so it’s going to increase demand without a doubt. And as far as decreasing supply, I think it has exactly the opposite effect. As people get excited about opera, it creates more employment opportunities both at the Met and everywhere else, and I just think it’s one of those win/win things that’s a great program all around.

Q: Let’s go to pragmatics. If one is working to renovate an old historical building in an economically challenged town to create a farmers market and gathering space for artists and music festivals, dance, how do we apply for grants from NEA?

A: The Our Town program is administered through our design discipline. It’s run by a brilliant guy named Jason Schupbach, and we’re in the process of now soliciting and welcoming applications for the Our Town program, and I would welcome them to be submitted.

Q: I’m trying to speak to the issues of evaluation in the grant process. How do arts organizations accomplish their goals in communities when so much funding relies on a grueling process of grant-writing and reporting with more and more demands of proving successful use of those funds in a constrained period of time?

A: Well, one of the first things that came to my attention was through my wife, Debby, who’s had a career in philanthropy. She looks at the application that we had and she says, ‘My god, you’re going to be getting people to be great grant writers.’ It may have nothing to do with them being great theatres or opera companies or dance troupes, because the application process is such a cumbersome thing to go through. We’re trying to streamline that as best we can within the parameters of what Congress and our oversight agencies mandate. I mean, there are certain things that have to be done, certain information that has to be provided, but we need to have a streamlined process so that the arts organizations can put their energy into making art, not into making grant applications.

Q: You talked about creatively engaging audiences at a variety of levels. With the empowerment of audiences, and maybe even regardless of that preface, what will be the role of the critic?

A: It goes back to what I said before, where you know I don’t know much about medicine, but I know what I like. The critic is presumably trained in that field, and one of the most alarming things that’s going on now in this world is what’s happening at newspapers across the country. The Chautauquan Daily actually does have some criticism, one of the few papers left, and the critics are presumably the experts in this field. I don’t think we have a healthy situation where all the criticism you get is people just blogging their opinions. I think you have to have some people who know what they’re talking about, presenting an expert point of view, and we now at the NEA are taking this very seriously. We have a program that we’re developing in coordination with the Knight Foundation. It’s a contest to try to see if there can be new business models, new sustainable models for criticism in communities, because most of the newspapers have gotten rid of all of their critics. There are now four papers in the United States that have an art critic. There used to be dozens, and this is not good.

Q: Would you please comment on your experience with, and your opinion of, the confirmation process?

A: I wouldn’t advise it for anybody. It’s not fun. It’s long and protracted and invasive, and frankly, I think it discourages people from serving in the government. I think it’s needlessly difficult. I think that should be streamlined just like our grant applications. I actually feel strongly about that.

Q: You’ve described many fabulous projects on the local level for which NEA provides seed funding grants. How frequently, especially in the last 10 years, do these programs continue once the grant funding ends?

A: Well, we try to monitor that pretty closely, and we want to start to have metrics where we can start to evaluate the programs over a period of time. This will especially pertain to our work with the private sector with private foundations who want to see the results of what they’re doing. Mike Bloomberg in New York has a great line. He said, “In God we trust. All others bring data.” And I think we’re trying to establish metrics of data and evaluation so we can keep track of what may start as a seed grant, but we want to see how things develop and keep track of it.

Q: What’s NEA doing, if anything, to specifically address the overwhelmingly difficult problem of the cost of health care insurance for self-employed artists?

A: That one is the 12-foot pole rule. We are not engaged in anything that could be construed as any kind of political action. We are really a bipartisan agency. That might be something for Bob Lynch, who’s going to be speaking here on Friday, at Americans for the Arts. He can address that much better than I can. We’re careful to avoid advocacy of that kind.

Q: What is being done to preserve arts education in schools nationwide, and what role is there for an organization like NEA to participate in that national dialogue when decisions are made locally?

A: Yes, as you know, most of this is at the state and local level with school boards and school districts. I will say that Arne Duncan, the new Secretary of Education, is not only a visionary, but he cares very deeply about the arts. And there was just a recent notice of funding availability for his Promise Neighborhoods program where the arts, for the first time, was included as a metric in these grants. If you’re a school that has an arts program in it, you have an advantage over programs that don’t, and this is the first time the arts have been included in that, and that’s a big win for the arts and for the NEA, and I’m very grateful to Arne for doing that.

Q: How do you balance, or do you believe there is a value in balancing the exposure of audiences to innovative, perhaps unpopular, works and the overall issue of needing to promote the support for the arts and “butts in the seat”?

A: I think you have to do both. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing popular programming and understanding the taste of your audience and playing to that, but there also has to be, at the same time, work that is challenging and venturesome and risky. That, after all, is the nature of subsidy. Presumably, you’re given a subsidy because you’re being protected from the exigencies of the marketplace and within that framework, as is happening at the Chautauqua Theater here, you’re going to do work that’s more venturesome, as the work they do is. I know that the “Three Sisters” was controversial, but that’s exactly the kind of work that isn’t going to be done if what you’re doing is just polling your audience. They’re leading the audience in that way, and I think that’s very important.

Q: Have you been watching the events around New York City Opera, and can you comment on their prospects for success or what, if any, role government might have in helping them?

A: I don’t know. I followed it like everybody has, but I know too little about the subject. I recently did see one of the city operas, Séance on a Wet Afternoon. My ex-wife and still very good friend, Heidi Ettinger, was the designer of that, and I thought it was a marvelous, marvelous opera, but the issues of their policy and programming, I’ll have to leave to them.

Q: In your mind, what is the ideal resident non-profit theater in the country, and why?

A: Well, we have a great one here. We really do. There’s no question. From all I’ve heard, they really do take risks and take chances, and one of the good things about it here is that — and Tom (Becker) and I were talking about this earlier — it’s very similar to the model that I was trained in and grew up in, where you have a mixture of equity actors, non-equity actors and students. I was trained at the Yale School of Drama, where there was the School of Drama, there were the students — those of us getting degrees there — but there was also a professional repertory company, an equity company. The students benefited enormously from their contact with those professionals. The professionals taught in the program. I think they benefited enormously from being exposed to new thinking and to new people coming through. I think that kind of symbiosis is very productive and healthy, so that kind of modeled what I would call a conservatory professional theater model. It’s one that I think is ideal. I think you had it when I was at the Yale Repertory Theatre, and I think you have it here at Chautauqua.

Q: What advice do you have for parents who appear to take extraordinary measures to ensure that their children do not experience failure?

A: Who was it that wrote that book? The Chinese woman? Yes, the Tiger Mom. Well, I’m glad to say that I never read the book or bought it, but I did read the reviews of the book with a tremendous sense of outrage and anger. I saw a lot of the discussion about it. I would say, actually, to be serious for a moment, that that is exactly what you don’t want to do, and her kids are trained in the arts to be concert pianists and so forth. I can’t think of a better way to stifle creativity.

– Transcribed by Taylor Rogers