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His pitch for the arts has kept NEA alive

Dana Gioia has made education programs the top priority for the once-embattled agency.

February 19, 2007|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

From West 111th Street, Lennox's Moffett Elementary School could be mistaken for an underground military weapons depot. A driveway passes through a gray metal fence, then curls up onto the paved roof of the building. At the southwest side, broad brick stairs funnel pedestrians to the school doors, and grassy earth is banked up against the southeast wall, forming yet another fortress in a neighborhood of bungalows behind forbidding fences and grated windows.

Dana Gioia, 56, grew up a few blocks from here in Hawthorne, and he has returned from Washington, D.C., for a few hours to do something he does well: sell.

Gioia, a highly regarded poet and former marketing manager for the desserts division of General Foods, is just a few weeks into his second term as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. "Jell-O Jigglers" was one of his big successes before he left the corporate life in 1992 to write full time, mostly poetry and music criticism.

Now Gioia sells the arts, a gig he says he initially didn't want when first approached more than four years ago.

"I was a writer. I was very successful. I was living in California," Gioia told about 40 people gathered for a grant-seeking workshop at Moffett, a site selected in part for its innovative arts-based education programs. "I had no interest in going into politics or going to Washington. But I saw a trend across the United States that scared me."

The trend: the erosion of arts education from the nation's public schools.

Though no one claims that Gioia has single-handedly reversed that course, he has had a profound effect on the NEA, converting the once-beleaguered federal program into the nation's main engine for integrating arts and education.

It's a remarkable turnaround for an agency whose mere name was once enough to get Newt Gingrich and other social conservatives foaming at the mouth. Controversial exhibits, including Robert Mapplethorpe's homoerotic photographs and Andres Serrano's picture of a plastic crucified Christ in a jar of urine, made the NEA the central battleground in the 1990s culture wars.

"The most important thing for the NEA was to bring it outside politics and to refuse the polarization that the critics had imposed on the agency," Gioia said, sipping a Beck's beer from a glass in a Marina del Rey hotel a few hours after his Moffett school appearance and visits to the Torrance Cultural Arts Center and L.A. Theatre Works.

For Madeline Puzo, dean of USC's theater school and a former NEA consultant, the key questions raised by the assaults on the NEA remain unanswered.

"In a democracy, what is the role of the arts and what is the role of the government with the arts?" Puzo said. "There was support for the arts from those political and religious institutions. We haven't figured that out."

But she believes "one has to credit Dana Gioia for managing to not only help [the NEA] survive, but to grow a bit."

A decade after Congress was on the verge of killing the agency, the NEA's most recent budget was readily approved on a voice vote. "We let our critics dictate the public conversation about the arts endowment and government funding -- then you're always reacting," Gioia said about the earlier NEA controversies.

"It seemed to me that we had to take an active role in creating the public conversation that would lead to productive change in society. You don't do this by venting opinions. You do this by figuring out what should be done, and what works."

Stepping into the fray

When Gioia was drafted to take over the agency in 2003, the bullets were flying from all directions.

"Both the left and the right would have been happy for me to fail for different reasons," Gioia said. "The right -- when I came to Washington, every month there were about 125 members of Congress who voted to abolish the NEA. They were constantly shooting warning shots across the bow. And I think the left would have loved to see any of the [Bush] administration's efforts fail, just to prove that it wasn't working."

Gioia, taking Franklin D. Roosevelt's Depression-era Works Progress Administration as his inspiration, decided to redirect the agency toward rebuilding the nation's arts infrastructure by sponsoring research into arts and reading habits, and helping arts organizations become more integrated with and vital to their own communities while creating a broad consumer market for the arts.

He has conceived or backed such NEA innovations as sending theater and opera troupes to military bases; creating a national network of acting companies to perform Shakespeare to expose more people to the work and give actors jobs; helping support the Big Read, a program building on the trend of communities reading and discussing a single literary work; and sponsoring Poetry Out Loud, aimed at getting high schoolers to connect with poetry.

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