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NEA chief touts the power of art

Amid controversy, Rocco Landesman focuses on education and the

October 22, 2009|David Ng

The first eight weeks of Rocco Landesman's tenure as head of the National Endowment for the Arts have not been easy.

Conservative politicians and pundits have launched vigorous protests of the organization's activities. In September, a high-ranking NEA communications official resigned following accusations that he was involved in recruiting artists to create works in support of President Obama's policies.

In an interview with The Times on Wednesday, Landesman downplayed the recent partisan fighting that has dragged his organization into the media spotlight, saying that he remains optimistic about the power of art to help heal the national economy.

"We don't want to spend hours responding to attacks on us by whomever," he said. "We want to go out and talk about arts education and the arts as it relates to the economy -- we're going to be aggressive."

Landesman acknowledged that he has had to spend time dealing with complaints by conservatives who have accused the NEA of promoting Obama's legislative agenda and of funding pornography in California.

"That's part of the landscape and we have to accept it," he said.

When asked if he thought this signaled a renewal of the culture wars, he responded, "I think the culture war stuff is receding in history and people are focusing on much more important issues."

In November, Landesman will begin a nationwide tour that will combine speaking engagements and visits with arts leaders, including planned stops in California, during which he will promote art as a tool to help local economies recover from the recession.

The tour was announced Wednesday in a speech Landesman gave in Brooklyn to arts grant-makers.

"While I want to state in no uncertain terms that the NEA is not a political agency and that when art becomes propaganda I lose all interest in it, I also want everyone to know that the days of a defensive NEA are over," he said.

During the speech, he emphasized his personal philosophy of optimism and the new NEA motto: "Art works."

He told The Times that during the tour, he will work to find partnerships with local political leaders and the private sector to initiate new projects that will use a combination of NEA funding, local political support and private contributions.

Landesman, who worked for many years as a theater producer and head of New York's Jujamcyn Theaters, said that his transition to the public sector has required some adjustments to his blunt, take-charge personal style.

"There are nights when I come back home to [my wife] Debby and say, 'Why can't I just do this?' In the old days, I just did it," he said.

"I wish we could push the whole agenda faster. There are times when I just want to make a statement -- but there will be comments from the press office and a whole group of people."

One issue that Landesman wishes he could resolve faster is the debate over NEA funding for individual artists.

The NEA will have to accomplish its goals within its annual budget of approximately $155 million. In May, Obama proposed a 4% increase in the NEA's budget, to $161.3 million.

Landesman said it was unlikely the budget would grow more than that. "I'm not sure that's in the cards given the state of the economy. I would hope so, but it's just not likely," he said.

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david.ng@latimes.com

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