Rocco Landesman: How Art Can Help Save the Economy

The chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts on the importance of having an author as president


The National Endowment for the Arts is the country's largest annual source of art funding, a mission whose importance has only been sharpened by the recession. Rocco Landesman, the independent government agency's current chairman, argues that more people, especially in Congress, should see arts recovery as an economic priority. On November 6, Landesman, theater veteran and producer of four Tony Award-winning Broadway shows, including The Producers, launched an "Art Works" tour to promote the role of the arts in U.S. communities. He recently chatted with U.S. News about art, the economy, and the importance of having an author as president. Excerpts:

Why should art be a priority for the government?

A government always cares—a country, a society always cares—about its art. It affects people. It can have a profound impact on their lives. People employed in the arts are real workers. Arts are part of the real economy and, most importantly, can be a catalyst for economic development in cities and towns. Artists are individual entrepreneurs.

How many are employed in the art world?

There are 5.7 million jobs in this country that are directly arts related, and that's a significant part of the population. Arts jobs are real jobs. And I think once that gets realized, we're going to be part of the domestic policy. The Congress will see a benefit in supporting the arts because there are good economic reasons to do so.

How has the recession affected the arts?

It's been disastrous for arts organizations. Many of them are going out of business. The ones that aren't going out of business are cutting staffs from 25 to 50 percent.

What does it mean that Barack Obama is an author?

I think he has a predisposition toward supporting the arts, being an artist himself. It's very lucky for the arts community that he's the president because I think he gets it and he cares.

How has his administration shown its commitment to the arts?

During the campaign, as candidate Obama, he had—and I don't remember another candidate having this—an arts advisory committee and an arts policy. So this was a concern of his really from Day 1. Michelle Obama just gave a speech at the G-20 in Pittsburgh where she talked about how arts are not an extra in our national life; they're at the core of our national life.

How do you respond to the GOP criticism that the NEA is pushing a Democratic agenda?

I certainly have no interest in propaganda. That is not the kind of agency we are. We do advocate for the arts. But we're not going to be supporting any legislation or any program for the administration—of course not.

Do you plan to do anything differently from your predecessor as director of the NEA?

We're still going to use the same criteria for our grants. We want to reward quality wherever that occurs—you know, not just in the big cities. Great art can occur anywhere. We're not going to have a prescription that we have to find an organization in X Congressional District just because it's X Congressional District.

Tell me about the "Art Works" campaign.

What we're going to do is basically find out how art does work in various communities, how it's a part of the economy. It's going to be a learning trip to a great extent.

Are the arts as abundant now as in the past?

I think so. I think it's very vibrant. I'm very encouraged by what I see everywhere. There are more arts institutions all the time—maybe too many of them, given the current economy. But I'm excited about everything I see out there.

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