Medici in Chief
McCarter, Jeremy, Newsweek
Byline: Jeremy McCarter
The NEA has spent years quietly nursing its culture-war wounds. Then Rocco Landesman took over.
There are dozens of federal agencies in Washington, D.C., and dozens of men and women running them, but it's hard to imagine that any of these civil servants has a Tom Sawyer streak wider than Rocco Landesman's. His CV includes the kind of grown-up adventures that his fellow (if fictional) Missourian might envy. He started and ran a multimillion-dollar investment fund, owned and bet on racehorses, and faced the most ludicrous odds of all by becoming a Broadway producer. Nor did this exhaust his energies. He once came close to buying the Cincinnati Reds.
Looking back on this resume today, maybe it should have been obvious that Landesman would react as he did when he heard that President Obama needed a new chairman for the National Endowment for the Arts--or, more precisely, when he overheard. Margo Lion, a Broadway producer who is co-chair of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, was talking about the difficulty of finding the right candidate for the job when Landesman, who happened to be within earshot, piped up: "I'll do it." But when his appointment was announced last year, the news came as a surprise. It jarred out of Tony Kushner, whose play Angels in America had been produced by Landesman, the hyperbolic assessment that it was "potentially the best news the arts community in the United States has had since the birth of Walt Whitman."
The high hopes didn't make it any easier to imagine how the self-starting operator who produced The Producers and has a reputation for outspokenness--not amid a cloister of introverts, mind you, but on Broadway--could survive at a federal bureaucracy that needs to watch every syllable. Would his energy and outsider perspective lead him to some groundbreaking new approach, or would his mouth land him in trouble? Six months after his swearing-in, we can tender an answer: yes.
After congressional Republicans nearly killed the NEA during the culture wars of the '90s, two careful stewards, Bill Ivey and Dana Gioia, nursed the agency back to stability. Landesman interprets this health as a mandate to be more aggressive. In speech after speech, he has vowed to abandon the agency's defensive posture and "to move the ball down the field." That mandate is reinforced every time he looks in the mirror, on the reasonable assumption that you don't hire an alligator-boot-wearing Broadway gambler to maintain the bureaucratic status quo. To judge from the early going, The Rocco Show offers a chance to watch a charismatic outsider say what needs saying and change the tone in Washington. In other words, it's a chance to see someone do what we elected his boss, the president, to do.
To understand how Landesman operates, look no further than The Peoria Incident. His rocky debut as chairman illustrates his MO so vividly that the story has the force of parable. Fittingly enough for a Broadway hand, it also unfolds in three acts.
In Act I, a newcomer says something he shouldn't. "I don't know if there's a theater in Peoria, but I would bet that it's not as good as Steppenwolf or the Goodman," he told The New York Times after his confirmation. In Act II, he travels to the aggrieved Illinois town and tries to make lemonade from his lemon. His charm and energy help him make friends, as do his shared regional roots: Landesman's family ran the Crystal Palace in St. Louis, an early home of Nichols and May, among others. But this is not a hat-in-hand, ritual-abasement sort of trip: though Landesman routinely says impolitic things, he has real political savvy. The much-hyped Peoria trip is actually the kickoff of a tour to promote his new slogan for the agency. "Art Works," he explains, is a phrase with three meanings: the actual art that the agency supports, the way that art shapes our lives, and its beneficial effect on our communities and economy. …