Gioia Puts Art Back in NEA

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 5, 2003 | Go to article overview

Gioia Puts Art Back in NEA


Byline: T.L. Ponick, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

It leaks, it creaks, its elevators are archaic, its water system is iffy, and its food and shopping courts are dim and uninviting. One of the last standing examples of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture in Washington, the Old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue has seen better days. The same might be said of one of its star tenants, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

The NEA, the beleaguered government arts agency, is still suffering an institutional hangover from its long-ago battles with Congress over its support for Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano and other in-your-face avant-garde artists, but all this could change soon as NEA's new chairman, Dana Gioia, an energetic, youthful 52, takes charge.

Nominated by President Bush to succeed former Chairman Michael P. Hammond, who died last year after only one week in office, Mr. Gioia was confirmed unanimously by the Senate in January and assumed his office in February.

"One of the reasons I took this position was to help the endowment become one of the premier arts organizations in the country," Mr. Gioia says.

Having recently moved into a spacious, sun-filled suite of offices trimmed in a dusty robin's-egg blue, he seems ready and eager to spiff up the decor, as well as the agency itself. "I seem to have inherited these," he says, gesturing toward a pair of inexplicable abstract paintings adorning the walls. "I have no idea what they mean. I think we'll be replacing them with something more representational."

Mr. Gioia is a native Californian descended from Italian and Mexican stock and is the first person in his family to have attended college. He was awarded a bachelor of arts degree and master's degree in business administration from Stanford University and earned a master of arts degree in comparative literature from Harvard, but instead of choosing an academic career, he became a businessman-poet in the tradition of Wallace Stevens by taking a job with General Foods in New York, where he rose to become a vice president of marketing.

As a poet, Mr. Gioia eventually became a leader in the expansive/new formalist poetry movement, which supports a return to poetic traditions including, but not limited to, poetry in meter and rhyme, as well as verse whose subject matter involves real-world experiences rather than the narcissistic concerns of the poet. The growing movement, many of whose adherents are from outside academia including some conservatives and libertarians was sharply attacked by the academic modernists and postmodernists. It has largely persevered, however, gradually gaining numerous adherents.

Mr. Gioia's breakthrough moment occurred with the 1991 publication of his controversial essay "Can Poetry Matter?" in the Atlantic Monthly. This challenge to the poetry community to re-connect with the real world and poetic traditions, as well as with the other arts, drew a record response from the magazine's readers and started Mr. Gioia on his way toward becoming a nationally known figure.

He has since authored collections of poetry, served as editor of a popular series of college literary textbooks and reviewed books for many publications, including The Washington Times.

In the mid-1990s, Mr. Gioia embraced writing as a full-time career, leaving General Foods and relocating to his native California, where he became music critic for a San Francisco magazine. He also penned the libretto for "Nosferatu," a new opera by American composer Alva Henderson. In addition, he helped establish a long-running conference on poetic form and narrative held on the campus of West Chester University in suburban Philadelphia.

Mr. Gioia's appointment as NEA chairman has generally been well-received in the artistic community, particularly among many of his fellow poets in the expansive movement. Paul Lake, a widely published poet and novelist and a professor of English at Arkansas Technical University, says he believes Mr. …

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