An Interview with Rocco Landesman

Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts

Ann McQueen

Rocco Landesman spoke for the first time in the role of the tenth chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts at the 2009 GIA conference, Navigating the Art of Change. The Brooklyn convening was subtitled “The Recession Conference,” which Landesman, stating the obvious, translated as “the news is bad.” Nonetheless, he urged us to be optimistic. “Art is the most optimistic of activities.… There is grandeur in art. There is boldness. There is even, to use a very loaded word, the possibility for change, and we mortals need that.”

He went on to describe what was behind the NEA’s new motto, “Art Works,” and tell us where he would be directing his energy.

“The days of the defensive NEA are over.… We have a plan and we’re going to advocate for it.… Any plan that addresses economic growth and urban and neighborhood revitalization has to include the arts. We know and we can prove that when you bring arts and artists into the center of town, that town changes.… Artists are great placemakers. They are entrepreneurs and they should be the centerpiece of every town’s strategy for the future.

“Will we realize our hopes? Hey, I’m an optimist.” Then, admitting to butchering Mel Brooks’s lines from The Producers, Landesman left his newfound colleagues with “We are optimistic, irrational, unrealistic and delusional, but we can’t help it. We’re grantmakers in the arts.” He exited stage left to laughter and applause.

A little more than three years later, as Chairman Landesman prepared to leave his post at year’s end, I polled GIA members and other arts leaders about what they would want to ask him now. How did his sense of optimism fare? What did he learn? What will he leave behind for the next chairman to build upon? Then, I suggested that he imagine that he had once again climbed the GIA stage for a final Q&A.

Ann McQueen: In your first weeks, when your eyes were still fresh, what surprised you? What delighted or dismayed you? What did you see that prompted you to say, “We have to strengthen that” or “This has to change”?

Rocco Landesman: I originally arrived at the NEA with the same prejudice that many of us coming from the private sector had: that federal agencies were a morass of bureaucracy and it would be hand-to-hand combat to get anything accomplished. I could not have been more wrong. It was not long before I was exclaiming, “This would have taken years in the private sector!” Working at the national level and existing as a part of the federal government really allows the NEA to have tremendous convening power and a pretty awesome bully pulpit. I do not think there is any other platform from which we could have launched a national conversation — movement, really — around creative placemaking. Similarly, I do not think that without being a part of the federal government, the arts could have created partnerships as deep (and hopefully lasting) as the ones we now have with Health and Human Services, the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Housing and Urban Development, and the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Dan Lurie is my senior advisor and director of strategic partnerships, and he functions essentially as a vice president for new business development. He looks at the other federal agencies, the ones where we have not yet made formal inroads, and finds opportunities: we are working with Agriculture, Transportation, the Domestic Policy Council, and hope to still do more with the Office of Travel and Tourism.

The biggest change that we needed was reframing the way that we argued for support of the arts. When I came on board in 2009, the country was still deep in economic recession. I knew that if I went around saying, “The XYZ arts organization is going to go out of business unless you give them some more money,” folks would shrug their shoulders and say, “That’s too bad, but we are dealing with a lot of problems, so good luck.” Instead, I wanted to create an entirely new conversation that was based not on what the arts needed but on what they bring to the table. That was the entire impulse behind the creative placemaking conversation: to be explicit about the ways that the arts change the social, physical, and economic characters of places. My colleague Carol Coletta, who runs ArtPlace, once asked Cory Booker what his biggest challenge was in being mayor of Newark. He thought for a minute and then said, “Getting people to believe that tomorrow can be different.” That is exactly what the arts do and that is exactly one of the key ingredients we needed to get communities moving out of economic recession.

AMcQ: How did your work as a for-profit theatrical producer prepare you to run the NEA? Did you see working on behalf of the nonprofit cultural sector as “going over to the other side”? Or is the difference between for-profit and not-for-profit arts exaggerated? Working artists seem to bridge the divide fairly well, but nonprofit organizations and their executive leaders are often cast as poor cousins to for-profits. How can the commercial sector share resources with nonprofits, which feed them with ideas, product, artists, and well-trained employees?

RL: I have always maintained that theater is the most collaborative of the arts. And that producers exist to make sure that the collaborations are all working. I was most excited to come into President Obama’s administration precisely because he believed in the power of working together, across our individual silos, for the common good. I felt instantly at home in Washington.

As for the not-for-profit /commercial “divide,” I find the dichotomy of only limited use. Yes, there are some instances when it is important to consider: for instance, it wouldn’t do very much good to offer not-for-profit arts organizations tax incentives. That is why the NEA is structured to provide subsidy in the form of grants. But when you get beyond those tax/incorporation sorts of issues, the divide becomes at best meaningless and at worst harmful.

The NEA’s Survey of Public Participation in the Arts ( points to a decline in adult Americans experiencing “ballet and other dance performances.” But as the managing director of a modern dance company once pointed out, this is happening at a time when we have more hours of prime-time television devoted to dance than ever before. Now, I am not saying that So You Think You Can Dance or Dancing with the Stars or America’s Best Dance Crew is in any way the same thing as the Washington Ballet. But it clearly demonstrates a popular interest in dance — one that could be harnessed and exploited to build audiences of other kinds of dance, if we were willing to make those connections. One of my favorite things about Elizabeth Streb is that she went on So You Think You Can Dance. She has never been one to respect any sort of boundary.

Audiences are totally agnostic about the not-for-profit/commercial divide: they do not care if they are seeing Wynton Marsalis at Jazz at Lincoln Center or the Blue Note. They just care that they are hearing Wynton play.

The two sectors work best when they work together. Yes, there can be some pitfalls — David Dower and Diane Ragsdale put together a fascinating conference around this intersection in the theater ( — but I think we need to work even more closely together.

Budgets and Partnerships…

AMcQ: You took over the agency just as the economy fell apart, eliminating the possibility of any significant budget increases. This must have been a great disappointment; it certainly dismayed the cultural sector. While I’m sure you didn’t expect miracles from us, did you feel that the arts sector was a sufficiently strong advocate? Were you adequately supported in your annual budget battles? How can we better support future chairs? Is there a better way to argue for the values — economic, educational, intrinsic — of investing in the arts?

RL: I really think it is the reframing of the argument that I mentioned earlier that is the key to effective advocacy. By talking about the ways that art impacts communities, we will reinforce the arts as a core sector of our society. That position brings with it both rights and responsibilities. If we carry out our responsibilities (producing art that impacts audiences with all of its instrumental benefits), then we are entitled to the right to be supported by our elected, community, and business leaders. If we make the case that “art works,” then we will build consensus that in order for art to do its work, there are some key supports and infrastructures that need to be in place.

The vast majority of the arts are local — they need to be experienced in real time and real place — and so the most effective advocacy is local. Even when dealing with federal officials, the arts need to demonstrate their local impact. Americans for the Arts does a tremendous job doing this through their network of local arts agencies. The Association of Art Museum Directors has also done a wonderful mapping project toward this end.

The arts are a significant constituency in this country, and we need to think of ourselves as exactly that. Going back to your previous question, when we throw in with our commercial colleagues, the size of our constituency grows even bigger.

AMcQ: You haven’t let the NEA’s budget be an impediment to impact. One of the ways you’ve increased the reach of the agency is by increasing collaborations with other federal agencies. The expansion of the NEA’s Operation Homecoming partnership with Walter Reed Medical Center is a beautiful melding of art, research, and service. What policies and practices for this kind of interagency cooperation are in place for the next chairman to build upon? Is legislative support part of the equation here? What is the NEA’s role in transmitting what you’ve learned about partnering to the state and municipal levels so that the arts are more broadly represented in governing circles?

RL: I think it was at the GIA conference in Chicago that I first used my favorite analogy about this sort of work. The cuckoo bird lays its eggs in other birds’ nests, leaving them for the other birds to raise as their own. I have seen myself as that cuckoo with the arts as my eggs.

HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan and his team have made the arts explicitly part of the work they do around regional planning efforts. This has been baked into the program, and we have made some great connections between the arts and regional planning organizations. Those relationships will last beyond both of our tenures.

I recently did an Aspen panel with Commander Moira McGuire, who is the clinical care coordinator at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. She said, “At Walter Reed, we believe that the arts are like that little black dress in your closet: perfect for every occasion, but one size does not fit all.” In other words, Walter Reed now sees its job as figuring out which arts intervention is most appropriate, not whether the arts belong there in the first place. Commander McGuire was answering a question from Damian Woetzel about the lack of ballet in their healing arts program, and explaining that many wounded warriors with whom they work would not want to participate in a ballet class, but have no hesitation about picking up, for instance, a guitar. The healing arts partnership is a lasting one.

The way that we have been most successful is by going to another agency, understanding what they are working to achieve, and then showing how the arts can add to that. We didn’t approach HUD to ask how we could go about getting more money for the arts. We went to them and said, let us help you build more vibrant communities. I think that this high-touch approach is going to be far more effective than any sort of top-down legislative mandate.

And this way of working is totally replicable at the state and local levels. We did a panel at the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies’ last conference aimed at doing exactly this: colleagues from HUD, Transportation, Agriculture, and Commerce got together to talk about working across silos, both in D.C. and in the states. It works at the local level, too.

Signature Programs…

AMcQ: Partnerships with private philanthropy and even business have expanded during your tenure. This is particularly evident in ArtPlace, which brought together national foundations, banks, and a number of public agencies to invest in arts-based community building. Do those partnerships increase private philanthropy or simply focus the money in those regions with the most national attention and local funders? Have the ArtPlace partnerships worked for all sides? Is this the future?

RL:The ArtPlace example is one of my favorites, because it is an example of the private sector taking their lead from an innovation in the public sector. The NEA introduced the phrase “creative placemaking” and rolled out the parameters of the Our Town program. Luis Ubiñas, president of the Ford Foundation, called together a group of national arts funders to talk about using this same basic framework for investing. There was instant excitement from the foundations, and thanks to Carol Coletta’s leadership, ArtPlace got off to a bold and exciting start.

I think there is tremendous power in foundations working together: Don Randel, who is the outgoing president of the Mellon Foundation, talked about their interest in investing nationally in projects and communities without having to increase the number of staff at the foundation. This is almost a mini exercise in crowd sourcing. They can call on the expertise of the Irvine Foundation to learn about California’s Central Valley; or on Bloomberg Philanthropies to learn more about Staten Island; or on the Knight Foundation to get up to speed on Northeast Ohio. They also have the federal agencies at their disposal, and the Department of Agriculture has been especially active in educating their foundation colleagues about rural communities.

Each of those foundations also has its individual mandate. But when working through ArtPlace, all of the foundations are using a shared framework for investing. And they are able to see this work in the context of federal agency priorities. I do not think this is the only future for philanthropy, but I think it is one exciting possibility.

AMcQ: Perhaps this is a stretch, but it seems to me that your infamous “Peoria stumble” and subsequent tour of that small town, which has a population of about 375,000, led directly to the NEA’s focus on “the intersection of the arts and the real world.” Is this a fair assumption?

RL: I do not think of Peoria as a stumble at all. It has been one of the best experiences of my chairmanship. I said in The New York Times that “I don’t know if there’s a theater in Peoria, but [if there is] I would bet that it’s not as good as Steppenwolf or the Goodman.” Two extraordinary colleagues from Peoria took that as their cue to give me a call: Suzette Boulais, who runs ArtsPartners of Central Illinois, and Kathy Chitwood, who was then running the Eastlight Theatre. I went to Peoria and discovered that there was not only a theater, but there were three: Eastlight, Corn Stock, and the Peoria Players. None of these was, in fact, a professional company like the Goodman or the Steppenwolf, but each of them brings a tremendous amount of theater to their community. They offer a broad range of work — and similar to the Dancing with the Stars/Washington Ballet example I mentioned earlier, the theater artists they create and the audiences they build exist on a continuum with all of the other theater communities in this country. And if we want the overall community to be strong, each of the individual pieces of the community needs to be strong. Kathy and Suzette are honestly two of my best friends that I have met through this job.

My “arts and the real world” thinking didn’t start in Peoria, but it was certainly evident there. The Riverfront Museum there is a perfect example. The museum has been relocated into the center of Peoria, and it is changing the entire neighborhood. It is helping residents reconnect with their waterfront. It is connecting the warehouse district, which is home to a lot of artist studios, with the downtown and the bars and restaurants there. It is really a demonstration project that shows how places change when you bring the arts literally into the public square.

About Art and Artists…

AMcQ: Federal and state funding for individual artists has all but disappeared. Changing that was one of your early goals, part of your clarion call “the days of the defensive NEA are over.” But reality seems to have gotten the upper hand. Have you been able to lay any groundwork for change here?

RL: That certainly was my stance when I arrived at the NEA. And I do think that the National Endowment for the Arts has to be about supporting artists. After all, as United States Artists likes to remind us, “Art comes from artists.”

But two things changed my thinking slightly. First, the NEA does actually provide a significant amount of support to individual artists through our support of artist residencies, commissioning projects, teaching artists, and so on. Secondly, the NEA does not have the ability to start funding individual artists on its own. It would require an act of Congress.

As I took stock of the lay of the land, I realized that changing this was not at the top of my to-do list. I wanted to dig into the creative placemaking work. I wanted to work with the other federal agencies more. And I wanted to cement the arts firmly as part of this country’s domestic policy agenda. I think my time has been well spent pursuing those goals.

AMcQ: President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama are remarkable supporters of the arts. I was particularly struck when they chose to borrow Glen Ligon’s Black Like Me from the Hirshhorn Museum. How did the Obamas’ commitment to the arts impact the NEA? How much room does the president’s agenda have for national arts policy? As his chief cultural policy advisor, what where your conversations with the president like? What’s it really like in the West Wing?

RL: The arts have traditionally been seen as an East Wing activity — in the realm of the first lady. I wanted to build on that, and make sure that the NEA has a place in both wings of the White House. We have built extraordinary relationships with Cabinet secretaries (Shaun Donovan, Ray LaHood, and Kathleen Sebelius, among others), the Domestic Policy Council (both under Melanie Barnes and now with Cecilia Muñoz), and the president’s closest advisors (I am proud to say that Anita Decker, my former chief of staff, now serves as the president’s personal aide, and that we have a fantastic relationship with Pete Rouse, the president’s senior counselor).

My favorite times with the president and first lady are watching them interact with artists and arts organizations, which I get to see at the annual National Medal of the Arts and National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards ceremonies. You can see the awe that the president has for artistic accomplishments — I think a lot of that comes from the president’s own identity as a writer.

All of these relationships have been institutionalized and will be able to continue long past me. I really do think that we have succeeded in making the arts part of the domestic policy agenda — we have a role to play in creating vibrant communities, in driving local economies, with early childhood development, with geriatric populations, with creating senses of shared identity among rural populations, in helping our military forces to be resilient and heal. And on and on.

AMcQ: You’ve always been culturally voracious, but I suspect that during your tenure at the NEA you saw and experienced an even greater range of creative expression than usual. Tell me about a work of art or a cultural experience that had a personal impact.

RL: My brother Knight is the publisher of Artforum, and normally I leave everything in the realm of visual arts to him. However, I went out to see Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, Arkansas, and I can honestly say that was transformative. The entire experience was seamlessly integrated: the landscape, the architecture, and, of course, the art itself. Thanks to a generous corporate gift, the museum does not charge admission, and as a result really is able to welcome in the entire community. Some just explore the paths. Others can pop in to spend time with a favorite work. Others will lose themselves for hours in the permanent collection. Perhaps the most surprising thing to me was that I had to struggle to find Alice Walton’s name anywhere. This museum is hers, and yet she has placed herself modestly alongside all of the supporters who have made it possible. This is in sharp contrast to many other philanthropists. I think there is something supremely elegant about the move — and one that is part of the museum’s overall welcoming and egalitarian stance. This is not a place I would have visited absent this job, but it is one to which I think everyone should get themselves.

And Finally…

AMcQ: What’s next for the NEA? The agency will be in the good hands of Joan Shigekawa, senior deputy chairman, until the next appointment. What will be at the top of her to-do list? What advice do you have for your successor?

RL: One of the great things about Joan as acting agency head is that the NEA will remain totally open for business. I do not think there will be any diminution of activity.

She has really been the driving force behind our research efforts over the past year. I have been astounded at the impact and caliber of all that she and Sunil Iyengar (our director of research and analysis) have been able to accomplish. The recent announcement that the Bureau of Economic Analysis will create an Arts and Cultural Production Satellite Account to track our sector’s contributions to GDP is a perfect example of this ( But so are the research grants we are now making, the changes we have made to the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, the community indicators project we are working on, et cetera.

I would encourage the next chairman to do what I did: focus on more of the same, while adding a few signature programs. Dana Gioia, my predecessor, was the one who introduced The Big Read and Operation Homecoming, for instance. We have continued and extended those projects by adding new titles and making the connection with Walter Reed, respectively. I added the creative placemaking piece. If I was going to stay around for a second term, I would focus on arts education because I think we are poised to make a real, transformational difference there. So not so secretly, I hope that the next chairman might take that up as a cause.

AMcQ: What’s next for you? It’s hard to imagine you becoming, as you said, “a cliché,” even if you do move to Miami Beach. How will your time at the Endowment shape your future in the arts?

RL: I honestly cannot remember the last time I was able to wake up and not have someplace that I needed to be. I plan on just looking forward to those mornings.