"Now that the Broadway producer Rocco Landesman is officially chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts — he was confirmed on Friday — his straight-talking style, Missouri roots and affinity for baseball and country music are expected to give him a leg up with many legislators.
But in his first sit-down interview since his nomination by President Obama, Mr. Landesman’s comments suggested that he may nevertheless raise hackles on Capitol Hill after he is sworn in in the next few days. Speaking recently in his office above the St. James Theater on West 44th Street, where Tony Awards abut baseball trophies — testament to his prowess as a producer and as a pitcher in the Broadway Show League — Mr. Landesman, 62, made clear that he has little patience for the disdain with which some politicians still seem to view the endowment, more than a decade after the culture wars that nearly destroyed it.
He was particularly angered, he said, by parts of the debate over whether to include $50 million for the agency in the federal stimulus bill, citing the comment by Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” in February, that arts money did not belong in the bill. That kind of thinking suggests that “artists don’t have kids to send to college,” Mr. Landesman said, “or food to put on the table, or medical bills to pay.”
In American politics generally, he added: “The arts are a little bit of a target. The subtext is that it is elitist, left wing, maybe even a little gay.”
And while he praised the way recent endowment chairmen have carefully rebuilt the agency’s political standing, Mr. Landesman — who is known more as an independent entrepreneur than as a diplomatic company man — said he was not planning to follow too closely in their footsteps. While Dana Gioia, his immediate predecessor, made a point of spreading endowment funds to every Congressional district, for example, Mr. Landesman said he expected to focus on financing the best art, regardless of location.
“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 said, referring to two of Chicago’s most prominent theater companies. “There is going to be some push-back from me about democratizing arts grants to the point where you really have to answer some questions about artistic merit.”
“And frankly,” he added, “there are some institutions on the precipice that should go over it. We might be overbuilt in some cases.”
Mr. Landesman does believe that the agency should be “perceived as being everywhere,” he said. “But I don’t know that we have to be everywhere if the only reason for supporting an institution is its geography.”
On the subject of the endowment’s budget, too, Mr. Landesman did not hold back. Though he would not put a dollar figure on his own fiscal goals, he called the current appropriation of $155 million “pathetic” and “embarrassing.” And he seemed to imply dissatisfaction with increases proposed by Congress and by the president, which both fall short of the agency’s 1992 budget of $176 million.
“We’re going to be looking for funding increases that are more than incremental,” he said.
As for grants to individual artists — which were eliminated in 1996 after years of complaints from conservative legislators about the financing of controversial art — Mr. Landesman said he would reinstate them “tomorrow” if it were up to him. (It’s up to Congress.)
Mr. Landesman said that as chairman he will focus on the potential of the arts to help in the country’s economic recovery.
“I wouldn’t have come to the N.E.A. if it was just about padding around in the agency,” he said, and worrying about which nonprofits deserve more funds. “We need to have a seat at the big table with the grown-ups. Art should be part of the plans to come out of this recession.”
“If we’re going to have any traction at all,” he added, “there has to be a place for us in domestic policy.”
He was less clear about the details of this ambitious agenda, though he talked about starting a program that he called “Our Town,” which would provide home equity loans and rent subsidies for living and working spaces to encourage artists to move to downtown areas.
“When you bring artists into a town, it changes the character, attracts economic development, makes it more attractive to live in and renews the economics of that town,” he said. “There are ways to draw artists into the center of things that will attract other people.”
The program would also help finance public art projects and performances and promote architectural preservation in downtown areas, Mr. Landesman added. “Every town has a public square or landmark buildings or places that have a special emotional significance,” he said. “The extent that art can address that pride will be great.”
Given the agency’s “almost invisible” budget, he said, goals like these would require public-private partnerships that enlist developers, corporations and individual investors — largely by getting them “to understand the critical role of art in urban revitalization.”
Such arrangements — which he said will be a “signature part” of his chairmanship — will play “right into the president’s wheelhouse,” Mr. Landesman added, speaking of Mr. Obama’s concerns about cities and economic development.
The new chairman said he already has a new slogan for his agency: “Art Works.” It’s “something muscular that says, ‘We matter.’ ” The words are meant to highlight both art’s role as an economic driver and the fact that people who work in the arts are themselves a critical part of the economy.
“Someone who works in the arts is every bit as gainfully employed as someone who works in an auto plant or a steel mill,” Mr. Landesman said. “We’re going to make the point till people are tired of hearing it.”
As for the former agency slogan, “A Great Nation Deserves Great Art,” he said, “We might as well just apologize right off the bat.”
Mr. Landesman said he realized he was not the obvious man for the job. “There are a lot of people whose résumés laid out a lot better than mine,” he said. “But I think the president is serious when he talks about change. I think he wanted to bring a new energy to this agency.”
Mr. Landesman’s own résumé starts with his upbringing in and around the cabaret theater his father and uncle ran in St. Louis, the Crystal Palace. Performers including the Smothers Brothers and Mike Nichols and Elaine May often headlined there during his childhood, some of them staying in the Landesman family’s basement apartment after their gigs.
Mr. Landesman, who has a reddish beard and lanky physique, did a lot of acting as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, then went on to the Yale School of Drama, where he earned a Ph.D. in dramatic literature and criticism and stayed on as an assistant professor for four years, until 1978.
After leaving Yale, Mr. Landesman started a mutual fund, bought racehorses until he had amassed a dozen — one successful horse would enable him to purchase another — and about three years ago, he said, “came within about five minutes of buying the Cincinnati Reds.” (He lost out to another bidder at the last minute, which he said was “painful.”)
In 1985 he produced the Broadway musical “Big River,” which won that year’s Tony for best musical, at a theater owned by the Jujamcyn group, the third-largest of the big three New York theater companies, after Shubert and Nederlander. Two years later he was hired as the president of Jujamcyn Theaters, and in 2005 he bought the company; in his new position he will retain his ownership stake but will not participate in the company’s activities.
Jack Viertel, Jujamcyn’s creative director, described Mr. Landesman as smart, decisive and “a very entertaining person to be around,” but also “mercurial,” “unpredictable” and “an extraordinarily hardheaded businessman.”
Paul Libin, the producing director at Jujamcyn, said he was at first “taken aback” by the idea of Mr. Landesman’s leading the endowment, but that he has come to believe that the job requires “someone who is a general,” and that his boss fits the bill.
Mr. Landesman wasn’t tapped for the job. “I’d love to say the president drafted me, and I had to answer the call of duty, but no,” he said. “I put my hand up for this.”
“Everybody I talked to said, ‘This is the worst idea I’ve ever heard, put it out of your head immediately,’ ” Mr. Landesman said. 'The idea of running a 170-person federal bureaucracy seemed crazy.'
But it’s an unusual moment in history, he said, and he wanted to be part of it. President Obama was "the first candidate in my memory who made arts part of the campaign," Mr. Landesman said. "He had an arts policy committee and an arts policy statement and arts advisers."Cultural mavens like himself feel they 'have one of their own' in the White House, he added. 'It makes the arts community feel finally, for the first time in a long time, there might be some wind at their back.'"