Give My Regards to Peoria

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I’m back from three weeks of vacation. A few things happened while I was away, some of them still very live stories. Going forward this week, while I’m also attending to new business, I’ll comment on a few of those. The first, alas, is the bumpy debut of Rocco Landesman as the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

As you probably already know, on Aug. 7, one day after he was confirmed by the Senate, the New York Times published an interview with Landesman. In the course of discussing whether NEA grants should be awarded strictly on the basis of “artistic merit” or whether geographical diversity should be a factor, Landesman managed to say this:

“I don’t know if there’s a theater in Peoria, but I would bet that it’s not as good as [Chicago’s] Steppenwolf or the Goodman.”


Okay, Landesman was brought in to the chairman’s job in the hope he would bring new directions to the NEA. And yes he’s not a politician, much less a diplomat. The problem is, if he’s going to protect his agency, he needs to be both. Before the chairman of the NEA can decide how his budget will be spent, he has to persuade Congress to provide the money. You don’t do that by gratuitously insulting not just the real Peoria, but all the smaller cities round the U.S. — and their representatives in Congress — that see themselves as having more in common with Peoria than they do with New York, L.A. or Chicago. I can almost picture them all standing up the way those Roman commoners do in the Kirk Douglas movie and announcing “I am Spartacus!”

Landesman’s predecessors at the NEA spent the last two decades painstakingly rebuilding the agency’s (still inadequate) budget after the culture wars of the ’90s. They didn’t do it by sticking their noses up at the constituencies of the congressmen and women they have to court. And if you’re planning to persuade members of Congress of the value of the arts by emphasizing that they create jobs — something Landesman identified as another of his priorities, complete with a new agency slogan, “Art Works” — you’re going to have to convince them that some of those jobs will turn up in their districts. That’s how Congress works.

But apart from the question of whether it’s a good idea to talk that way, there’s the issue of whether geographical distribution of NEA funding doesn’t have something to be said for it. It’s too soon to know how Landesman will try to determine artistic merit and how often it will turn out that the most deserving theater companies or dance troupes etc. just happen to be located in a few big metropolitan areas. But for many people who can’t easily get to the bigger cities, regional arts groups are their best introduction — their only introduction — to what the arts are all about. That’s especially true for kids who would never otherwise see a live play or an art exhibit. They may not be able to compete with the Steppenwolf Theater or the Metropolitan Opera, but subsidizing those regional groups is a big and legitimate part of the NEA’s mission. That’s how art works too.