NEA chair Rocco Landesman speaks out

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Back in May, I blogged about Rocco Landesman's nomination as chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts. I noted that Landesman, a veteran Broadway and regional-theater producer, had operated the Royal George Theatre here back in the 1990s, where he mounted the Chicago premiere of Angels in America. (That production, by the way, was directed by Michael Mayer, director of the Broadway musical Spring Awakening, currently playing at the Oriental in a superbly performed and technically stunning touring edition.)

Landesman was confirmed as NEA chair on Friday. His track record in Chicago theater is mixed, but there's no doubt the city made an impression on him. Indicating his intent to allocate funds to arts organizations based on quality rather than seeking to spread money around to every congressional district, he told the New York Times: "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. . . . 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."

While I share Landesman's enthusiasm for Steppenwolf, the Goodman, and other Chicago theaters, I have to say: isn't it his job to know whether there's a theater in Peoria?

Landesman also cited the positive impact of the arts on the U.S. economy and took Republican presidential aspirant Mitt Romney to task for criticizing the inclusion of NEA funding in the federal stimulus bill. "The arts are a little bit of a target," Landesman said. "The subtext is that it is elitist, left wing, maybe even a little gay."

I applaud Landesman's forthright, even somewhat combative liberalism. The question now is, will he play in Peoria?

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