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National Endowment for the Arts chair Rocco Landesman brought the "Art Works" spiel he's been taking all over the country to the Chicago Cultual Center's Claudia Cassidy Theater Thursday, as part of an appearance heavier on charm than on substance.
"A Conversation wiith Rocco Landesman," hosted by the MacArthur Foundation, featured an introduction by the city's cultural affairs queen bee, Lois Weisberg, but offered little more than the same line we've been hearing for a decade or more from organizations like Arts Alliance Illinois: art is good for the economy. Spiffy in an ice cream suit and shiny aqua tie, Landesman broke the ice by confessing that as a University of Wisconsin undergrad he'd become acquainted with Chicago through its parks—Arlington, Sportsman's, and Hawthorne. It's too soon to say whether he'll be a winner or finish out of the money at the NEA, which he's headed since August, but his agenda there so far apparently consists of talking the arts up with other federal agencies and pushing arts districts as catalysts for urban redevelopment. To that end, he mentioned 15 grants of $25,000 to $250,000 each, available to cities that participate in the NEA's Mayors' Institute on City Design, and a proposed "Our Town" program that'll split another $5 million in grants among as many as 25 more cities. NEA grants to individual artists and a cabinet position for the arts—ideas that were in the air at the time of Obama's election—have been scratched, at least for now, Landesman said, though the individual grants are something he's "hoping someday to be able to do."