President Barack Obama's recent announcement that he will nominate 61-year-old Broadway producer Rocco Landesman, president of Jujamcyn Theaters, to chair the National Endowment for the Arts was met with enthusiasm by many independent presses, although most had never heard of him until his name was raised in mid-May. Landesman, who with congressional approval will fill the vacancy left by poet Dana Gioia, who stepped down earlier this year, has captured the imagination of book people by his willingness to take on risky theater projects like Tony Kushner's Angels in America, which crosses both the commercial and not-for-profit arts worlds. As the White House noted in its initial announcement: “His career has been a hybrid of commercial, philanthropic, and purely artistic engagements.”
“Conceptually I'm delighted by the choice,” said Jeffrey Lependorf, executive director of CLMP, the Literary Ventures Fund and Small Press Distribution. “Gioia was seen as a serious businessman and that gave him cred on Capitol Hill. Landesman will have that, too. He's a commercial producer and he's produced some cutting-edge work.” Michael Brenson, author of Visionaries and Outcasts (New Press), a history of the NEA from its founding in 1965 through 2000, said Landesman “might make the agency relevant again.” For Teresa Eyring, executive director of Theatre Communications Group, “Landesman is a great choice. He's been a fierce advocate for the arts, but since he's also been on the ground as a producer, he truly understands the complexities of 'sausage making.' ” In addition, she notes that his appointment is part of the president's commitment to the arts and singles out that Obama included the NEA in the economic recovery act and also increased its budget.
The recovery act, a one-time measure, provides $50 million for the arts, and grant recipients will be named next month. While that's almost one-third of the current NEA operating budget of $155 million, some, like Lependorf, point out that it won't go nearly far enough to meet the needs of many nonprofits, including SPD and CLMP, that are dealing with severe cutbacks from other funding sources, including state arts councils and individual donors.
The budget increase that Eyring cites would raise the NEA budget to $161 million in FY2010, still far less than the $176 million allocated in 1992. In fact, as Coffee House publisher Allan Kornblum noted, although the 25-year-old press has routinely received annual grants of $25,000 for much of the past decade, it received double that in the 1990s.
Some smaller presses, with budgets less than $200,000, didn't fare nearly as well under Gioia. “The structure of the NEA application process makes it difficult for a small not-for-profit press to receive support,” said Jan Freeman, founder of Paris Press in Ashfield, Mass. “The publication programming needs to be established at least two years ahead of time in order to apply for funding, and Paris Press doesn't always have the luxury of that much lead time. Rocco Landesman at the NEA excites me, and I feel hopeful about a new celebration of the mixture of provocative cultural realities with high-quality art, daring and fun. And I hope that small but accomplished nonprofits will be welcomed and supported by the NEA.”
One of Gioia's most controversial steps was his decision to create his own programming. Projects like the Big Read came out of the NEA budget with no oversight and took money away from grantees. Whether that money will return to the budget is a big question mark. But, said Kornblum, “considering the new chairman's background, I assume he will have his own initiatives. I'm hoping new increases to the endowment's budget will allow grants to increase, while giving Landesman room to make his own theatrical mark.”