The Politics of NEA Chair Rocco Landesman’s “Art Works” Tour?

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RoccoEvery so often, the mainstream news media likes to analyze the president’s level and diversity of domestic travel in an effort to divine a sense of his current politics. When President Obama went to New Orleans, for example, much was made of the fact that he hadn’t visited Louisiana since his inauguration. I agree that he probably waited a little too long — yet another unforced Administration error. That said, I also agree that the steady stream of officials to the area, including cabinet members, have probably done more for New Orleans than the let-’em-levee-dirt Bush folks did during the last years of fightin’ 43’s term in office. I further agree that if Obama does not make return visits to New Orleans — or at least the Gulf coast — once per quarter until the 2012 election, he will be a one-termer. Mark. My. Words.

The topic of this post, however, isn’t the President’s travel but that of an agency head. Yesterday, National Endowment of the Arts chair Rocco Landesman, former Broadway producer and theater owner, spoke at the annual conference of Grantsmakers in the Arts and announced that he would embark on a tour of the nation. To dispel the despicable, right-wing, ignorant lies that artists don’t work and offer the economy no impact, Landesman

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will spend the next six months visiting neighborhoods and towns all across America, seeing and spotlighting all the ways that art works. I will visit downtown sculpture gardens, art walks along waterfronts, free public performances and exhibitions, historic building renovations, and subsidized artist work spaces and residences.

And I am going to kick off this “art works tour” with a visit to — where else? — Peoria, Illinois on Nov. 6. Carol Coletta, the president of CEOs for Cities will join me in talking with political, civic and arts leaders –including Kathy Chitwood, the head of the Eastlight Theatre who has invited me to see a performance of Rent — and in looking at Peoria’s “warehouse district” that might just be the site of a new MASS MoCA or Marfa.

I already have trips planned to Missouri and Tennessee, and we are setting up visits to California, Idaho, Kentucky and Washington State.

According to a statement released by the NEA, the chairman will, generally speaking, “visit neighborhoods and towns throughout America to learn and highlight the ways that art can create jobs, stimulate the economy and revitalize communities.” And in an effort to expand the dialogue,

the NEA is hosting a blog at www.arts.gov where Americans can post examples and stories of how art works in their own communities. Chairman Landesman will also post dispatches from the ‘Art Works’ tour on the Web site.”

First, the political assessment of the travel schedule. In short, there is none — yet. Missouri nearly went to Obama in 2008 but it was McCain’s to claim. Tennessee and Kentucky, too, were competitive, but went to McCain as well. Idaho, however, was utterly noncompetitive, while Obama’s home state, Illinois, along with California and Washington state were all in the bag.

As Landesman grows his travel schedule, however, let’s watch how his itinerary evolves. If he begins to visit more red states than blue, will the Republicans accuse him of electioneering on behalf of President Obama? (A scurrilous, stupid accusation, of course, but no inconceivable.)

And then there’s this: How long will it be before the Republicans blow a gasket over giving Americans the opportunity to blog about how “art works” on the NEA’s website? I gave it less than a month. How about you?