Rocco Rides to the Rescue, But How Was the Reporting?


RoccoThe observation made in this recent CFR post that it’s unclear what political approach to reshaping and defending the National Endowment for the Arts is being undertaken by the agency’s chair, Rocco Landesman, seems quite confirmed by the coverage of Landesman’s visit to Peoria, IL.

It was, after all, Landesman’s inapt remarks about the Peoria arts scene — a city he blithely cited as a way to compare the nation’s small and large metropolitan arts communities — that got him into trouble in the first place.

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If we’re to question Landesman’s political gameplan, surely we should put under a microscope those who are covering his “Art Works” tour, which began the other day in Peoria, as well. Judith H. Dobrzynski, on her blog, Real Clear Arts, would appear a model of good journalistic coverage: It canvasses the facts of Landesman’s visit, includes quotes from local publications, and offers links for further reading. Not much agenda there, though a slight undertone of snark — as if Landesman hasn’t sort of been asking for it anyway — is detectable. Pretty unavoidable, actually.

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Peter Marks, writing in the Washington Post, meanwhile, brings his critics’ sensibility to the story:

[Landesman’s] ebullience is a reflection of his natural tendency to play the extrovert: He didn’t get to be one of the most quotable people on Broadway by hiding a roguish charm under a bushel. But it should be remembered that he hasn’t come all this way simply to launch his national cultural crusade, under the NEA slogan he dreamed up: “Art Works.” He’s also here because being off-the-cuff can land you in the soup.

Marks’ story digs deep into the “bruised feelings” Landesman generated when “he implied in an interview with the New York Times that Peoria didn’t exist on the map of cultural significance,” and the narrative is well supported by quotes. For all the ostensible comity between Landesman and one of his key Peoria hosts, Kathy Chitwood, executive director of Eastlight Theatre,

there is a tension, and as is often the case, it has to do with the pocketbook. Landesman’s published comments about Peoria had something of a chilling effect, fostering a worry that NEA funds — however limited — would now be channeled only to big cities. As Chitwood puts it, “We wanted to say to Rocco, ‘We don’t want all our money going to Chicago and New York.’ “

And perhaps, as a result of Rocco’s visit, those fears may prove to be unfounded.

Unfortunately, Jeremy Gerard’s coverage of Landesman’s visit was ever so slightly tinged with contempt. Consider the headline: “Arts Czar Eats Crow, Sees ‘Rent,’ Gets Air-Brushed: Commentary.” In the obligatory five-graph summary of the NEA chair’s Peoria gaffe, Gerard cheekily characterized his visit as “humble-pie time.”

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True, Gerard was complimentary of Landesman, too, finding him “in good form” and noting that he called Chitwood as well as one of the other Peoria arts leaders as “new best friends” and “babes.” Later, attending a meeting at the Peoria Civic Center, Gerard appears to admire Landesman’s charm offensive, such as when he pilloried himself before anyone else could: “It’s nice when people are sympathetic and empathetic to the ignorant,” Landesman deadpanned. Gerard finally quotes Peoria mayor Jim Ardis as applauding the chair’s dawn-to-dusk mea culpa, specfically for having “the intestinal fortitude to actually show up here…”

But Gerard, whose out-of-sync views on public arts funding has been oft-discussed here at the Clyde Fitch Report, also took a shot at the “Art Works” tour. True, the article is labeled “Commentary,” but he writes:

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…the inherently snobbish pursuit of “quality art” doesn’t comfortably fit with “art works.” I’ve argued with Landesman that in order to produce quality art, you have to support artists who might fail, who may not be effective pistons in an economic engine.

The end of that quote alludes to Gerard’s point that the arts-as-a-fiscal-driver argument — one most people find right and indisputable — is “tired and dubious.” Which is, people most find, dubious nonsense.

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In the three examples of coverage of Landesman’s Peoria visit, arranged in order of editorialization, it seems apparent there’s now a certain mirth associated with the chair, as if he’s the creative community’s Joe Biden. None of the three articles, to any great degree, really thinks through how to measure the success of the “Art Works” tour; Landesman, it would seem, is the orb around which the chairman’s goals revolve. Some analysis of that would be helpful right now, but it doesn’t seem likely to be forthcoming. Indeed, this is a case in which the messenger, aided by the press, could be in danger of overwhelming the message.

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