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NEA head Rocco Landesman says arts can help country climb out of the recession

NEA head Rocco Landesman and Rep. Betty McCollum following Wednesday's speech.
MinnPost photo by Joe Kimball
NEA head Rocco Landesman and Rep. Betty McCollum following Wednesday's speech.

The Minnesota arts community loves Rocco Landesman. He's chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, which has a $150 million budget to promote the arts and dispense grants, so what's not to like?

Landesman had an appreciative audience when he spoke in St. Paul Wednesday about how the arts are an important industry and can help drive an economic recovery in the United States.

Landesman, who was appointed head of the NEA last year by President Barack Obama, is touring the country to promote his new slogan: Art Works.

“I'm a marketing guy — I like slogans,” Landesman said. He's a Broadway producer, and has had experience in the Twin Cities with Jujamcyn Productions.

Multiple meanings
He said the slogan has multiple meanings: the plays, paintings, sculptures, dances and symphonies that artists produce; the encounters with the arts that inspire; and also the role in the economy that artists play — “real jobs,” he calls them.

“The arts have a role in coming out of the recession,” he said. “And while the arts are in trouble, like every other segment of the economy, we can show that the arts are important in building neighborhoods and building communities.”

The NEA is dedicated to that building notion, he said.

And the role of the arts in the economy is particularly strong in Minnesota, he said, noting the state's Legacy amendment — the added sales tax approved by voters and dedicated to the outdoors and the arts.

“This is a passionate place, in terms of the arts,” he said. “People care. They're all in on this. That's not true everywhere.”

Three things required for strong arts presence
Three ingredients are needed for strong arts presence in a community, he said: a tradition of arts in the community; political leaders who “get it,” and a philanthropic private sector that will step up to provide the essential funding. Minnesota has all three he said; most other places don't. “If we just had 49 more Minnesotas ... .”

Rep. Betty McCollum, who sponsored the appearance, also emphasized the jobs aspect of the arts. More than 8,000 artists work in her district — Ramsey County — and 53,000 artists work in the state, she noted. And the arts and culture industry contributes $830 million to the state's economy, she said.

She wants those calling for cuts to arts funding to remember that.

“In these difficult economic times and with fiscal challenges in both Washington and St. Paul, there are voices that talk about cutting or eliminating arts funding. They call it a luxury or a waste of tax dollars,” she said.

“Well, I am not interested in wasting our tax dollars, ever — not in the arts, not in defense, not in education. We need to keep making smart investments in jobs and economic development, and working for strong, safe, vibrant communities.”

Strong public funding for the arts and arts education in the public schools are smart investments, she said.

Asked about the cuts in arts education, Landesman said: “You hit one of my buttons. Education has to be more than training teachers to train students to perform on standardized tests. ... It's important that arts remain a part of education from K to 12. ... We must assure that arts programs aren't eradicated and make sure they extend across the country.”

A pilot program in California
He said a pilot program in Sacramento is partnering with existing arts organizations —  museums, symphonies, theaters and dance programs, which often have their own educational components. The arts groups come into the schools with their programs, providing intensive courses in the classrooms. One year, students will have theater, the next year, music; each year a different subject. The cost is low, because the organizations already have education budgets.

“I'm curious to see how it works; we have to have arts education, starting in kindergarten,” he said.

Landesman said it's hard to make the argument for the arts because the fractured media has stopped covering many aspects. “Only four newspapers in the country now have full-time art critics. There used to be dozens,” he said.

And training in the arts — which thrive on innovation, imagination and creativity — is crucial to the country's economic survival in a worldwide economy, he said, because it is those traits that will help businesses grow and thrive and compete worldwide.

Landesman is taking his message to dozens of communities around the country, but said the Minnesota swing is more personal, because of his association with the State and Orpheum Theaters while with Jumancyn, which was started by Minnesota native James Binger.

And as a boy he attended camp in Bemidji.

“I'll come here to Minnesota anytime — in July or August,” he said.

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Comments (5)

WOW! We should increase the sales tax again and "invest" these new revenue streams into the "arts community." With "spreading the wealth around" we will be out of recession in no time!

If that doesn’t work, we could get more authors to speak at public libraries for $40,000 per gig. That would really help the economy as well!

I thought this was a politics story, but I found it under the arts.

I'm using my arts training to campaign against Betty McCollum. http://www.stevecarlsonforcongress2010.com.

So, Rocco, where is the money? Your slogan, while elegant, doesn't work. It should read, "Art Doesn't Work" because who's working? Starving artists. It should "Art Works for Betty McCollum at Election Time." Betty, is art on your side? Or are you just holding the purse strings to tax-payer dollars and connections as the Democratic senior whip for Nancy Pelosi?

Unfortunately, your organization, Rocco, and Betty McCollum's vote are gatekeepers, holding back and screening out creativity, crushing it or beating it down. We artists are truly grateful when we get a gig (I'm a musician and writer), or are asked to bring some sounds, performance, or a studio art piece (I haven't created any art pieces since school, but I have seen some great local art) into some public or private space. We shouldn't have to feel grateful to be able to live, we should feel grateful we are able to create and give.

But, frankly, the creative class runs into a brick wall with the bourgeois class like your partner Betty. Listen to Betty: Why is art valuable? Because the arts and culture industry contributes $830 million to the state's economy? I think art is valuable for its own sake. Are we going to invest in it now, so consumers of art need to pay the state?

Now that she's running for re-election Betty appears again (she's supposed to be debating, that's her craft--and she's ducking debates). You say: the arts are an important industry and can help drive an economic recovery in the United States. So is that Betty's position, that our economic recovery will be driven by art? The 6 billion shortfall in Minnesota and the gaping budget deficit in Washington?

The real purpose of art is to create a vision for our culture and cultures, and to renew our spirit and our personal vision (not a vision of $$$ and power, these things blind one to art's power). This has not been happening in St. Paul because, inter alia, there is a lack of good retail space for art works. I see Bill Hosko has a beautiful design for a development that fits Lowertown's history and feel. You should look at that. He has thousands of signatures supporting it.

It looks to me like there's Betty McCollum, using her connections to surround herself with celebrity at election time. If there's a political question here, why doesn't she invite other candidates and see what kind of support and appreciation there really is in the 4th Congressional District? Instead, she takes credit for the toils of all the hard-working artists who aren't working.

I think Betty McCollum used that dollar figure to answer in advance those on the (ultra)conservative side who measure everything by that standard. She also recognizes that government does have a role in supporting the arts.

Artists do need to able to making a living with their talent, whatever it may be. In other countries, governments always contribute far more than the U.S. does towards support of the arts. During the Great Depression, however, government programs employed 44,000 writers, painters and other artists for years. Their work included individual books on the states, cultural research via interviews with the older generations of immigrant families, the visual arts, plays that reflected their time, and music that remains with us.

Without Roosevelt's stimulative dollars, it's likely that all 44,000 of these people would have been begging at back doors for food while they ho-boed around the country looking for work. Any work. And we would have lost everything they created.

Well, that's fine, Bernice. But do you see anything comparable to that artwork that we had during the Depression? I'm a writer, and I enjoy reading Steinbeck and about Steinbeck, and I know he was part of that program. Probably Ansel Adams too, right? Steinbeck, I think was able to capture some of the history, before Reagan took over the Actors Guild. There were talented writers, directors and actors too. If not for WWII and the propaganda, one wonders whether any of the films would ever have any social value. Yet one wonders today about the sleaze and the decadence. The problem is that that same sleaze and decadence is overflowing into our politics as well.

McCollum is part of that sleaze and decadence, abortion on demand, for instance. I'm not aware the NEA is doing anything like artists did during the Depression. Are you?

One of my favorite depression-era films is a 1941 Preston Sturges comedy called "Sullivan's Travels." Star Joel McRae plays a movie director who wants to make a film about the destitution so many people faced during the depression. He pretends to be a homeless hobo, explores the America he and other well-to-do people never experienced, and is transformed in the process.

I'm afraid sleaze has always been part of our politics and will until we remove the right to "personhood" now held by corporations and their lobbyists AND somehow limit the number and power of those lobbyists to influence legislation.

Abortion is another unsettled issue, but I think as far as public policy is concerned we should let the First Amendment settle it. The belief that a fertilized egg is already a human being is shared by millions of religious persons in America, and the right to believe that is sacred. However, the right NOT to be forced by law to conform to others' religious beliefs is also sacred. Therefore, it should not be a matter of law but of private belief.