New York Times - Published May 12, 2009 - Arts Beat / Culture News and Views
Producer Is Chosen to Lead Arts Endowment
By ROBIN POGREBIN
Rocco Landesman, the colorful theatrical producer and race-track aficionado who brought hits like “Big River,” “Angels in America” and “The Producers” to Broadway, has been nominated as the next chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, the White House said on Tuesday.
The appointment, which is expected to be announced on Wednesday, surprised many in the arts world. It ends months of speculation about who would be selected to lead the nation’s largest and most important arts organization.
The White House declined to discuss the appointment before the announcement. Mr. Landesman, whose appointment must be confirmed by Congress, also declined to comment.
“It’s potentially the best news the arts community in the United States has had since the birth of Walt Whitman,” said the playwright Tony Kushner. “He’s an absolutely brilliant and brave and perfect choice for the job.”
Choosing Mr. Landesman, 61, signals that Mr. Obama plans to shake things up at the endowment. While a major source of money for arts groups around the country, it has historically been something of a sleepy bureaucracy, still best known to some for the culture wars of the 1990s.
Since then, the agency has been trying to rebuild its image on Capitol Hill, along with its budget. The current allocation stands at $145 million, and though Mr. Obama has requested $161 million for 2010, that is still short of its high of $176 million in 1992.
Mr. Landesman, who would fill the post vacated by Dana Gioia, is expected to lobby hard for more arts money. But he is not famous for his skills as an administrator or diplomat. Rather, he is known for his energy, intellect and irreverent — and occasionally sharp-elbowed — candor.
In 2000, for example, he caused a stir by accusing nonprofit theaters of being too much like their commercial counterparts. And, as a producer of “The Producers,” Mr. Landesman created the controversial $480 premium ticket to combat scalpers.
“Rocco speaks his mind, which is probably one of the reasons he was chosen,” said Robert Brustein, the founding director of the Yale and American Repertory Theaters. “Rocco does not defer his opinions.”
As the president of Jujamcyn Theaters, which owns five Broadway houses, Mr. Landesman is accustomed to calling the shots, not working within a bureaucracy. Arts executives say this is a plus. “He is a great entrepreneur and producer and it indicates to me that the administration wants to have somebody in this position who will be much more than simply a distributor of funds,” said Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera. “The relationship between the government and the arts needs to be energized. It needs someone like Rocco.”
Mr. Landesman is expected to resign from his position at Jujamcyn, but to retain his ownership stake in the company.
His directness may prove refreshing to official Washington, and his affinity for country music, horse racing and baseball may help grease the wheels in his conversations with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.
While Mr. Landesman has spent his career in the commercial theater, he earned a doctorate in dramatic literature at the Yale School of Drama and stayed on there for four years as an assistant professor. “It’s an odd choice,” said Mr. Brustein, who taught Mr. Landesman at Yale. “It’s certainly not one that I would ever have thought of because Rocco’s always been associated with the profit-making world and the N.E.A. is nonprofit.”
Though a creature of the for-profit theater, Mr. Landesman has put his force behind work that other producers might have considered too risky for Broadway, like Mr. Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Angels in America,” and the musical “Jelly’s Last Jam.”
“He’s really smart and he’s really savvy and will really fight if he believes in something,” said George C. Wolfe, who directed both productions.
Born and raised in St. Louis, Mr. Landesman had his undergraduate education at Colby College and the University of Wisconsin. In 1977 he left Yale to start a private investment fund, which he ran until his appointment as Jujamcyn’s president in 1987. In 2005 he purchased the company.
Rocco is married to Debby Landesman and has three sons.
All of Jujamcyn’s five theaters currently have shows running: the St. James (“Desire Under the Elms”), the Al Hirschfeld (“Hair”), the August Wilson Theater (“Jersey Boys”), the Eugene O’Neill (“33 Variations”) and the Walter Kerr (“Irena’s Vow”).
In recent years, Mr. Landesman has stepped back from active producing, although Jujamcyn still occasionally invests in shows. This year, the company made a $250,000 investment in the revival of “Desire Under the Elms” to help transfer the play to one of its Broadway houses from the Goodman Theater in Chicago.
Mr. Landesman’s nomination means a potential loss for Broadway underscored by the death, in November, of Gerald Schoenfeld, who had been chairman of the Shubert Organization since 1972. Mr. Landesman was among those who had begun to fill the role of elder statesman during this theater season.
Joe Allen, the theater district restaurateur, said that Mr. Landesman would be missed on Broadway, but that the industry would be lucky to have him in Washington. “To have a member of the club running the endowment is a good thing,” Mr. Allen said. “He knows the theater world. He knows how artists work, what their concerns are, what their personalities are like.”
Mr. Landesman met Mr. Obama before he was a presidential candidate and was a strong supporter and contributor to the campaign.
If confirmed, Mr. Landesman would be the 10th chairman since Congress created the endowment in 1965. Other names circulated as possible candidates included Michael M. Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center; Michael C. Dorf, a lawyer who served on Mr. Obama’s arts policy team during the campaign; and Claudine K. Brown, the program director for arts and culture at the Nathan Cummings Foundation.
Mr. Gioia officially stepped down on Inauguration Day. Patrice Walker Powell, the endowment’s deputy chairwoman for states, regions and local arts agencies, has been serving as interim chairwoman since Feb. 2.
While previous chairmen have tried to argue the case for a stronger agency, this task will fall to the next chairman in an even tougher economic climate. “The day of the N.E.A. being this political football of the right — maybe those days are over and we’re going to start to take it seriously,” Mr. Kushner said.
Mr. Landesman is expected to be a vigorous and provocative face of the agency.
“Rocco is bored,” Mr. Brustein said, “if things just go routinely.”