Q&A: Rocco Landesman '69


From Broadway entrepreneur to the nation's advocate for the arts

By David McKay Wilson '76

Rocco LandesmanWriter David McKay Wilson ’76 recently caught up with National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Rocco Landesman ’69. Landesman served as a Colby overseer during the 1990s and received an honorary doctor of fine arts degree in 2005. Part-owner of five New York theaters, he is one of Broadway’s great figures. In 2009 Landesman turned over operation of the theaters to his partners so he could become the nation’s leading spokesman on the arts under President Barack Obama.

You were a very successful businessman. Why take on the NEA chairmanship?
Everybody advised me not to do it. They thought I was crazy to run a federal agency. I felt that if I was ever going to do public service, if I didn’t do it now, in this administration, then I might as well just write checks, serve on a few boards, and say that’s public service.

NEA’s budget increased from $155 million to $167 million in 2010, but our nation’s investment in cultural affairs pales in comparison to Europe.
I was very gratified that the president asked for an increase, and Congress added money on top of that. But my favorite comparison is with England, the worst public funder in Europe, by far, where public arts funding is $900 million. That would translate here on a per capita basis to $4.6 billion. In the developed world, we are pretty far behind the curve in terms of public arts funding. And I’m not afraid to say so, even though I’m not supposed to. There are lots of things I’m not supposed to say.

Like what?
I think we should give grants to individual artists. I’m not supposed to say that because it’s not federal policy. What better way to support the arts then to give money to individual artists? It seems obvious to me.

Why is art less valued here?
I think there’s a perception that the arts are elitist, that they are for the educated upper classes and are therefore an extra, something not fundamental. I believe they are fundamental. The arts are a way for us, if only briefly, to be better and aspire. The arts are a way to get away, if only for an instant, from our quotidian, exigent existence. Life shouldn’t be a complete set of predetermined options. Art gives us a sense of possibility. Art is as essential as eating and breathing and sleeping.

In the stimulus package there was $50 million for arts funding through the NEA.     

It generated a lot of flak. One congressman asked how can we spend $50 million on the NEA instead of creating real jobs like road-building. Imagine how that feels, if, after 20 years of practice and perseverance, you are the first violinist in a symphony orchestra, and then you are told, essentially, that you don’t have a real job. It’s not very nice. Our point is the arts jobs are real jobs: there are 5.7 million arts-related jobs in the United States.

Artists are entrepreneurs. You’re an entrepreneur yourself.

How did you deal with risk?

In the theater business, you have to take chances. When I did my first show in 1985, I think no one would have given me a dime for my chances with Big River, given that the score was written by someone who had not only never written a musical but had never seen a Broadway show. We had a director who was directing on Broadway for the first time, a book writer who had never written a book for a musical, and actors, with one exception, who had never performed on Broadway. If I’d known better, I wouldn’t have done it. But I didn’t know better. I took the chance. Big River won seven Tony Awards and launched my career.

What gave you the sense it would work?

I’ve always been a gambler. I’ve always loved horseracing and any kind of gambling proposition. Some people like a certain level of adrenalin and action to feel comfortable, and I’ve always been one of those people.

Do you get that with your current post at the NEA?
There are constant challenges and no lack of adversaries.

The NEA has been a whipping boy of conservatives. How do you handle that?

Mostly I just tune it out. When Glenn Beck starts ranting, it’s hard to pay attention. Most of the stuff that’s screamed at you doesn’t have a lot of logic. I think you to continue to do the work, and if the work has value, it will take hold.

You came up with the phrase “Art Works” for your national tour promoting the arts.
I love the triple entendre.

How did that come about?
We wanted to make a statement about how arts matters. We know there are art works, and we support their creation through the NEA. We know that arts works by affecting people deeply, it works on their psyches. But the third part of it is that arts works as part of the real economy. We are going to say it over and over until people are tired of hearing it.

What did you take away from your Colby education?
It’s where I first got involved in theater. I played Mr. Martin in Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano and remember it like it was yesterday. That interest in theater I was able to sustain through my whole adult life.

What does the theater have to do to survive in the 21st century?
It has to continue to be relevant, speaking to concerns and issues. We have to worry about keeping it accessible on price. It’s a handmade art. There are no economies of mass production or scale. You can’t make technological advances to make it cheaper. Costume are handmade. Sets are handmade, and performances are handmade every night. On the other hand, theater has always existed since Thespis. It will be with us for a while.

What was the last book you read?
Ted Kennedy’s autobiography, True Compass. I thought it was perfect. You got a sense of him and his travails. It was ultimately a love story, with his marriage giving it a happy ending.
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  • On June 9, 2010, Rick Zimmermann wrote:
    Hearing about an old friend and one of the philosopher kings of his freshman class made me smile broadly. Lost track of Rocco and the small coterie of his friends who kept me up at night listening to arguments about Nietzche, Marx and others. These were freshmen who were going some place and they obviously did. Great hearing about your success and continuing impact on the arts. Where is Rothchild?