Theater Producer Takes The Stage As New NEA Chair Former Broadway producer Rocco Landesman is about to embark on a journey that will take him way off-Broadway: Peoria, Ill. is his first stop on "Art Works," a six-month tour of arts organizations around the country.
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Theater Producer Takes The Stage As New NEA Chair

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Theater Producer Takes The Stage As New NEA Chair

Theater Producer Takes The Stage As New NEA Chair

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The new chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts is ready to help struggling arts programs around the country. Rocco Landesman has been called loquacious, combative and Broadway's favorite cowboy. The former theater producer is going way off-Broadway tomorrow. He's going to find out how a tour of arts organizations plays in Peoria.

NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg has more.

Mr. ROCCO LANDESMAN (Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts): This one's on gold leaf, gold leaf and eggshell�

SUSAN STAMBERG: Rocco Landesman's office in the beautiful old Post Office Building on Pennsylvania Avenue is filled with paintings by his father�

Mr. LANDESMAN: The title is �Goodbye, Lola, Goodbye.�

STAMBERG: �a St. Louis cabaret theater owner with lots of hobbies. Son Rocco inherited dad's theater DNA. He owns five theaters in New York and produced �Angels in America,� �The Producers,� �Big River� - big switch from Mr. Broadway to Mr. Bureaucracy.

Mr. LANDESMAN: August 11th was my first day.

STAMBERG: How you doing?

Mr. LANDESMAN: So far so good. It's not boring.

STAMBERG: Frustrating though. He's used to running his own show, being the boss. When a Broadway biggie wants to get something done, it gets done.

Mr. LANDESMAN: Here, I want to do something and there are three or four people who immediately tell me why I can't do it and then if I still insist on doing it, well, that's going to take another six months. But I feel very engaged. It's exciting so far. It is.

STAMBERG: Which brings us circuitously to Peoria, where brick bats will not be thrown at Rocco Landesman, despite his having said early in his brief NEA tenure, quote: �I don't know if there's a theater there but I bet it's not as good as Steppenwolf or the Goodman.� Those are two first-rate Chicago playhouses. Uh-oh. But Peoria wasn't mad - they just invited Rocco to come visit.

So it is stop number one on his so-called Art Works tour, and he's pleased.

Mr. LANDESMAN: Peoria is not very far from where I grew up in St. Louis. My favorite restaurant, Steak and Shake, is there.

STAMBERG: Steak and Shake is your favorite�

Mr. LANDESMAN: Favorite chain of restaurants, yes, and it's my favorite place to eat.

STAMBERG: What's it like that we would�

Mr. LANDESMAN: I would call it very high quality fast food served on china.

STAMBERG: And Landesman knows there is also art in Peoria.

Mr. LANDESMAN: There is great art everywhere. Art can come from the most unpredictable places, and we're going to be going around the country and looking at what kind of art there is and how that can support what's going to be our program over the next few years.

STAMBERG: The NEA budget will be $167 million next year. Landesman says more and more arts organizations are cropping up, even as audiences decline. So it's legitimate, he thinks, to ask if arts institutions are being overbuilt and for him to go after more money too. He is sure the arts have a real economic impact in America - creating jobs, bringing in money. But in this economy, Landesman says, you can't go to the administration, Congress, foundations hat-in-hand and says this opera company, that mime group, that theater won't exist if we don't help right away.

Mr. LANDESMAN: I generally think the response will be, gee, that's a shame, that's too bad, but we have more important priorities on our plate right now than arts institutions. If on the other hand I can go to Congress and the administration and say the arts should be part of domestic policy, should be a part of coming out this recession, should be a part of the revitalization of our communities and neighborhoods, then I think we have real traction in domestic policy and I think we're talking a completely different conversation.

STAMBERG: One of your predecessors, Bill Ivey, said the arts will always be an East Wing thing, never West Wing. In other words - East, where the soft stuff is done. So do you want to move it across�

Mr. LANDESMAN: Yes. We need to move this into the West Wing as well, into the place where they're making decisions about economic initiatives. We need to be at the table with the grown-ups. That means the West Wing.

STAMBERG: Rocco Landesman. After Peoria, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts will travel to St. Louis, Memphis, Nashville and points west, the one-time Broadway producer seeing and declaring at each stop that art works.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

Were you in New York on 9/11?

Mr. LANDESMAN: Yes. It was very important to get the theaters open right away, because in New York they were a symbol of tourism and activity. And we missed one night - the next night the theaters were open and running and remember giving a curtain speech. It was early in the run of �The Producers.� I think the fact that we were able to laugh that night and have, you know, �The Producers� is the funniest show ever made - so the fact that we were able to share some really hearty laughs was the most important thing we could do that night. I remember it like it was yesterday.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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