Art Works Blog

Remembering Frank Hodsoll

On July 24, the arts community in the United States and abroad, lost a champion when Frank Hodsoll, the NEA’s fourth chairman and a national arts leader, died at the age of 78. You can learn more about his life and chairmanship here, including a quote from Chairman Jane Chu. Many people knew and worked with Frank over the years, but those who could most appreciate his accomplishments at the helm of the NEA, would be other NEA chairmen. Below are their remembrances.

Jane Alexander

Frank Hodsoll was one of the finest of NEA chairmen. He managed to convince his colleagues in the Reagan administration that the arts were worthy of supporting at a time when budgets were being cut right and left. He instituted new programs which stood the test of time and are still part of the NEA today. He had an excellent mind, an unflappable nature and a sweet sense of humor.

Back in the late 1950s Frank and I were part of a group of Yale and Sarah Lawrence students who palled around together on weekends, taking excursions to beach houses, or New York City or dances. He was big and fun and kind, hallmarks of his personality throughout life. And he married a Sarah Lawrence girl. Mimi McEwen, an artist, was a wonderful life partner for Frank and their children.

When I was appointed NEA chairman in 1993 Frank was the first person to call me up and take me to lunch to show me the ropes. He cared deeply about the agency and its future and was a constant friend throughout the culture wars. How lucky the Arts Endowment was to have him! 

Bill Ivey

Frank Hodsoll was a dedicated public servant and a good guy who brought a serious professionalism to the Arts Endowment chairmanship and was a real asset to the agency.  After his tenure ended in 1989, he remained a familiar figure in our field, especially as an advocate for cultural policy and for an expanded role for the arts in international affairs.

I got to know Frank better after he left government service. He was a founding board member of the Center for Arts and Culture, and, on his own, put together a spate of meetings and projects designed to reinvigorate cultural diplomacy. I was a participant in many Hodsoll gatherings and soon learned that all of Frank’s ideas were well thought-out; clearly-expressed. He was unfailingly polite--really unflappable--when disagreement popped up in meetings, and highly organized and deadline-dependable. 

Frank didn’t claim to be an artist or an arts expert (although a few years ago he revealed that he had come to love singing to and with his grandchildren). Instead, what Frank brought to the agency was the civilized gravitas of a senior government official--a style honed in Republican politics but grounded, most importantly, in his long tenure in the U.S. Foreign Service.

Frank was in the White House and asked for the Arts Endowment job when it didn’t look all that promising, but his choice served the NEA well. His memos were beautifully written and exhaustive, crafted like those thoughtful, literate cables that helped define the State Department’s glory days.

Every NEA chairman hopes to make some lasting contribution to the agency, in style, substance, or both. Frank was many things, and made multiple contributions to the Arts Endowment and to the role of culture in public policy. But to me, Frank Hodsoll was first and foremost a diplomat, and today his diplomat’s dedication, discipline, communication skills remain an inspiring objective for those who follow.

Dana Gioia

I had never met Frank Hodsoll until I arrived in Washington in late 2002 as nominee designate for NEA Chairman. He was one of the first people who stopped by to introduce himself.

Everyone who visited me in those early weeks offered great gobs of advice, most of it impractical. Frank served up a few morsels of good guidance, but mostly he wanted to let me know he would be happy to help in any way he could. And for the next six years he did exactly that in his quietly effective way. 

When we needed his help, Frank talked to people about issues affecting the Arts Endowment. He mustered support for particular programs. He was a natural diplomat. Frank was also always willing to help out with our frequent public events. His presence and participation added depth to our events, especially our 2006 conference at American University to celebrate the NEA’s fortieth anniversary where he was a keynote speaker.

I won’t belabor Frank’s many accomplishments as NEA Chairman, which the Washington Post so lucidly celebrated in their obituary. In a larger sense he not only protected the Arts Endowment from the budget cutters in the early years of the Reagan administration; he quickly built political support and grew appropriations.

Frank Hodsoll’s most enduring accomplishment, however, is not something denominated in dollars, though it is quite literally minted from gold—namely the National Medal of the Arts, which he helped introduce in 1985. The creation of this award represented a significant turn in American culture. For the first time in its history the government of the United States created an annual occasion to honor the nation’s artists and creative legacy.

Frank never missed the yearly National Medals reception at the White House. I can picture him now standing in the great West Wing hall after the awards ceremony, talking to his innumerable friends, congratulating the honorees, his face beaming with fatherly pride. He had good reason to be proud.

Rocco Landesman

If you lived in Washington, DC for any length of time you needed to have the occasional lunch with Frank Hodsoll. I'm not sure I could have maintained my sanity without them. In a town where a sentence that begins "I am humbled...." always means exactly the opposite, Frank was the odd man out. I knew that when I was with him I would not be positioned for an "ask." He would not promote himself or tell stories in which he was the hero; there was simply going to be an hour and a half of warmth, candor, and curiosity. 

Frank was always my nominee for Lowest B.S. Quotient in Town, but there was one subject on which he would fudge the truth. It is generally accepted that when Ronald Reagan was elected President, the NEA was marked for extinction by the Budget Director David Stockman. Frank, who was at the time James Baker's deputy, put his hand up for the job of NEA Chair, got the appointment, and proceeded to not only rescue the agency from the chopping block, but built its appropriation to a level above what it is today, and that's in nominal 1989 dollars, unadjusted for inflation. When, at a recent panel of NEA chairs for the NEA's 50th birthday celebration, I mentioned this, he did what he always does, and deflected all of the credit to President Reagan. According to Frank, he was just carrying out the President's wishes. OK. 

Frank's tenure at the NEA was long--both terms of the Reagan administration--and eventful. On his watch were the creations of the Jazz Masters Awards, the National Medal of Arts presented by the President, the Mayors' Institute on City Design, and partnerships with the American Film and Sundance Institutes, among others. But for those who worked with him, and those of us who were lucky enough to know him, his personal legacy is just as important. Without any vestige of pretense or self-importance--he never presented himself as an artist or an inspirer of artists--he loved the arts unabashedly and worked tirelessly to support and promote them. 

Thanks, Frank. Godspeed.

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