Postcard from Retirement

by Rocco Landesman

Back in April 2010---I visited York, Pennsylvania. Mayor C. Kim Bracey presented me with the Key to York, and a member of the York Revolution baseball team gave me my own Revolution jersey. Photo by NEA Staff

I’ve been officially retired now for 27 days, which seems like as good a time as any to reflect on my time at the NEA. I felt from the outset that if you were ever going to do public service, if you didn't do it now in this administration, when you would ever do it? It was by chance, completely out of left field that the opportunity came up. Margo Lion---who was the chairman of the President's Advisement Committee during the campaign---after the 2008 election came in and said, "Can you think of someone who'd be a really good NEA chair?" I put my hand up and said, “I'll do it!” It struck me that this would be a real chance to do something different than I had ever done in my life. It would be an opportunity to meet new people and people who are very dedicated to making the country a better place. And that's exactly what happened.

I've met fantastic people doing the NEA Chairman job, especially within the agency itself. I really enjoyed meeting the people that I worked with in the agency and getting to know them. Some of them are going to be lifelong friends. The same thing happened in Washington, in general; I was able to meet people I never would have met otherwise. Every time you go to dinner in this town, there's substantial discussion. It's about something that matters. It's about something real in a way that I wasn't used to in New York. The good or bad is that people here are serious. They're engaged. They care. I'm so glad---and my wife Debby is too---that we came down and had this experience. I wouldn't have traded it for a second!

It probably won't be surprising that outside of Washington, some of the most rewarding places I visited during my term were places that are very engaged in the arts, that have a great arts infrastructure and commitment to the arts. Providence, Rhode Island, would probably be at the top of the list. Sometimes some of the rural and out-of-the-way places were surprising, like Worm Farm in Wisconsin, and the Red Cloud Indian School in South Dakota, and going to Wounded Knee. The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation was, I think, an important place to go, and a place that I never would have gone to if I weren’t chair of the NEA. I've had an opportunity to do a lot of things that if I hadn’t had this position I wouldn't have done.

Here I am last October warming up the crowd to hear from (l-r) Bob Morrison, Ayanna Hudson (the NEA's Arts Education director), Clement Price, and the other panelists for our great arts education conversation in Newark. Photo by Daniel Hedden, courtesy of NJPAC

One of the highlights for me was delivering the Blashfield address to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. I would have never been invited to do that, given the roster of the people who have done that, if I weren't the chair of the NEA. I enjoyed having an occasion like that where I had the chance to think about things and write about them. Also, I really enjoyed all of the arts panels I was on as I traveled the country where there was always a stimulating back and forth with other panelists and the audience, and where I inevitably went away thinking, “Boy that was interesting!”

Without this job I would never have gone to places like the Central Valley in California---Fresno, Modesto, Merced, Sacramento. I got to be friends with Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson in Sacramento and see his commitment to the arts. Chicago is always a highlight for me to visit because, for my money, what we now call creative placemaking started with Mayor Richard M. Daley in Chicago in 1989 when he renovated those old theaters and created a downtown theater district. That was the beginning of the revitalization of that city. It was done through the arts. Or you can look at the Over-the-Rhine district in Cincinnati, the Short North district in Columbus, Ohio, a host of other places, including my hometown of St. Louis.

Everywhere I visited, I saw how the arts can transform places, change a place, revitalize neighborhoods, be a driver of economic development. The arts can create a renewal in all these places like nothing else can. That’s what I've seen over and over again. One of my jobs as Chairman of the NEA was to highlight that and to make the case for how that happens. It can be in a place where you expect it, as in Minneapolis and Saint Paul where there's been a long standing powerful arts tradition where the funding of the arts is written down in the state constitution. But also go down to Jackson, Mississippi, to the contemporary art museum there, and you see what they've done in their public square with their outdoor art and their gardens and the role of that museum in that community. Shreveport, Louisiana, is an archetypical example of creative placemaking where the arts council took an old firehouse and made into an arts center, and the anchor for a cultural district there. When you get someone like Shreveport Mayor Cedric Glover who buys into this, who believes it, or Mayor Michael Nutter in Philadelphia---when a mayor buys into putting the arts at the center of placemaking and when the local political structure gets it, you have transformations. Those transformations have really been what the NEA's been about in these last three-and-a-half years.

In May 2012, Carlton Turner of Alternate ROOTS and I spoke in front of a group of about 450 when we chatted about creative placemaking at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. Photo by Jhai James, Georgia Council on the Arts

I think the NEA has really tried to spark conversation about that type of change, promote awareness about it, fund it where we can, bring about collaborations and cooperation among entities there to do what we now call creative placemaking. Creative placemaking really is an intersection, as I always like to say, of the arts and the real world. This is where the arts affect people's everyday lives. So much of creative placemaking has to do with art literally in the public square, art that is easy to access publicly. So much of creative placemaking involves design, involves architecture---both building architecture and landscape architecture---just the whole aesthetics of a place. Someone is going to engage with the arts by walking along a city street---through public art, through design---yet never think of themselves as arts patrons because they don't buy tickets to a museum or a theater or a concert or ballet. But they are very much engaging in the arts because they're engaged in the aesthetic of a place, the design, the art of their place, simply by living in a city. One of the things we know from research is that when people live in a place that they like the looks of, that has a great aesthetic, that has great art, they have a much more wonderful experience and they like that place much more.
The arts are central to how people feel about the place where they live. So, when you’re talking about the arts as driver, you're not only talking about a place attracting people to them, but also having the people who live in them want to stay in them. Chelsea, Michigan, where I visited the Purple Rose Theater, is not like other places in Michigan because it has this great theater. And the theater spawned a whole different feel about living in that place---it has a cultural district now. It may be a town of only 5,000 people but it has the arts and people are proud of it. People have a different feeling about their town when there's significant arts activity.

As for the position itself, you know, I think that the one thing that I learned early on about being NEA chair is that it's a political job. I don't think it's a policy job necessarily. I think it's very important that the agency make great grants and support great programs, but ultimately the mission is to advance the arts, both across the nation and throughout the federal government---which means Congress, which means the administration. The power of personal contact is much more important than I ever thought it would be. It means going out to the district of a Congressperson or a senator and getting to know their constituents and getting to know them.

My advice to the next NEA chair would be---be a generally nice person. Be out and about. Be around. Be accessible. Engage the people that you're dealing with. You cannot lecture them or pontificate, or just impart wisdom. You've got to enter into real conversations. You have to have a certain amount of humility and willingness to learn. I wasn’t a Supreme Court justice or the Secretary of State, or even a Cabinet Secretary. I was a person trying to promote the arts and improve the acceptance and visibility of the arts throughout the country.

In June 2010, I visited Dallas, Texas and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Frederic Edwin Church’s 1861 painting The Icebergs was one of the artworks on view during my tour of the Dallas Museum of Art with Bonnie Pitman and the Fullers, a Blue Star family. Photo courtesy Dallas Museum of Art

You know, I think the NEA’s programs are well known. I think Our Town is a very significant new program at the NEA. I'm very proud of the work the agency has done and continues to do with the military, with the Department of Defense, in terms of Operation Homecoming. All the work we've done at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence at Walter Reed has been very significant. And then there’s Blue Star Museums, another partnership with the Department of Defense and Blue Star Families. There’s the partnership the NEA is now in with the Health and Human Services Agency. If I look back at most of the things we've done, I'll find a friend---Admiral Stocks at Walter Reed, Kathy Roth-Doquet at Blue Star Families, Kathleen Sebelius at HHS. Those are all personal relationships that really counted. And that’s a part of the job I miss.

I will miss the people at the NEA, and I will miss the chance to be out and around the country engaging the subject of the arts. I am, however, enjoying the return to private life, to being able to say things without worrying about it. A core value to me is autonomy, my freedom, the ability to do and say whatever I want, as selfish as that sounds. You really can't do that in a job like this. This’ll also be the first time I haven't gone into an office on a daily basis since 1987. I'm looking forward to that. I'm not going to stop doing things. I've never been bored. I've always been engaged in things, and, of course, theater will continue to be a part of my world.

I’d like to end with some final words on “Art Works,” a phrase I repeated numerous times during my time at the NEA, and that I’m going to keep using as often as I can, even in private life. I think that the way that that triple entendre was iterated really does sum it up. I care about each one of those points: I care passionately about certain works of art, obviously. I lived in the Chairman’s office for three-and-a-half years surrounded by famous works of art painted by my dad. I've had a career in the arts because, like everyone else who's had a career in the arts, at one point something happened to me that was deeply moving, deeply touching, and that involved the arts. In my case, it was seeing a certain play in a certain place. The arts work in us. The arts have an effect. They work in our emotions and spiritual lives. They really do work.

Here I am with Poetry Foundation President John Barr (left) and 2010 Poetry Out Loud National Champ Amber Johnson. Photo by James Kegley

The second aspect of “arts work” is that they are affecting. They really do move us. I think all of us have had careers in the arts because of that. And then finally what really culminated in this job is the whole notion that people who work in the arts and have careers in the arts are part of the real economy of the United States. That they work in the same sense that someone who works in a construction or manufacturing job works. A writer or a painter sits down with a blank canvas or piece of paper, starts to work, and the result of that is jobs for people. Paintings and plays and ballets and so forth, those are part of the real economy.

I think one of our signature achievements which happened fairly recently, is the new partnership we have with the Bureau of Economic Analysis, and they're now going to keep track of arts productivity as part of the Gross Domestic Product, just like they keep track of travel and tourism and other industries. Our point has been from day one that the arts are part of the real economy, and they need to be encouraged, nurtured, and enhanced, because, ultimately, they create jobs and work for people.

I’ll end by saying it was a great run. Debby and I think it's been maybe the happiest period of our lives: the people we've come to know, the work we've been able to engage in and see happen all around. It's been a fantastic ride. Ultimately, all good things must end; it's only bad things that go on and on and on.