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May 15, 2009
Obama's pick for NEA may stir the pot

landesman.jpg

Before President Obama's announced that Broadway impresario Rocco Landesman, 61, would be his pick to head the National Endowment of the Arts, it was a safe to say that just about everyone had forgotten about the NEA.

But those days may be over.

And that's because Obama's selection is not your run-of-the-mill pick, as was widely reported in the press after the announcement was made Tuesday.

The result? In one fell swoop the NEA is in the public spotlight again.

And perhaps, so will the plight of the arts in a tough economy.

Obama's choice of Landesman is an against-the-grain move. Landesman has a reputation as an outspoken individual in the commercial theatrical world. He is president of Jujamcyn Theaters, which owns five Broadway houses. His track record is a solid one and includes presenting such productions as "Angels in America" and "The Producers."

Landesman, whose candidacy must be approved by Congress, would oversee a budget that Obama requested at $161 million for fiscal 2010 - a $16 million increase from its allocation in the 2009 budget.

Landesman, if approved, would replace outgoing director Dana Gioia, who served six years at the NEA. During his tenure, the NEA created little stir and was mostly out of the public eye, as was the plight of arts funding.

This contrasted with the many controversies that plagued the agency over arts funding in the 1980s and 1990s.

This week Metropolitan Opera head Peter Gelb told the New York Times about Landesman that "the relationship between the government and the arts needs to be energized."

That may be the understatement of the year.

Questions will surely arise about Landesman. Some may bristle at the notion that a for- profit entrepreneuer will head an agency that oversees funds for nonprofit arts organizations.

But in the final accounting, any such questions will pale in comparison to the fact that people are talking about the NEA at all.

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