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Posted at 10:17 AM ET, 02/ 4/2011

Some thoughts about Landesman's remarks

By Nelson Pressley

Before the embers are utterly snuffed on National Endowment of the Arts chairman Rocco Landesman's inflammatory remarks during Arena Stage's New Play confab last week (or wait - might they actually burn on?), a few things may be worth considering:

Describing Landesman as "our nation's nominal top funding dog," as one blogger did during the kerfuffle over the chairman's suggestion that the nation's resident theater scene is "overbuilt" (meaning the funding is thin and artists aren't making much of a living), perhaps overstates the NEA's largesse.

The agency's budget hasn't budged upward in any meaningful way since the early 1990s incarnation of the Culture Wars. According to the NEA's website, the agency had $128 million for all grants in 2009, and distributed $3,225,000 for theater grants in 2010. That $3.2 million -- a figure roughly equivalent to a very modest mid-sized theater's annual budget - was spread to 163 theaters, typically in increments between $10,000-$30,000. Hardly a windfall, and that's without cracking that it would take 20 such NEAs to finance one "Spider-Man."

On the other hand, Landesman's post-Arena "I said it and I meant it" amplification (which he made on the NEA's "Art Works" blog) and the often insightful comments that followed confirm that NEA money carries a genuine seal-of-approval value with audiences and funders. The NEA's figures claim that each NEA dollar leverages nearly another $6 from other sources - a function that shouldn't be lightly dismissed, tempting as it has been to regard the NEA as theatrically irrelevant in the cautious post - "NEA Four" years.

What was conspicuous in Landesman's talk (which can be seen on the New Play TV website, a deeply shop-talky kind of C-SPAN for not-for-profit theater - you've been warned) is the mushy footing for serious talks about funding and infrastructure. Landesman noted that theater stands alone among the arts for its divide between commercial and not-for-profit theater, and the comments that got traction arose from longstanding angst and confusion about where commercial production begins and not-for-profit ends (and what either category really means any more).

Tax status, the government's role - there is no sustained conversation about what national cultural policy should and should not be. And given the knee-jerk threats from politicians willing to use funding as a political football -see the recent calls, again, to de-fund the NEA - there really can't be.

If anyone in the room noted the richness (or irony) of this issue being aired in a not-for-profit theater that recently commanded more than $100 a ticket for its revival of "Oklahoma!" that earned sniffs from Broadway types considering a commercial transfer, it isn't coming through in the often hissy (technically, not emotionally) webcast.

By Nelson Pressley  | February 4, 2011; 10:17 AM ET
Categories:  National Endowment for the Arts  
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