It's Time to Prune the Arts, Says Embattled NEA Head Rocco Landesman

It's Time to Prune the Arts, Says Embattled NEA Head Rocco Landesman

The Republican Study Committee is gunning for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, having announced a plan last month that would eradicate the 45-year-old organization. But possible extinction isn't the only thing the NEA has to worry about these days. The arts agency's chairman Rocco Landesman has been shocking and enraging people from the right and the left, proposing that the demand for arts organizations (specifically struggling theaters) no longer matches the supply — in effect, that a surplus of arts groups that lack audiences could and should be pruned.


Landesman first stirred up controversy at a play development conference at the Arena Stage theater in Washington D.C., where according to the New York Times, he said: "You can either increase demand or decrease supply. Demand is not going to increase, so it is time to think about decreasing supply." Then on Monday, in a piece the chairman posted on the official blog of the NEA, Art Works, Landesman responded to the deluge of public outcry at his remarks. In the post, he claims that his comment in Washington was no slip up, but rather a way to "spark a conversation that I have been wanting to have for over a year now."


Landesman explains that it was a 2008 survey of "Public Participation in the Arts," conducted by the NEA — reporting a five-percent decrease in arts audiences in America, accompanied by a 23 percent increase in nonprofit arts organizations — that first led him to question whether it was possible to balance the equation of arts organizations and their audiences. Attempting to clear up confusion concerning another statement he made — that his agency was seeking to give bigger grants to fewer organizations so that they might only fund large, established institutions — the NEA chairman says, "We should never talk about survival of the largest; we are here to ensure the survival of the most creative and most dynamic."


Seemingly hoping to keep conversations about the NEA from becoming mono-focused on the supply-and-demand issue, Landesman brings other NEA imperatives to the table in his editorial, mentioning efforts to boost arts education; the need to take advantage of "related demand" surrounding shows like "Glee" and "Dancing with the Stars"; NEA projects to offer free audio and video of art events; and programs to ramp up technological arts initiatives. Yet when he draws his list of NEA projects to a close, with a call to "examine our arts infrastructure," the troubling aspects of his supply-and-demand theory resurface.

"There are 5.7 million arts workers in this country and two million artists. Do we need three administrators for every artist?" he asks. "Resident theaters in this country began as collectives of artists. They have become collectives of arts administrators. Do we need to consider becoming more lightly institutionalized in order to get more creativity to more audiences more often?"

Yet however sound this argument, unease lingers about what the next step might be. Americans for the Arts's recently released "National Arts Index" report came to much the same conclusion as Landesman, suggesting that oversupply of nonprofit arts organizations might require the formation of initiatives to help some organizations "die with dignity." But who will select which struggling nonprofit groups to weed out?