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Thursday, September 10, 2009

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Executive Director's Column

A Conversation with Rocco Landesman; Remembering Ted Kennedy

NASAA Executive Director Jonathan Katz

My First Conversation with Rocco Landesman

I met with new National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Chairman Rocco Landesman during his first week at the helm of the arts endowment, and I'd like to share with you a few aspects of that conversation.

I asked Chairman Landesman what it was that attracted him to the NEA strongly enough to interrupt his successful business interests, leave New York City, and take on this new and very demanding responsibility. He replied that he "raised his hand" for the position because, for someone who believes as strongly in the value of the arts as he does, the prospect of chairing the NEA in an administration led by a president he knows to be both "an intellectual" and "supportive of the arts" looked like a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Chairman Landesman was very interested in the resources of state arts agencies, what they do, and how what they do relates to what the NEA does. I shared with him some basic information: that SAAs fund about 3/5 of NEA grantees, that they fund those common grantees about twice as much as the NEA does, and that SAAs annually reach between seven and eight times as many grantees as the NEA. About 80% of SAA expenditures go toward general operating support and season support (both of which Congress has prohibited the NEA from doing), support to individual artists (which Congress has limited for the NEA), arts education and other project support. The chairman gave me ample opportunity to describe why the 40% of the arts endowment's grant funds that Congress has mandated to go through state arts agencies and their regional groups is so important to the public value of the NEA—in terms of what it enables the NEA to accomplish with federal funds, in terms of the funding for the arts that it stimulates from state government, and in terms of the Congressional support it generates.

My introductory agenda included several items that were appropriate to mention at this time. One was that the state arts agencies—through their staff services, council roles, and grant making—offer the NEA a uniquely powerful network to reach every state and to reach deeply into local communities with its leadership activities and with federal dollars. That is why the NEA and state arts agencies work together so closely on the goals most explicitly valued by Congress—providing broad public access to excellent art, reaching the underserved, and advancing arts education. And that is why regular, ongoing, direct conversation between NASAA leadership and the NEA is essential to maximizing the benefits of public support for the arts in the United States.

With specific regard to current or future initiatives, I thought it important to observe that the key to effectively engaging the resources of state and regional arts agencies is flexible guidelines. Flexible federal guidelines enable states and regions to fulfill national goals by implementing activities consistent with local cultural resources and priorities. Here I pointed out that consultation with NASAA is the best way to ensure that any strategy intended to have an impact on all or many states, any strategy intended to have statewide impact, and any strategy to enlist state arts agencies as federal partners has the greatest likelihood of succeeding.

We did not discuss the idea of a major NEA initiative in arts education in any detail in this first meeting. We did note that the Arts Education Partnership is already in place as the vehicle to engage the broad education community as well as the broad arts community in communicating about and implementing such an initiative—whatever form it takes.

We touched briefly on a number of other subjects—the impact of the recession on arts organizations, arts participation and government arts agencies; the role of the Cultural Advocacy Group (some of whom, including NASAA Legislative Counsel Tom Birch, he also met with that week); the value of the National Governors Association issue briefs that the NEA funds and NASAA helps produce as a subcontractor; the ways in which SAAs like to be helpful to the NEA chair and his staff when they travel in their state; that NASAA could be helpful in providing members of Congress with information documenting the impact of NEA dollars in their districts; and the fact that the 1992 NEA budget high of $176 million would be $319 million today if adjusted for population increase and inflation.

Before our conversation ended, I invited the chairman to participate in NASAA's November board meeting and to greet the state arts agencies via Webcast. We agreed that we should meet regularly. I enjoyed meeting him very much and look forward to working with him on behalf of NASAA. As the cultural strategies of the new administration evolve and as opportunities for consultation arise, NASAA will keep you informed.

At a 2006 ceremony, Senator Ted Kennedy (center) is presented with the Sidney R. Yates Award, a crystal vase crafted by Illinois artist Kurt Strobach. With him (left to right) are Mary Kelley, then executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council; Rhoda Pierce, vice chair of the Illinois Arts Council (IAC); Romie Munoz, IAC director of administration; and NASAA CEO Jonathan Katz.

Remembering Senator Kennedy

As NASAA members share the loss of Senator Edward Kennedy, a champion for the arts among many other worthy public causes, we are reminded of his contributions and record of accomplishment. He was a member of Congress when the National Endowment for the Arts was created and when the language that spurred the state arts agency movement by providing formula-based federal support was included in its authorizing legislation. For decades, his stalwart advocacy on behalf of broadening public participation in the nation's cultural life—and specifically on behalf of the NEA—helped ensure a meaningful role for the federal government in support of the arts and humanities. Senator Kennedy's successful efforts to reach practical accords with other congressional leaders, within and across party lines, are legendary.

NASAA and the Illinois Arts Council (IAC) presented Senator Kennedy with our Sidney R. Yates Award in 2006, acknowledging his leadership and advocacy on behalf of the arts. At the formal presentation on Capitol Hill, in the presence of his long-time cultural policy advisor, Kathy Kruse, cultural leaders from his home state of Massachusetts, IAC Vice Chair Rhoda Pierce representing IAC Chair Shirley Madigan and their council, NASAA Legislative Counsel Tom Birch and myself, Senator Kennedy was both gracious and humorous as he recognized the significant work on behalf of the arts and humanities by the late Congressman Yates (D-IL), as he talked about the importance of the arts to Massachusetts, and as he thanked NASAA for the work that we do. On behalf of the state arts agencies, NASAA has expressed condolences to Kathy and Senator Kennedy's staff, and thanked them once more for their commitment to public support of the arts.