Transcript of interview with NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman following his trip to Peoria, Illinois

Jo Reed:  Welcome back from Peoria and you're fresh off the first stop of your Art Works tour. Just remind us about Art Works.

Rocco Landesman:  Well, I fell in love with the phrase because it's a triple entendre and I can't resist those. In the first aspect of it, art works is- is a noun. It refers to the stuff that artists create. The NEA's ideal mission is to create great works of art. In a perfect world we'd be doing nothing but funding great art works. It's stuff you hang on the wall or see on stage. It's the product of artistic endeavor. In the second incarnation art works is- is a verb and it refers to how art works on people. It affects us.

It changes us. We're different people after encountering great works of art than we were before. I remember very vividly going to a performance of Long Day's Journey in to Night when I was a freshman in college, and I came out of that performance a different person than I was going in. Art can change us in ways that we never even anticipated so art works on us as human beings. And the third notion is that art works in an almost literal way, that artists work, they're part of the real economy, that arts jobs are real jobs, that they are as valid as any other job that's created anywhere. Artists have bills to pay too and kids to put through college. And we are gonna be making the point over and over again that arts workers, the 5.7 million of them in the United States that have arts-related jobs, that they are an important part of the real economy, and that's something we're going to be emphasizing.

Jo Reed:  Well, let's talk about how art is working in Peoria, Illinois, first stop on your trip. Why Peoria?

Rocco Landesman:  We started in Peoria because I made my just now infamous statement that I didn't know if there was a theater in Peoria but if there was I saidI would bet it's not as good as Steppenwolf or the Goodman in Chicago. When that statement was made inan article in the New York Times around the time of my confirmation the people in Peoria naturally had a reaction. Interestingly, the reaction was not one of hostility and indignation and being offended. It was very much the opposite. They wrote back a rather warm and welcoming letter asking me to come to Peoria to see for myself what kind of theater they in fact do have and I responded right away in kind. And we started a very warm correspondence between myself and Suzette Boulais who runs Arts Partners of Central Illinois and Kathy Chitwood who runs the Eastlight Theatre and we became friends via e-mail and personal phone calls and we set up this meeting in Peoria where I would come out and meet with arts groups, take a tour of the arts district there and the arts organizations, and then culminating last night with a performance of Rent that they brought back for a one-night-only special performance, and it was just a great day. We had a great time.

Suzette and Kathy are good friends. I think they will be forever. It was just a wonderful day. We had a roundtable with Peoria arts leaders in the morning, a great lunch at Steak and Shake, which is my favorite place to eat, some interviews in the afternoon, meetings with more arts people. We started the day actually with a tour of the warehouse district which has some art galleries and art work places already but which I think is going to be an increasingly important arts district in Peoria. One of the most interesting projects they have going there, and you see signs for it everywhere that says Build a Block, what that refers to is the prospective Riverfront Museum that's gonna go up along the river, and the interesting thing there is that there has been already passed a tax levy and this levy was supported by the unions. It was a close election but they did get it through. That's something that doesn't happen that often these days and is very encouraging.

This community is really united behind the arts and to try to get arts development going there. It's very encouraging to see. There are a lot of artists. There are a lot of people working very, very hard in the arts and proud of what they do and in many cases doing some very, very compelling work, and it was great to see that and encounter it and I just thought it would be the best place to start our tour.

Jo Reed:  Well, it's interesting in the research that I've done about Peoria how committed they are to the arts.

Rocco Landesman:  Very much so. There's not only the Eastlight Theatre; there's two other important theaters there too. There is a- a symphony orchestra that's over a hundred years old. There is a ballet company. There is myriad visual artists, painters, sculptors. There's quite a few people working very seriously in the arts and many of them doing very, very good work.

Jo Reed:  And there's a lot of public art. You can just walk down the street and see sculpture.

Rocco Landesman:  All--  All over the place. It's a very arts conscious town really. If all the cities on the tour are like Peoria, we're gonna make some very interesting discoveries and have a great time.

Jo Reed:  As you mentioned earlier, Councilman Ryan Spain pointed out that for every dollar that is put in to the arts a community like Peoria typically gets back six to eight bucks.

Rocco Landesman:  Yes. There is a big leveraging effect with the arts. There always is. Arts first of all attract people around them who s- who spend money and there is a multiplier effect of course as the art itself is created with costuming and all of the aspects of putting on a show or creating a work of art. There's a multiplier effect throughout the entire community. There always is.

Jo Reed:  Now you come from Broadway and you went to Peoria where there is a vibrant theater there but it's much smaller and a community theater. Talk a little bit about the analogy you made between major league baseball and minor league baseball.

Rocco Landesman:  Yes. I think that you need a entire arts ecosystem, not just big theaters like the Public Theater in New York City or the Ahmanson in Los Angeles or whatever. You need a whole system of theater just as in sports you have your major league teams, minor league teams, semi-pro teams, amateur teams all the way down to a dad and his son playing catch in the back yard. They're all valid, they're all necessary, and I remember Kathy Chitwood saying very eloquently at one point -- she's the person who runs the Eastlight Theatre -- she said, "You know, we know wher we are on the food chain. We have no illusions that we are the Steppenwolf or the Goodman in Chicago. But what we do has value and has validity and deserves support and people in Peoria need to see quality theater and if the Eastlight Theatre or the Corn Stock Theatre are doing work that's of a high quality it doesn't matter what you call it, amateur, professional or whatever, it's of value and deserves support." 

Jo Reed:  You know we mentioned this earlier. As a baseball fan I go to minor league baseball games in upstate New York and the relationship that the spectators have with the baseball team is very different. It's so much more intimate and involved.

Rocco Landesman:  Yes. I think that's true. In a small community the connection between the audience and the stage is stronger than usual. Everybody's known to everyone else. They've seen them in previous productions. They've probably gone to high school with them or instructed by them or something. There is often a very personal connection that you don't get otherwise.

Jo Reed:  Well, last night you went to a performance of Rent at the Eastlight Theatre and it was performed at the East Peoria Community High School.

Rocco Landesman:  That was a very interesting thing to observe too. This is a high school that is committed to the arts. They're building a new performance art wing there and they seem to understand that arts are a critical part of a basic education, and they start this early with the kids. They have a couple of art instructors there. They of course have Kathy. It's a place that understands the role of arts education and the importance of it, and it was very gratifying to see that. The principal there gets it and understands that art is an important part of any kid's education.

Jo Reed:  Tell us a little bit more about the roundtable that you took part in.

Rocco Landesman:  It was a group of civic leaders, not just the arts community, also from the political and philanthropic communities, and it was basically a gathering of anybody who cares about the arts in Peoria to talk about ways they might be able to work together to hear what I had to say although I was really there mainly to listen to them, and it was a kind of great back-and-forth. The dialog didn't stop. It could have gone on for another day or two I felt like when I left. They are very proud of what they do. They want to know how they can do it better.

They want to know how they can get more support for what they're doing. It was a really great back-and-forth. It was really co-hosted by Carol Coletta, who is the head of CEO for Cities. To me she is the bible about arts as it relates to the economy and she steered a lot of the conversation about how important the arts can be to local economies. It was fantastic that she came out and participated in this. She is gonna be one of our most important relationships and sources I think going forward.

Jo Reed:  Rocco, can you explain just a little bit about CEO for Cities?

Rocco Landesman:  It's an organization that's not just about arts per se. It's really about how cities can grow economically in ways that we hadn't necessarily thought about before and uh.. how they can grow in ways that are intelligent and productive and rational, and she really has made this her passion and her life's work.

Jo Reed:  There is a collaborative sense of different organizations coming together as you say around your trip, and in a way that's sort of a subtext of Art Works, isn't it?

Rocco Landesman:  Yes. If we can have a catalytic effect, that's great. I mean the main purpose of course is to learn, is to go and find out what's going on in different cities and towns. I've made enough pronouncements already. I think at some point it's time to pronounce less and observe more so we're going to as many places as we can to find out what is going on in the various art scenes and and learn from it.

Jo Reed:  Well, since you just got back from Peoria, I understand that maybe you didn't process everything that you've observed yet but just off the top of your head what did you see?

Rocco Landesman:  Well, I think we see that there are vibrant and important art scenes in places we would never guess or least expect it. Peoria was a reference to the old vaudeville expression, "Will it play in Peoria?"  It's a kind of generic place, meaning that it may be one thing in New York or Chicago, it might be another out in the hinterlands, which is what the Peoria reference was, and when we actually checked out Peoria itself it's hardly the hinterlands. It's first of all a very good-sized city. The metropolitan area is over 350,000 people and it's a city that takes its art very seriously and what I suspect is that as we go around to other cities and towns we're gonna find the same thing; we're gonna find a very committed group of arts practitioners and patrons and supporters that we didn't know about before.