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Respect for the Arts--Please New NEA Chair

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Last week, an old friend who happens to be the new chair-nominee of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), Rocco Landesman, visited BAM for a tour of our facilities and an update on the plans for the BAM Cultural District as well as a chat about issues impacting the field.

Let me say right away that I am thrilled about Rocco's nomination because I think his background as both a former Yale arts professor and a commercial theater producer is exactly the right combination required for the leader of this agency during the Obama years. He is someone who has business acumen as well as in-depth knowledge of the arts.

As we talked, the subject moved to a discussion of "respect" for our field. It is in this area that I believe that, as the new chair, Landesman can raise the bar for the arts as a whole.

The fact that our field has to endure an ongoing barrage of disrespect and marginalization is simply outrageous and unacceptable in this day and age. What other field does so much for so little outside investment? Let's examine the facts:

The arts are a huge factor in the economic well-being of communities. When my own institution, BAM, has a dark night, every restaurant and shop in the area suffers. It is a simple fact that arts organizations stimulate night life and make neighborhoods more interesting and diverse.

  • The arts are the heart of the urban tourism industry. Certainly no one visits New York City for the weather. Many similar cities, such as Philadelphia, San Francisco and Pittsburgh, have also emerged as great arts cities which generate much needed revenue from visitors.

  • The arts are an incredible educational resource. Millions of students have become more connected to learning and self-expression as a result of school arts programs. It is tragic that creative education, which for many young people is the most important reason to stay in school, has been eliminated in favor of a stultifying overload of assessments and testing requirements.

  • The arts are an amazing and undervalued tool in diplomacy. The arts offer respect for various traditions and values as well as a non-confrontational way to interact with different belief systems. Cultural diplomacy can be a positive tool for change and cooperation. The recent NY Philharmonic tour to North Korea and BAM/Asia Society/NYU Center for Dialogues' collaborative Muslim Voices festival are great examples of this type of interaction.

    And finally, we have the arts--glorious, messy, soulful, enraging and miraculous--in all of their incarnations, clearly the best part of civilization. What field offers so much and is nevertheless dismissed as either a frill or an add-on? It's short-sighted and insulting.

    I think that the new chairman understands these facts, and hopefully, with his energy and street smarts, he can deliver the R-E-S-P-E-C-T the arts deserve and so desperately need.