WASHINGTON — Rocco Landesman, a producer known for bringing such hits as “Big River,” “Angels in America” and “The Producers” to Broadway, has been nominated as the next chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, The New York Times reported Tuesday.
President Obama’s decision to choose the 61-year-old Landesman could shake things up at the NEA, which provides funds to arts groups throughout the nation.
Landesman is expected to lobby hard for more arts money. But as president and owner of Jujamcyn Theaters, he has not been known for his diplomatic or administrative skills; rather, he’s been noted for his energy, intellect and irreverent candor.
He caused a stir in 2000 by accusing nonprofit theaters of acting too similar to their for-profit counterparts. He also created a $480 premium ticket for “The Producers” to discourage scalpers.
“Rocco speaks his mind, which is probably one of the reasons he was chosen,” Robert Brustein, the founding director of the Yale and American Repertory Theaters, told The New York Times. “Rocco does not defer his opinions.”
Landesman also has ties to Maine. He attended Colby College in Waterville for two years in the late 1960s and is considered part of the Class of 1969. He was involved in Colby’s theater productions, according to a college spokeswoman. Landesman eventually graduated from the University of Wisconsin.
A native of St. Louis, he served as a Colby overseer from 1991 to 1995 and was awarded an honorary degree from Colby in 1995. In addition, Landesman founded the Landesman Scholarship Fund at Colby to support students from New York City.
In 1987, Landesman became president of Jujamcyn, which owns five Broadway houses, and bought the company in 2005. He is expected to resign from his position but still retain an ownership in the company.
“He is a great entrepreneur and producer, and it indicates to me that the administration wants to have somebody in this position who will be much more than simply a distributor of funds,” Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, told the Times. “The relationship between the government and the arts needs to be energized. It needs someone like Rocco.”
The NEA was once threatened with extinction by conservatives who branded it a shameful supporter of such explicit works as Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs. Now, it’s known for cheering on the arts in general, with such programs as the Big Read, Poetry Out Loud and “Operation Homecoming,” a compilation of stories written by soldiers in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
The NEA’s budget for 2009 is $145 million. Obama has requested $161 million for 2010, which is short of its peak of $176 million in 1992.
If Congress approves his nomination, Landesman would replace Dana Gioia, who stepped down in January after serving less than seven years.
BDN writer Jessica Bloch contributed to this report.