Thanks to its rich heritage of architecture, music and culture, Macon’s arts scene is in a position to thrive despite the current economic slump.
That was the message of National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Rocco Landesman, who spoke to nearly 300 people Tuesday at the Grand Opera House about the organization’s accomplishments during his tenure, which began in 2009.
At a news conference after the keynote speech, Landesman said a brief conversation with Mayor Robert Reichert proved to him the city is poised to continue to incorporate the arts into everyday life.
“It took me six seconds to see he gets it,” Landesman said of Reichert. “The first thing you need (for a strong arts scene) is the political structure. You also need a committed private sector and some sort of history of artistic achievement. Macon has all three. It has all the elements to be a rich, thriving arts community.”
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Landesman, who was a Tony Award-winning Broadway producer of shows such as “Big River,” “Angels In America: Perestroika” and “The Producers” before being appointed NEA chairman by President Barack Obama in 2009, said he has tried to bring to governments the same collaborative spirit that makes for successful shows by working with other federal departments to incorporate the arts.
That effort includes collaborations with the U.S. Department of Education for arts programs in education, with the Department of Housing and Urban Development for making beautiful neighborhoods, and with the Department of Defense in offering free admission to military families at more than 1,600 museums across the nation this summer.
Landesman said the NEA has worked with the U.S. Conference of Mayors to come up with ways of using the arts to revitalize downtown areas of cities.
“We’re giving them the resources they need to make good decisions,” he said. “Though we didn’t have a formal study to present, the arts make for a stronger community.”
Thanks to the NEA’s efforts with cities, Landesman said, the programs have “galvanized” private organizations and foundations to come up with their own programs to make cities more vibrant through the arts.
He noted that the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is one of the NEA’s most significant partners and helped bring him to Macon for the day.
Landesman and those in attendance saw the Knight Foundation’s “Random Acts of Culture” initiative firsthand when Dennis Scholl, Knight’s vice president for the arts, had his introduction of Landesman interrupted when Chuck Leavell, the keyboardist for bands such as The Allman Brothers Band and The Rolling Stones, performed “Georgia On My Mind.”
Landesman said his agency has worked a great deal with the Department of Education in promoting the arts in education, noting that school systems often make arts programs among the first budget cuts.
He pointed to a UCLA study that reported students from poor socio-economic backgrounds but with strong arts backgrounds outperform the general student population academically. He also noted how the Department of Education is now stressing the arts in various education grant programs such as Promise Neighborhoods.
As for the NEA’s work with the military, Landesman noted that in addition to the Blue Star Museums program, a pair of initiatives use writing as a form of therapy for soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center to treat psychological war wounds.
Reichert said it’s significant for Macon to have someone of Landesman’s stature visit the city.
“You have made art real and the impact of art real,” Reichert said to Landesman during the news conference.
Reichert later added that the design of his Second Street corridor project would be using all sorts of landscape architecture.
“We’re using the arts on public streets to make them more accommodating and attractive to the public,” he said.
To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.