Performance Artisit

Poet Dana Gioia throws everything he's got into running the NEA, including a few fighting words.

April 28, 2003|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

Dana Gioia has a hard time keeping his mouth shut.

The National Book Award-winning poet has a penchant for bold, splashy statements that tip over the establishment wheelbarrow and get people riled up. So what's he doing as head of the National Endowment for the Arts -- surely one of the most politically sensitive jobs in the land?

Gioia, 52, leans forward, smiles widely and says, "I promise to do my best to be a very good boy," a statement that, with its air of playful mockery, simultaneously makes a guarantee and takes it away. Then, more seriously, he adds: "I am clearly aware that I no longer speak for myself, but represent my agency. My role is not to be a critic but an advocate, to use my powers of persuasion toward building consensus and conviction."

FOR THE RECORD - One of National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Dana Gioia's credentials was misstated in the Today section Jan. 31 and April 28. Gioia is the winner of the 2002 American Book Award for his third volume of poetry, Interrogations at Noon. The Sun regrets the error.

If history is any indicator, Gioia, who assumed his new post in February, will have his work cut out for him.

The endowment's budget of nearly $176 million in 1992 plunged to $99 million in 1996, after a series of controversial projects partly funded by the agency, including Andres Serrano's photographs of a crucifix apparently submerged in urine, and performances by Karen Finley, who smeared her nude body with chocolate. In a related measure, Congress passed legislation forbidding the NEA to award grants to individual visual artists, although grants to writers still are permitted.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Gioia's first major initiative as endowment chairman is splashy and attention-getting, but it only appears to be uncontroversial.

Starting in September, seven professional theater companies throughout the United States will launch the largest tour of Shakespeare in the nation's history, with the aim of bringing high-quality productions of the Bard to roughly 100 small and mid-sized communities in all 50 states and on military bases.

One not-unimportant goal of the Shakespeare in American Communities program is to make the Endowment more popular in Littletown, USA. "There is a need to create large, visible national programs of indisputable artistic merit and that have indisputable public need," Gioia says.

Now for the controversial part: Shakespeare in American Schools isn't just a program, it's a statement of intent on the part of the new chairman, a statement about how he anticipates that Endowment resources will be allocated.

It's an indication that Gioia hopes to divert more money into education and outreach, an indication that the chairman has a taste for high-profile projects, possibly at the expense of grants to struggling-but-worthy arts groups.

"One of the NEA's problems is that we give lots of little grants, 2,200 a year," he says.

"Most are only noticed locally, if at all. People don't see what we do unless it's controversial. But if we give a grant to say, the Seattle Symphony to commission new work, it benefits the composer, it benefits the musicians, and it benefits the audience. If we give a grant to an individual artist, the result might be wonderful, but the benefits stop there."

Baltimore arts organizations and writers have been promised $2 million in grants from the NEA this year, while arts groups in other Maryland communities will receive an additional $500,000.

However, painters and sculptors who hoped that Gioia -- himself an individual artist not affiliated with a larger cultural institution -- would be sympathetic to their plight are likely to be disappointed. He says quite clearly that he has no interest in launching the political battle that would be necessary to restore NEA grants to individual visual artists, at least not with a budget for the current year of $115.7 million, down by about 34 percent from the agency's historic high.

"Even if we had permission from Congress to once again hand out individual grants to 9,000 artists, it's impossible with our current resources," he says.

Needless to say, this stance does not sit well with everybody.

"By denying direct support to artists, what you are doing is forcing individual creative artists to mold their output to fit the tastes and policies of existing presenting organizations (theaters, galleries, concert halls) instead of following their own muse," Rachel Rosenthal wrote in an open letter to Gioia published in the Los Angeles Times.

"You are, in effect, helping to deplete the pool of those who take art into new and unknown places, who establish exciting and surprising new norms, who voice and fashion beliefs, images and sounds that shape our culture."

If Gioia places a lower priority on funding artists than on other goals, perhaps that's partly because of his personal history; Gioia's tale of raising himself by his own bootstraps is a Republican fairy tale come true.

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