Arts Chairman Leaves a Proud Legacy in His Wake

by Janet Eilber

December 01, 2008

I met Dana Gioia in his first few months as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, a role he assumed in March 2003. Initial assessments from arts insiders were reserved. Most worried that Gioia, a recognized poet and business executive, wasn’t listening to their advice. In retrospect, that may have been a good thing. In my first encounter with him, at a meeting of arts advocates in Los Angeles, he didn’t do much listening. He was a man on a mission. He came across as a charismatic itinerant preacher, swaying us to his new vision for American culture.

His sermon asked us to imagine traveling to Italy, leaving the city for some remote town, leaving the town for some even more remote village and having a conversation with any one of the old men gathered at the local barber shop. “If you ask him to tell you the best things about Italy,” Gioia said, “he will launch into a proud description of the country’s culture from the accomplishments of ancient Rome to the Renaissance—the art, the music, the architecture, da Vinci, Puccini, the works!”

He then asked us to consider the answer of the average American if asked about the best we have to offer. “Sports?” “Fast food?” He posited that America lacked a widespread understanding of and pride in its unique cultural contributions. He felt that the mandate of the arts endowment was to “repatriate” our citizens—all of our citizens—to the richness, variety and importance of our culture’s history and ongoing accomplishments. And as the new arts chairman, that was what he was setting out to do.

I met Gioia again several times over the next few years. He was invariably enthused and rallying the crowd to one of his many important initiatives, displaying a winning salesmanship that proved invaluable in “reaching across the aisle” in Washington. His repatriation plan—nonpartisan and pro-America—was irresistible. It allowed the agency to finally emerge from the turmoil and budget cuts generated during the culture wars of the past.

In recent meetings, the chairman described with evident pleasure how he has a database at his fingertips that can tell him which projects the NEA has funded in any given congressional district, down to the high school, auditorium or teacher involved. That surely helped him impress legislators with news of exactly what the NEA was funding back home. Thanks to programs such as “Poetry Out Loud,” “Shakespeare in American Communities” and “The Big Read,” his vision of serving every congressional district in every state became a reality within his tenure, garnering a broad base of new support for much needed national support of the arts.

I hope the coming changes in Washington will advance and strengthen all of the positive accomplishments at the NEA. The next appointed chairperson after Gioia steps down in January (as described in the Washington Post article “Arts Agency Chairman Is Moving On”) will inherit a revitalized agency. Hopefully, they will recognize Gioia’s legacy as the wind at their back and continue to champion his important vision.

My favorite encounter with Dana Gioia was on a summer evening at the Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan. On this occasion, those of us on the Interlochen Board saw him not as pitchman or preacher but more as pied piper—as an artist. To a rapt gaggle of preteen girls, he recited his own poetry from memory. His manner was relaxed and reflective, his voice nuanced and engaging. His poems were personal, insightful and evocative of the arts culture that should make Americans proud. It was quite clear that he had been listening all along.