Saturday, August 8, 2009

If Obama Appointed You Chair of the NEA

Usually, my favorite escapist fantasy that involves careers has me daydreaming about being Supreme Court Justice: job for life, weighing in on important national issues, office in downtown D.C., my own parking space at National Airport--what could make a job better?

This morning's story in The New York Times has me thinking about being head of the National Endowment for the Arts. Actually, it was this ending of the article: "Cultural mavens like himself feel they “have one of their own” in the White House, he added. 'It makes the arts community feel finally, for the first time in a long time, there might be some wind at their back.'"

And I thought, wait, cultural mavens didn't see Dana Gioia (exiting Chair) as one of their own? Why? Just because he was a poet and not some big theatre producer?

I know there are many poets (and other arts people) who hate Gioia for any number of reasons, but I'm not one of them. I thought that some of his ideas during his tenure at the NEA were very cool, although I'm not sure I'm remembering them perfectly. The one I remember most? A Shakespeare production in every state, put on by travelling Shakespeare companies. Of course, we could argue about the merits of Shakespeare. It's not hard to see a production of Shakespeare in any corner of the U.S. in any given month, is it? Far better to put on a touring production of August Wilson's plays, perhaps. So maybe cultural mavens were right to feel that Gioia wasn't one of their own.

The article made me think about what I'd do if Obama had appointed me to that position. I've been thinking in that direction for many of Obama's appointments. Basically, Obama must say, "Here's a mess--want to try to fix it?" Some people rise to that challenge. I'd find it overwhelming, depending on how much budget I had to work with.

I've always told my students that they should plan what they would do in leadership positions, because they may very well find themselves there some day, and it might be sooner than they think. I tell them about Nelson Mandela, and that the reason that he was prepared to be president of South Africa was that he spent all that time in jail (more years than most of my students have been alive) planning for what he would do if he took over the country. He didn't nurse anger or bitterness. No, he planned, along with his compatriots, who were jailed with them.

Then I give them a copy of an interview (in the fabulous book We Owe You Nothing: Punk Planet: The Collected Interviews) with Jello Biafra which has this challenge: "It's time to start thinking, 'What do I do if I suddenly find myself in charge?'" (page 46 of the first edition). Many of my students find this idea to be a wonderful writing prompt.

So perhaps as I sit through boring meetings, that will be my daydream prompt. I'll dream bigger than just becoming dean. What if some future president called upon me to be the Chair of the NEA? How would I promote the Arts and various artists during my tenure?

No comments: