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Analysis: Landesman has arts in his blood

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 14, 2009 - Less than a month before his assassination, President John F. Kennedy spoke at Amherst College to honor the poet Robert Frost who’d died earlier that year, in January 1963. The president’s message paid homage to the truly indigenous genius of Frost but it went beyond the categorically elegiac.

"When power leads men towards arrogance," Kennedy said, “poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.

“The artist,” he continued, “however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state.”

Kennedy’s intention was clear – to set the stage for public support of American art and artists. Two years later, in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, the National Endowment for the Arts was created.

My generation cheered. We’d enjoyed the prosperity that came in after World War II. We were beneficiaries of robust and required arts education programs in the public schools. Those of us who had come to understand the arts to be an intrinsic part of our heritage were jubilant when the arts and humanities endowments were created in 1965. Similarly it has been alarming to watch the Endowment slide from its status as an innovative powerhouse – one tough enough and bold enough to stand up for the arts, even when the art gets ugly -- to a timid agency gutted by demagogues, bean counters and philistine politicians who don’t know a thing about art but know what they like.

Yesterday, those of us who believe in a tough, well-funded arts endowment cheered again when we read that President Obama had chosen former St. Louisan Rocco Landesman to be chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Obama’s decision is both brilliant and audacious. And if he supports Landesman as he should, by helping the Congress and the American people to understand that art is no luxury but part of the foundation of our civilization, it is an official appointment that could have immediate resonances as well as long-term benefits to the arts and to the nation.

As The New York Times noted Wednesday when it broke the news of the appointment, Landesman is neither a conventional impresario nor a conventional anything else. He is at once a scholar and a gambler, a bon vivant and an intellect. He is a singular figure in the artistic life of the country, yet he is in many ways a regular guy.

The environment in which the boy Rocco, and his brothers, Cliff, Wyatt and Knight, were nurtured was nothing short of phenomenal. The brothers’ mother, the late Paula Berwald Landesman, was a rebel, a consummate intellectual and an intuitive aesthete. Her houses in Westminster Place and in Clavarach Park in St. Louis; her idyllic farm in the Ozarks; and later, her legendary apartment overlooking Carnegie Hall in New York City, all were infused with intelligence and grace.

Her husband, the father of those four boys, was the late Alfred Landesman, called Fred. He and his brother, Jay, who still lives in London, conjured up a large measure of the magic of Gaslight Square, particularly in their Crystal Palace, which one may regard as an extension of those living rooms the Landesmans crafted into their personal Parnassuses.

In addition to his being a successful although thoroughly eccentric businessman, Fred Landesman was an extraordinary painter and a connoisseur of the beautiful and the exotic. Before “installation” became a sort of defined genre, Fred Landesman created mesmerizing, surreal environments, bringing together objects that, taken individually, might not amount to much, but thanks to his generative imagination took on a collective luster that never failed to astonish the viewer. To live in a Landesman house was to dwell in a wunderkammer, and to be transfigured.

Fred and Jay came to the arts by inheritance as well. Their father, Benjamin Landesman, was an artist who came to St. Louis to work at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904, and stayed. His wife, called Cutie, ran the Landesman Galleries on Olive Street.   All this, one way or another, was integrated into the mind, the personality and the character of Frederic Rocco Landesman, nominated to be the next permanent chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts.

Although he grew up in an artistic and political hothouse and digested and embraced much of what swirled around him, he was no stranger to the pleasures of a straight arrow American boyhood. He was and remains an ardent Cardinals fan, and wouldn’t mind owning a Major League Baseball team. His gustatory tastes run to the hearty. He and another former St. Louisan, restaurateur extraordinaire Danny Meyer, are in cahoots in a New York barbeque establishment, Blue Smoke.

Landesman was a veteran camper and counselor at Camp Thunderbird, an idyllic summer camp on the shore of Lake Plantagenet, near Bemidji, Minn.

One of his old friends and fellow campers is Arthur Lieber. Lieber, was founder of Crossroads School, and now runs Civitas, a civic leadership development program for middle school and high school students in St. Louis.

Lieber met Landesman in fifth grade at the old Rossman School on Delmar Boulevard. Another boy in the class was Kevin Kline. Lieber and many other St. Louis folks have remained in close contact with Landesman. Many of them, Lieber included, invested in a financial venture of Landesman’s, the Cardinal Fund, and in his shows. Many can hum a tune from Landesman’s first big hit, “Big River.” Lieber says he has seen as many of the shows as he has been able.

Landesman is no stranger to St. Louis, is devoted to his family here and visits regularly. His aunt, Helene B. Keller, lives in Clayton, and he has a number of St. Louis cousins. A particular, if not peculiar, activity that has brought him back to St. Louis regularly is a football game played every year on the Friday after Thanksgiving. The tradition began when Landesman was in the eighth grade, This year will be the 50th year of the game.

(Landesman, it turns out, is not the only Turkey Day participant to be appointed to national office by a president. Fred Goldberg Jr., a regular on the gridiron, served as commissioner of the IRS from 1989 until 1992, and during 1992 he was assistant secretary of the Treasury for tax policy.)

An educated guess is that a majority of the Turkey Day players voted for Obama and will greet the appointment of their teammate Landesman with greater enthusiasm than Bush I’s appointment of Freddy Goldberg to the IRS.

Lieber certainly is pleased, and not just because he and Rocco Landesman go back to the fifth grade at Miss Rossman’s and to Camp Thunderbird and to all those plays in endless Turkey Day games.

“It is not unreasonable to say that some of President Obama’s appointments have been bland,” Lieber said. “This one, on the other hand, shows real strength.”

Landesman, the gambler, the entrepreneur and impresario, has a string of hits behind him. In a moment when a curtain of gloom seems to have been rung down on aspects of the American spirit, this just may be the time for a bit of theatrical magic.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.

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