A visit from the National Endowment for the Arts

The History Theatre hosted two art-loving feds last week — chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts Rocco Landesman and Congresswoman Betty McCollum.

Sarah Harper



The chair of the National Endowment for the Arts dropped what might be considered a bombshell to theater-lovers during a private site visit to the St. Paul’s History Theatre on Friday.

“I’m wondering if there are too many theaters,” Rocco Landesman said in a Q&A session with the press.

“If there were fewer theaters, they’d have the resources to pay their artists more,” he explained.

Don’t worry, drama junkies – Landesman doesn’t have the power to knock down your favorite hole-in-the-wall theater. He’s the chairman of the federally-funded National Endowment for the Arts, which has poured more than $4 billion into creative works since its establishment in 1965.

In the past nine years, the agency has given the History Theatre four grants, ranging from $8,000 to support the production of Sinclair Lewis’s “Main Street,” to $25,000 to support the premiere of “A Tale of Twin Cities,” a new play created by Kevin Kling and local composer Simone Perrin.

Shutting down small theaters would undoubtedly anger many. After all, it’s the pint-sized companies that provide adventurous theater-goers with the avant-garde experiences they crave. Small theaters try out new and brave things, imparting hairline fractures on the theatrical status quo. Not to mention that it’s the tiny companies with the tinier budgets that give brand new actors the chance to break onto the stage.

“Whenever I’ve mentioned it, people go into a fury. I think these are at least issues that have to be discussed,” said Landesman, wearing alligator skin cowboy boots during his second visit to St. Paul. He referenced research showing participation in the arts is down while the number of institutions is “proliferating wildly.”

“There’s nothing in the [United States] Constitution that says you have to support the arts and humanities,” said Minnesota Congresswoman Betty McCollum, who joined Landesman and theater staff for a discussion of issues ranging from artists’ wages to the state of the History Theatre to the state of the arts in general.

The group from the History Theatre included associate artistic director Austene Van, managing director Karen Mueller and storytelling legend Kling.

And the attendees, sitting around a table on the stage, adamantly agreed that government ought to support the arts.

Van said her aim at the History Theatre is to express the needs and desires of the disenfranchised. Financially, the NEA helps out.

Support from the NEA and other patrons isn’t always enough, however.

“It’s incumbent on these theaters to pay a living wage,” said Landesman, who was married to a scenic designer for 18 years and watched his wife struggle to make enough money.

Landesman said he senses an increase in administrative and bipartisan support for his agency.

“I don’t think we’re being targeted the way we have in the past,” he said.

But that might not mean much right now.

“I don’t sense the hostility toward the arts, per se. I think there’s hostility toward spending any money on anything,” Landesman said.