This month's The Writer's Chronicle announces that Dana Gioia, who's held the post as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) for the past six years, is stepping down.
This is old news, eclipsed by the election drama of the past couple months, so I and several other people I've mentioned this news item to — even a few key members of the Seattle arts community — missed it, which probably says a lot about how Gioia timed his announcement, made in September.
Gioia is leaving to take a half-time position at the Aspen Institute, which sponsors public policy forums on such topics as Middle East strategy, education entrepreneurship, energy and the environment, and ethical globalization.
His contribution to the NEA is to have successfully resurrected it from the culture wars of the late 1980s and 90s, when its funding was cut by 43 percent as a response to controversial art supported by NEA programs, such as Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ." Gioia's NEA has been decidedly tamer, featuring programs such as Shakespeare in American Communities (though I wonder how they handle the bard's sexual bawdiness) and the oft-cited study, Reading at Risk, which garnered a mass response in the form of editorials, book clubs, and scores of programs to promote reading. Its funding has increased 31 percent from a low point in 1996 of $99.4 million.
Choosing Gioia's replacement is another in a long list of key decisions facing President-elect Barack Obama and his team. My sense it that they will want someone less conservative than Gioia (who is a registered Republican), someone with a cutting-edge mindset who can push into funding new media and other cutting-edge programs, but not someone who risks returning the endowment to its embattled roots. Judging by Obama's picks thus far, I'm confident that the right candidate will assume the position.
Gioia's explanation for the departure: I have done most of the things I set out to do. I really want to go back to writing. I haven't had time for my own writing. I write all the time for the NEA, official writing. Since I have become chairman, I have not published a poem.
Amen to that. It's a tough world for writers, and especially poets. However, I predict that it will be a challenge for Gioia to write around his half-time position. As my experience with Crosscut proves, it's difficult to divide yourself between two passionate preoccupations, no matter where you are. During his tenure with the NEA, Gioia took two weeks each year on Waldron Island in the San Juans, where there are no land lines for phones. I bet he'll need to continue the practice, whether he's housed at the Aspen Institute's office in Aspen, its headquarters in D.C., or its New York office.