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The 'new' NEA: Reading gets bigger

  • Story Highlights
  • National Endowment for the Arts sponsoring "Big Read"
  • Head Dana Gioia has eased controversy around agency
  • Gioia an award-winning poet, former General Foods exec
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By Porter Anderson
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(CNN) -- An all-night reading at a local Krispy Kreme of American author John Steinbeck's 1939 classic "The Grapes of Wrath" -- literature amid chocolate iced glazed crullers -- may not rival an afternoon at your local library for quiet.


NEA Chairman Dana Gioia's Big Read program should have some 400 city-participants in 2008.

But even as Dana Gioia, the National Endowment for the Arts' chairman, announces 117 new cities chosen to participate in the agency's "Big Read" program this year, that's what you hear: Quiet.

"We've been able to bring the agency out of controversy," Gioia says, "and into a new consensus. It's a new NEA."

In fact, Dana Gioia promises the Big Read will be in 400 U.S. cities next year, meaning town-wide celebrations of works by American writers Zora Neale Hurston, Ernest Hemingway, Harper Lee, Ray Bradbury, Amy Tan and others will be in all 50 states and in every congressional district.

Four international Big Read programs are coming online next year in Mexico, Russia, Egypt and China.

And while a lot of reading in this community-level literature program is done aloud, the chief of the national arts agency has generally worked at the noise level of that afternoon reading room.

The NEA is the federal arts-funding agency that once cranked up senators to high-decibel shouting fests over its grants that supported exhibitions of controversial artwork by Andre Serrano ("Piss Christ") and the late Robert Mapplethorpe's homoerotic photography.

A quick look at the NEA's appropriations history tells you when the bottom fell out: In 1995, the federal budget earmarked $162 million for the agency. The next year, $99.4 million. It's back up to some $124 million, with $128.4 million requested for 2008.

"I arrived in Washington in November 2002 as the nominee-designate," says Gioia (pronounced "JOY-ah"). A father of two, the 56-year-old is a former General Foods executive and a widely published poet whose "Interrogations at Noon" won an American Book Award. He travels at least once weekly, he says, "and my teenage son can reduce the house to ruins by the time I get back."

Confirmed unanimously twice by the Senate -- he's in his second term -- Gioia recalls developing his formula first in a community Shakespeare program.

"We needed to make a new argument why these things were important -- not just to artists, but to the country. In launching the Shakespeare program, we were getting performances into over 1,700 municipalities. We have 66 theater companies involved in it, probably just shy of 2,000 actors and crew members. We have 16 million kids using our DVDs and other class materials."

It's not that the NEA's grants aren't still being distributed. "But I don't think you can characterize our grants as one thing or the other -- experimental work, some of them, sure, but also traditional art. We do more than 2,000 grants per year.

"And when I got there, a little over a quarter of the U.S. had never received money from us in direct grants. This struck me as undemocratic."

Gioia's response was pragmatic: "By being sure we get a grant into every congressional district, we're making a political choice, yes, but it's a practical decision, too. Every one has about three-quarters of a million people."

Gioia conceived the Big Read project, first "testing it very quietly" -- that stealth approach -- in 10 cities. It next went to 73 communities this past spring and is quickly ramping up with today's announcement of more than 100 newly designated municipal locations this fall.

The concept combines local leadership with national-caliber materials. The NEA's literary radio programming, for example, is picked up by XM Satellite Radio to cover commercials on airings of CNN's and other networks' programming and features readers including Robert Redford, Jim Lehrer, Alice Walker, Ed Harris, Robert Duvall, Orson Scott Card, Hector Elizondo and others.

The program starts with the application by a local library or other non-profit group associated with a library. It is being announced today, for example, that in Pleasanton, California, the public library has been chosen to spearhead a town-wide effort with Dashiell Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon."

For a period of four to six weeks, the NEA then wants to see "a well-planned and well-attended community-wide read with innovative, diverse programming and widespread community partnerships and participation."

Gioia likes to cite the example of librarian Marie Pyko of Topeka, Kansas, whose Big Read effort around Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God" had the participation of beauty salons, churches and blogging students.

What the NEA puts into the effort is the promotional and educational power. A grant pays to get organizers to a national orientation session. There are guidebooks for readers and teachers for the books selected by the NEA's team of 22 independent literary experts and specialists.

Professional promotional assistance rolls in -- billboards, posters, videos -- along with an online "organizers' guide" to keep things on track.

"We provide them," Gioia says, "with materials like films, radio shows, CDs, guides ... and funding that they would never be able to do without us."

Gioia's nation-sweeping approach to the embattled agency's woes caused Businessweek magazine in November to dub him "The Man Who Saved the NEA."

Ever mindful of the struggle that overtook the agency in the 1990s, Gioia says he thinks most arts organizations today are "more careful" with how they direct federal grant money.

Nevertheless, his education-based tack on the national arts agency's service does nothing to blunt his criticism of the state today of American cultural life.

In giving the June 17 commencement address at his alma mater, Stanford, Gioia went for the populist jugular: "I have a recurring nightmare," he told the graduates. "I am in Rome visiting the Sistine Chapel. I look up at Michelangelo's incomparable fresco of the 'Creation of Man.' I see God stretching out his arm to touch the reclining Adam's finger. And then I notice in the other hand Adam is holding a Diet Pepsi."

Condemning artists for becoming "wonderfully expert in talking to one another" but not to the wider world -- and the media for turning American culture into "one vast infomercial" -- Gioia told his audience "almost everything in our national culture, even the news, has been reduced to entertainment."

And so he crisscrosses the country, working with communities willing to sit down together and rediscover literature.

It's not all good-looking fine art shows or sleek downtown modern-dance work. The Big Read actually looks like everyday America, just with its collective head bent over a book for a change.

"And here's the reason," Gioia says on a cell phone in Minneapolis, Minnesota, as he checks in for his next flight. "The goal of the NEA is to bring forth the greatest art possible, yes. But it's also to serve all Americans, to get the broadest reach we can." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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