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"The Only Person Who Went to Business School to Become a Poet":

Dana Gioia, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, spoke to an audience at Radcliffe Yard last month. Nominated by President George W. Bush in January 2003 and unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Dana Gioia began his term as the ninth Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts in February 2003. Besides being an internationally acclaimed poet, critic and educator, Gioia was formerly a marketing executive at General Foods.

Gioia spoke of his personal history and motivations for accepting the political appointment. Raised by working class parents whose only wish was to have a “dentist in the family,” he was inspired by his teachers to develop his literary talents instead. A native Californian of Italian and Mexican descent, Gioia was the first member of his family to attend college. He received a B.A. from Stanford University and an M.A. in Comparative Literature from Harvard University.

Gioia found that academia distanced him from his natural love of language. In contrast, he found at the Stanford Graduate School of Business an atmosphere that was “intellectually entirely unaffected” and enrolled there. Describing himself as probably “the first person in human history who went to business school to become a poet,” he supported his writing for fifteen years by working as an executive for General Foods in New York, eventually becoming Vice President of Marketing.

After the death of his child at four months from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, he quit his job. Although he appreciated the “interesting milieu” at General Mills, he vowed “never to work at a large institution again.”

For the next twelve years he made his living as a writer. Trained in music, Gioia was the classical music critic for San Francisco magazine for six years. He was a commentator on American culture and literature for BBC Radio. His poems, translations, essays, and reviews appeared in many magazines including The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The Washington Post Book World, The New York Times Book Review, Slate and The Hudson Review.

His poetry was set to music by many composers in genres from classical to rock, including a full-length dance theater piece, Counting the Children.

He wrote two opera libretti, including Nosferatu (2001), with composer Alva Henderson, published by Graywolf Press.

Gioia published a translation of Italian Nobel Prize-winning poet Eugenio Montale’s Mottetti (1990) as well as two large anthologies of Italian poetry.

His translation of Seneca’s The Madness of Hercules (1995) was performed by Verse Theater Manhattan.

In 2001, Gioia founded “Teaching Poetry,” a conference dedicated to improving high school teaching of poetry. Also, he was the founder and co-director of the West Chester University Poetry Conference, the nation’s
largest annual all-poetry writing conference.

The death of his father, combined with the events of September 11, inspired Gioia to enter the political arena. His father was a former radio operator and dive bomber in World War II. Reflections on his father’s life led Gioia to conclude that “when asked to serve one’s country, [one] should.”

Professing that he lacked any political ambitions whatsoever, he had previously put aside any idea of considering the NEA post. Yet he took up the post in February 2003.

Gioia’s experience in industry has shaped his approach to his position.

Making use of the marketing skills he gained as an executive, he
burnished the public image of the NEA. He offered a brief history of the agency: its charter is to “foster excellence in the arts,” making the arts accessible to all Americans and providing leadership in arts education.

Gioia reframed disputes over the legitimate role of the NEA by reviewing the original charter of the agency. The 38-year old institution made its first grant in 1976 as the official government agency of the arts for the United States. Starting with a budget of $7 million, the NEA grew its budget to $140 million under the distinguished public servant Nancy Hanks during the Nixon administration.

Gioia further defused the ongoing public debate over public arts administration and defended the NEA’s role in politics. “I refuse to believe that arts funding is controversial. I believe that most Americans want art in their communities and in the lives of their children, and I’m frankly bored with talking about controversies of the previous century. 50 million kids have been born since Mapplethorpe.”

The NEA had come under fire from conservative voices in connection with the funding of controversial artists, including photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The Institute for Contemporary Art in Philadelphia had used a $30,000 NEA grant to mount a retrospective of Mapplethorpe’s photography.

Gioia claims that the public is “much more intrigued, puzzled and troubled by the role of art in the communities in which they live and the schools which they attend. That’s where the public discourse needs to go.”

At the NEA, Gioia has presided over the largest budget increase in nearly 20 years. President Bush’s 2004 budget requests an $18 million increase in the endowment’s funding, the largest increase since 1984. Gioia describes a three-fold mission couched in language strikingly familiar to students of business administration.

One, he wants to change the direction of public conversation about the NEA by better managing public relations. Two, he wants to run the agency more efficiently and effectively by reducing overhead.

Three, Gioia is planning some ambitious cultural initiatives designed to return the agency to its historic role of supporting landmark cultural institutions like the Vietnam Memorial, the Sundance Film Festival and the American Film Institute. He plans to bring Shakespeare back to American communities by launching what he describes as the “largest tour in American history.” Eight major theater companies, soon to become 28, will visit 150 cities and over one thousand high schools. In an innovative partnership with the United States Department of Defense, he also plans to bring Shakespeare to the military bases.

Gioia also described an initiative to to increase attention for jazz through a series called the NEA Jazz Masters.

Gioia ended his talk by emphasizing the need for strong federal support for the arts. “The arts are not a luxury,” said Gioia. “They’re not something to be cut whenever the budget is in trouble. If we don’t educate kids in the arts, they will not be fully educated. Arts education is the most important challenge we face. Otherwise, where is the next generation of artists and audiences to come from?”

March 8, 2004
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