Rocco Landesman, unfazed by the emptiness of an old industrial corridor in an old industrial city, undaunted by the difficulty of trying to fill that emptiness with workers and jobs and life, took a spin through the Crane Arts Building yesterday to talk about - what else? - art.
The 62-year-old former Broadway producer (Big River, Angels in America, The Producers), now chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, made a point of saying his pilgrimage to Philadelphia was a key stop on what he has dubbed his "Art Works" tour of the nation, undertaken to explore and promote the arts as an economic catalyst.
He had been to Peoria - after annoying Peorians with what some saw as a swipe at the quality of that city's arts organizations - as well as to Memphis, Miami, and his old hometown of St. Louis. There are more trips to come.
"I don't know how many times I've said it in the last few months: 'We've got to look at what they're doing in Philadelphia,' " Landesman told about two dozen arts administrators and city officials at the Crane building in the 1400 block of North American Street.
The building, solid as a massive cement-fortress warehouse could be made in 1905, was empty and derelict when it was acquired in 2004 and renovated into artist exhibition spaces and studios.
"We're not in Philadelphia by accident," Landesman continued. "We're here because Philadelphia is the leader . . . a great showcase for what we're talking about."
Landesman is seeking to push the boundaries of how government thinks about art.
Yes, he promotes the traditional endowment activities of financially supporting artists and arts organizations. But he is trying to find ways to break down barriers between arts agencies at the federal, state and local levels, and non-arts agencies - departments of social services, transportation, health and even criminal justice.
He wants officials and art makers to begin seeing their activities as connected.
At the same time, Landesman is seeking new ways to organize and fund the arts, which historically have been grouped in the nonprofit arena.
Along the way, he has made a few gaffes, noting, for instance, that theater in Peoria - assuming Peoria even had theater - could not be comparable to Chicago's Goodman or Steppenwolf theaters.
That didn't play in Peoria.
But Landesman took advantage of the ensuing chorus of boos. He visited the Illinois city, made nice, wowed the populace, and started beating the drum for Art Works.
Yesterday, dressed in white shirt, red tie, gray suit and signature cowboy boots, he mostly listened to conversation, led by Jeremy Nowak, president of the Reinvestment Fund, about public-private partnerships, the need for more attention to arts activities in underserved neighborhoods, the importance of art as an instrument of revitalization for both economy and spirit.
"This seems to me to be really where the creative economy is happening," Landesman said of Philadelphia. "We need to be in places where there's already some real momentum because we want to be successful."
And, as Mayor Nutter pointed out to Landesman, Philadelphia has a vast and venerable public art inventory, supported for more than half a century by law.
Landesman wryly noted that he had seen "a few murals." Nutter equally wryly responded, "Just a few - about 3,000."
Jane Golden, founder and guiding light of the city's Mural Arts Program, attended the session and said she had hopes for Landesman's tenure at the endowment.
"He seems to be open to a much more integrated way of thinking, which I like," she said. "He's thinking across the board."