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Gone Too Soon

Michael Hammond, newly appointed chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, dies at age 69. logo
Michael Hammond
When Michael Hammond died on January 29 in a borrowed home in a fashionable Washington, D.C. neighborhood, he had been chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts for exactly one week. Hammond was nominated by President Bush in September to replace outgoing chair William Ivey; Congress, consumed with other matters, finally confirmed his appointment on December 20 and he was sworn in on January 22. On the evening of Monday, January 28, Hammond attended a performance of The Duchess of Malfi at The Shakespeare Theatre but begged off at intermission, feeling unwell. The next morning, concerned colleagues called the police when he did not answer the door. Hammond was dead, of natural causes, at age 69.

Like the President who appointed him, Hammond had come to Washington from Houston, Texas, where since 1986 he had served as dean of Rice University's Shepherd School of Music. Before that, he was the founding dean of music at the State University of New York, Purchase, and before that he was director of the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. He had served as the founding Rector of the Prague Mozart Academy in the Czech Republic (now called the European Mozart Academy). Hammond was also a Rhodes scholar, a student of philosophy and physiology, and a former teacher of neuroanatomy at Marquette Medical School.

George W. Bush has not exactly declared himself the Arts President, but in Michael Hammond he had found a man with a prolific career as an artist and educator who showed every indication of being genuinely enthusiastic about taking the reins of an oft-controversial agency. Like most Bush appointees, Hammond was a political conservative, which brought grumbles from certain liberal artistic circles; he also directed Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress at Rice in March of 2000, which is impressive no matter how you feel about his party affiliations.

"As Americans, we are all heirs to an incredibly rich and diverse artistic and cultural heritage," Hammond said at his confirmation. "It is essential, particularly at this difficult period in our history, to draw support and inspiration from that heritage, and to encourage and support the finest works of our own time."

NEA spokesman Ann Puderbaugh told TheaterMania that she has no real idea how long it will be before another chairperson is appointed. "We have no indication, though we assume it will be a period of several months, judging by Chairman Hammond's experience," Puderbaugh explained. "There is a very thorough process...quite a bit of screening and interviewing and the submission of financial documents and other documents." In the meantime, Eileen B. Mason, who was named senior department chair (the number two position at the NEA) in November, is acting chairman.

This is no easy job we're talking about. Created in 1965 (along with the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Office for Museum Services), the NEA usually draws attention only when it's doing something that someone doesn't like. The day-in, day-out business of awarding creative writing fellowships or funds to develop K-12 music curricula doesn't generally merit media or Congressional attention--certainly not as compared to the fuss caused when, for example, an NEA-awarded artist dunks herself in chocolate. After the homoerotic photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andreas Serrano's painting "Piss Christ" gained notoriety in the late '80s, new legislation was passed demanding that the NEA "take into consideration general standards of decency" in making its awards. This stubborn little clause led in turn to a lengthy legal battle between the endowment and the so-called "NEA Four", a group of performance artists who'd had their funding revoked.

Jane Alexander
All of this history is available in salacious and satisfying detail in two books by two consecutive NEA chairpersons: John Frohnmayer's Leaving Town Alive: Confessions of an Arts Warrior and Jane Alexander's Command Performance, which details her struggles with the budget-slashing culture warriors in Newt Gingrich's congress. There may be no better testament to the difficulty of the NEA chairmanship than the fact that Frohnmayer and Alexander both felt compelled to write lengthy confessionals upon exiting the office.

Hammond missed all of that. All he really got to do was introduce himself to his staff, though he seems to have made his intentions clear. "Obviously, the agency is structured so we carry on the grant making, the essential function of the agency, whether there's a chairman here or not," explains Puderbaugh. "But there are lots of discretionary functions that the chairman can serve, depending on what issues the chairman feels most strongly about...for example, Chairman Hammond felt particularly strongly about early arts education, so we had been led to expect that that would be one of the issues he would be most focused on."

According to one of his obituaries, Hammond was preparing for his first scheduled testimony before a Senate appropriations subcommittee the week before his death, at which he no doubt would have waxed eloquently on the subject of why the arts deserve our money and support. His struggle was only just beginning.

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