May 30, 2020

The Natural Love of the arts, media savvy make Felicia Knight ideal fit for NEA post

As a young girl, Felicia Knight haunted the Camden Opera House, watching members of the local theater troupe rehearse, dreaming of the day when she would take Broadway by storm. She was a natural – when she learned to walk and talk, acting and singing soon followed.

Knight, whose parents founded the Camden Civic Theater, didn’t realize how lucky she was to be able to watch and participate in plays. It didn’t seem strange to her that the Portland String Quartet gave concerts in her school, or that Tony Montanaro gave mime workshops to local students. She just knew that she loved the arts and the way they expanded her world far beyond the borders of her quiet seaside town.

“It exposed me to an entire art form that some people can reach adulthood without ever having experienced,” Knight, 46, said last week, sitting in her new office at the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C. “It opened my eyes to symphonic music, modern dance. … One experience can lead to all the rest.”

For Knight, what started as a childhood love of theater led – circuitously, of course – to her current position as communications director for the NEA, joining the agency’s new chairman, poet Dana Gioia. Her appointment was announced in early March, and last Tuesday, after eight days on the job, the former press secretary for Sen. Susan Collins was just getting settled into her office in the historic Old Post Office building.

On the TV to her left, CNN streamed the morning’s war news. On her computer, The New York Times online kept her up to date on the day’s headlines. And Knight, understatedly chic in a white shell and hip, Ashleigh Banfield-style glasses, sipped a cup of coffee from Au Bon Pain.

She laughingly recounted spending the previous week “going to meetings about which I have no knowledge of the subject matter and trying to learn the names of 150 people,” but in spite of the whirlwind, she looked as poised as she did during her news anchor days.

“There’s a big learning curve for me here,” she said. “It’s overwhelming, but it is so exciting.”

Knight’s no stranger to learning on the job. In 1998, after spending 20 years covering the arts and politics in Maine, first for WABI’s radio and TV stations in Bangor, and later for WGME-TV 13 in Portland, she went to work for Collins. A week after her arrival, the ice storm struck, causing downed power lines and a state of emergency in Maine and countless phone calls to the senator’s Washington office.

Her trial by fire was just beginning. After weathering the ice storm, Knight soon faced the fallout of Collins’ controversial stance against President Clinton’s impeachment. Tensions ran high on the Hill in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and Collins and fellow Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe were among a small minority of Republican lawmakers who didn’t support the move to oust Clinton.

It was a challenging initiation for Knight, but Collins said it will serve her well at the NEA, which has seen its share of turmoil in recent years. President Reagan tried, and failed, to eliminate the agency, and the 1989 flap over federal funding of work by controversial artists Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe still hangs over the agency like a storm cloud.

Gioia, the NEA’s new chairman, wants to get past the stigma by rebuilding the public’s trust. He sees it as his mission to implement broad-reaching programs that emphasize artistic excellence over elitism. Given Knight’s love for politics and her communication skills, she will rise to whatever happens at the NEA, Collins says, but she hopes things are a little less contentious for her.

“Capitol Hill has prepared her well to handle any kind of controversy or criticism,” Collins, a former member of the NEA’s advisory board, said by phone from Washington on Tuesday. “One of the reasons I was excited for Felicia for this job is that she shares my vision that the NEA should help increase accessibility and help bring arts to rural communities. Being from Maine, Felicia has a special understanding of these challenges.”

Though the ears of many arts leaders in the state perked up when they heard of Knight’s appointment, she says she has no influence when it comes to grants. Those are determined by committees that follow stringent guidelines. But she does share the Gioia’s vision of arts accessibility for all Americans – she knows firsthand that “cultural” doesn’t have to mean “urban.”

“In the United States, it used to be that you could find the cultural arts only in cities,” Knight said. “Until the foundation of the NEA, you couldn’t find local theater companies. [It provided] the seed money for the local arts to flourish.”

When she heard about the open position at the NEA, Knight knew it would satisfy her passion for the arts, but the timing couldn’t have been worse. It was late last summer, at the height of Collins’ campaign tour of Maine, and Knight found herself pulling all-nighters to complete the required essays.

“I felt like I was cramming,” she said.

It also threw a wrench into her plan to return to Maine, where she and her husband, Towle Tompkins, share a home in Scarborough. Since she started working in Washington, her trips home have become less frequent than she would like – she and Tompkins often meet halfway to spend weekends together in New York.

“I talked it over at length with my husband, and it’s a different set of circumstances,” Knight said. “He’s very supportive and there are ways that we make it work.”

Knight’s mother recently passed away and her father moved to Scarborough, making her miss home even more. But she had already made her mark on the local media scene, garnering Emmy nominations, Maine Press Association awards, and special recognition from the Maine Arts Commission along the way.

“I looked at trying to get back to Maine following the campaign, but there wasn’t anything there that was exciting to me,” Knight said.

Then came the NEA.

At her first interview in November, she met Gioia, she knew they would work well together.

“I want to do all the things that the chairman wants to do. He’s a major reason why I’m here,” she said. “I know as director of communications, you can’t do a job like that for just anyone. You need to believe in the message and what they want to do.”

Gioia’s message is clear. He wants to restore the NEA’s prestige, to provide exposure to the arts in historically underserved areas, and, among other things, to promote the understanding of art’s role in a balanced education.

Though Gioia reviewed dozens of resumes, Knight’s showed “sheer excellence in every respect.” Her wide range of experience – both behind the scenes and in front of the camera – set her apart. After her interview, Gioia knew Knight would be the ideal person to communicate his vision to the public.

“What I like about Felicia is that she understands everything the job entails from the inside,” Gioia said by phone from Washington.

He jokingly apologized to the people of Maine for stealing her away, but he had to do it. To get the NEA back on track, he needed someone like Knight to be the voice for the agency. With Knight on board, controversy won’t be an issue, he said.

“One of the major things we have to do is rebuild the NEA’s image with the public,” Gioia said. “We need an active and visionary strategy of communication, and we have somebody in charge of it who’s first-rate.”

For Knight, it’s easy to communicate the value of the arts. They’re the stuff that makes life interesting. The stuff that turns a little girl’s life into a magical world filled with drama and song. The stuff that turns a grown woman’s career into a creative adventure. The arts are, as Shakespeare said, such stuff as dreams are made on.

“Art is an experience,” Knight said, leaning forward in her chair and gesturing dramatically with her hands. “It’s a sensory experience that is unmatched by any other and somebody has to bring that experience to people who don’t have access to it, and that starts here.”

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