An Interview with Jane Chu, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts
Jane Chu was confirmed as the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) this past June. She recently answered a few questions about the NEA’s priorities in relation to local arts agencies.
1) Was your decision to pursue a career in the arts a conscious one, given your background in performance, arts administration, philanthropy, and business leadership?
Yes, it was. I understood already what it was like to be an artist, to produce, to create, to perform.The arts are the keystone of my studies, and have been an important touchstone throughout my life and career. At the same time, I wanted to truly understand the systems and processes related to business, so I got my MBA. As a fundraiser, I loved the aspect of connecting donors to give to the things they cared about, and the organizations that made it their mission to address a need in the community. It turns out that all of these things -- art, business and philanthropy -- are key aspects of my job, and give me the tools to help us create an environment for the arts to bloom and thrive.
2) Just beginning your chairmanship of the National Endowment for the Arts, what guidepost will you use to look back on your first year at the agency to gauge success?
We foster value through the grants we make to thousands of organizations across the country each year. Those NEA-supported projects result in positive outcomes that have a significant impact in a number of different ways, from enhancing quality of life, contributing to economic growth, revitalizing neighborhoods, sparking community vitality, and the powerful way it nurtures our spirit. Understanding this impact across the nation, the connections it cultivates within the community and between individuals, and the creative and innovative programs inspired by it, will help us all tell a better story of why what we do matters and illustrate our successes.
3) The NEA locals program (NEA's support to local arts agencies for projects or regranting programs) is extremely important to our members. What do you see as the top priorities for the program?
As chairman of the NEA, one of my goals is to show the nation how the arts foster connection, value, creativity and innovation. As centers of innovation, Local Arts Agencies play an important role in the nation’s arts support infrastructure. For more than five decades, LAAs have led the way in advancing arts-supportive public policy by investing directly in artists, arts organizations and the local community; managing public art programs; building and running cultural facilities; and integrating artists and the arts in community development. Cultural planning continues to be an area where NEA support can help leverage and generate increased local investment and support for the arts. LAAs enjoy a broad range of eligible project types – but it is really up to each LAA applicant to make the case for the importance of a proposed project as a priority in the local community.
4) Communities across the country are experiencing rapid demographic changes. What role do you see the NEA playing in helping communities address these changes?
Our research indicates that the ways Americans are participating in the arts is expanding, along with the demographics of those who participate. We are seeing more diversity in the groups (African American, Asian American and Hispanic) who are most likely to approach art in new ways, such as electronic media, to create and share music and visual art. As a matter of fact, in this the digital age, 74% of American adults are using their mobile devices, computers and tablets to view and listen to art. We have also seen transformational returns that the arts have on other aspects of life, including human development, the economy, and the intersection of arts, science, and technology. The NEA plays a significant role in helping LAAs face the challenges of making art accessible to the broadest and most diverse communities. For instance, the Challenge America grant is tailor made to help small and mid-sized organizations reach underserved populations limited by geography, ethnicity, economics, or disability. The important work the LAAs carry out is supported throughout the agency portfolio, including Our Town, where Locals are often project lead or primary partner, through Folk and Traditional Arts and in Arts Education, especially through Collective Impact awards.