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National Endowment for the Arts has a new face

Posted: February 23, 2014 - 1:07am

Last week, the White House named a new chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, a welcome development considering this position had been vacant for more than a year.

While perhaps not an issue many people follow closely, having a duly appointed person in charge at the NEA is relevant to every American — and certainly to all Alaskans. As chairman of the Alaska State Council on the Arts, I’ve been waiting somewhat impatiently of late for this step to be taken; hence my enthusiasm to learn of Dr. Jane Chu’s appointment.

The NEA is a federal agency founded by Congress in 1965 to lead states’ creating art policy, making direct grants to organizations and individuals, and funding and partnering with state arts agencies and regional organizations to get this work done as close to home as possible. The NEA chair post is appointed by the President and subject to confirmation by the U.S. Senate.

President George W. Bush selected a poet, Dana Gioia, to run the NEA for most of his presidency. Mr. Gioia left his mark on the NEA and the country by spearheading the creation of Poetry Out Loud, a poetry recitation contest that has grown by leaps and bounds, and in which thousands of Alaskan high school students participate in every year. President Barack Obama selected Rocco Landesman, a successful and well-known Broadway producer, to run the NEA. Mr. Landesman had a passion for creative placemaking, and devoted his tenure as chairman to arts grant programs both within the agency and in the non-profit sector to promote the use of art to reinvigorate communities and make them healthy and prosperous.

Each NEA chair tends to pursue a new project related to that person’s past experiences with the arts and the vision arising therefrom, and it will be wonderful to see what Dr. Chu has in mind.

Dr. Chu is an arts administrator who brings a unique story and skill set to the NEA. She was born in Oklahoma, grew up in Arkansas, and studied piano and visual art prior to a dedicated career as a fundraiser and arts administrator for various charities and foundations in the Midwest. It is inspiring to see someone from a mid-sized city in middle America come to the nation’s capital, hopefully with a personal understanding of the challenges facing communities of all sizes and regions that aspire to build the infrastructure needed to fully appreciate the arts.

Since 2006, Dr. Chu has been the head of a facility called the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Mo. Her experience includes managing a capital campaign that raised more than $400 million to build the Kaufmann Center, which has two performance spaces and is home to three resident companies: ballet, symphony and opera. The virtual tour online will likely cause you to want to fly off to Kansas City to see an upcoming performance in this amazing artistic center.

The NEA has faced adversity over the years: efforts toward its elimination in the 1990s arose from a very small number of art projects, unrepresentative of the vast majority of the work supported by the NEA, but they became grist for the political mill leading to a period of intense scrutiny.

The NEA survived this probing examination after Americans of all political persuasions conveyed to Congress the value and tremendous return on investment of federal dollars allocated to the NEA. The silver lining to the storm-clouds that appeared to threaten the NEA’s existence was public expression of support leading a majority of both chambers of Congress to insist that a minimum of 40 percent of the NEA’s budget be distributed to state arts agencies to be matched by state legislatures. This formula, which remains in place today, leverages state and private money for the arts, and more importantly involves states to provide superior accountability and a closer nexus between arts policy-making and desired outcomes. In the current congressional environment, the importance of decentralizing spending choices and devolving power to the states is as crucial as ever.

NEA chairs spend a lot of their time traveling, and we at ASCA will be inviting Dr. Chu to come and visit us on the Last Frontier as soon as her schedule permits. We are fortunate that all three members of the Alaskan congressional delegation support the NEA and its collaboration with ASCA, and will likely take a keen interest during the confirmation process by working to learn more about Dr. Chu and how Alaska will fit into her vision for the NEA.

Past chairmen have been impressed with their time in Alaska; Mr. Gioia spoke (and recited poetry) at an ASCA arts conference; Mr. Landesman took an unscheduled detour to Sitka on his way back to D.C. from Anchorage, which led to a significant grant to Sitka Fine Arts Camp.

This post has sat empty for far too long, and Alaskans should be relieved that the NEA Chair is once again filled. Now it has a new face and voice to ensure the important work they do gets accomplished.

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