NEA Chairman Jane Chu came and spoke to my NYU class the other night. It was a great for the students, and for me. I first met her some years ago when she was Vice President of Community Investment at the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation and I was writing a business plan for the proposed Kansas City Regional Arts Council. Much later, I worked for her as she was settling into her new job as President and CEO of the brand new Kauffman Centre for the Performing Arts.
I was thrilled for her nomination to lead the NEA and have followed her progress closely ever since. So it was exciting when she accepted an invitation to speak to my students, most of whom will graduate in a matter of weeks and head out into the performing arts sector looking for jobs and hoping for a career.
Jane invited all of us to ask questions about the NEA, her work there and the current state of affairs out in the field. It was a wide-ranging discussion, but I’d like to share several important things I heard.
Along the way, we asked what major goals she set for herself at the NEA. This is a hard question, first of all, because the Chairman of the NEA serves at the will of the President and Congress, and there’s no clear end-date to her term of leadership. But I really liked her answer, which was that she is focusing on improving the NEA’s effectiveness as an organization. A process-person, Jane is determined to make the NEA better at what it does by improving communications, pushing up morale and working with her staff to create a strong set of organizational values and thus a stronger institutional culture. It’s a smart move, as it will lead the agency to become more effective and more responsive to the profound changes occurring in the sector and the country.
I can’t imagine how hard it must be to navigate the corridors of power in Washington these days, to seek support in such a polarized environment. Although the NEA was established to be an apolitical organization, certainly it has been vulnerable to political influence historically and remains so today. According to Jane, the right approach is to focus on the person from whom you are seeking support for the arts and then tailor your message accordingly. So, for a fiscal conservative, the pitch is more about leveraging support and return on investment. For a social progressive, the message is more about the arts as a means to pursue social justice and a way to respond to the challenges of income inequality.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]A shift at the NEA.[/pullquote]What’s important about this is that the Chairman is not playing a shell game. Rather she is recognizing that the value proposition of the arts is so broad and multi-faceted that she can legitimately speak to the particular benefits that are likely to resonate with whatever audience she faces. It’s the same strategy we use in our work around the development or redevelopment of facilities. In one community, the case for a new hall is about its potential to drive economic development, to attract companies and their workers to locate there. In another community just down the road, the case for renovating an historic theater is to enhance quality of life, to support the expression of the diversity of the cultural heritages present there.
In working through and practicing these different approaches, Jane has also discovered that some of the clearest benefits and impacts for the arts relate to work with at-risk youth — where evidence suggests not just correlation but causality. Giving kids with limited means and prospects opportunities to express their creativity and heritage changes their lives. Hence the NEA’s shift when it comes to arts education funding towards tougher schools — and the push to expand these important programs.
There’s another big idea here, which reflects the Chairman’s clear optimism about the future of the arts sector, and which motivates her development of the NEA’s Creativity Connects program. The idea is to underscore that artists, and rest of us in the sector, are good at working with anyone to do anything. We can help teachers with children. We can help scientists to do better science. We can help businesses to get more business. We can help people of different cultures to find common ground. We can tell the stories that push and pull us all towards a brighter future. We have the potential to do nothing less than to save the world.
So let’s all get behind Jane Chu and hope that she can continue her good work in Washington, DC, for as long as possible.