As a federal champion and funder of cultural programs, the National Endowment for the Arts plays a significant role in setting the creative tone in towns and cities across the land.
It also has served as a lightning rod for controversy, a touch point in the so-called culture wars that have challenged citizens to think about the meaning of art and the virtue of intellectual debates.
In nominating Kansas City’s Jane Chu to become the next leader of the NEA, President Barack Obama has selected a veteran arts administrator who’d be very much up to the dual challenges of the job: selling the idea of the arts as an essential component of modern life and education and navigating the choppy waters of controversy.
As president and CEO of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Chu oversaw the construction and opening of a $400 million project that has helped revitalize downtown Kansas City. Not an easy task.
Quietly efficient, guardedly passionate and publicly unflappable, Chu managed to balance the needs and desires of a high-powered board, three ambitious and demanding resident arts organizations, disparate civic and government interests, and widely engaged and often unforgiving audiences.
Chu, a pianist, once told The Star that her challenge and success at opening the Kauffman Center in 2011 came from her ability to synthesize and grasp the complexity of an organization whose stakeholders often spoke in different languages.
That experience should serve her well at the NEA, if the Senate eventually confirms her nomination.
Under her watch, the Kauffman Center has developed its own series of programs — lectures by National Geographic photographers, Broadway shows, organ recitals.
And it has become an effective collaborator with partners such as the Sprint Center and the Grammy Museum.
The NEA has been without a chairman since Rocco Landesman, a former Broadway producer, stepped down at the end of 2012.
Given the snarky mood of Congress, it’s too soon to tell how difficult a job she would have. The agency’s annual budget has been on a downward trend, currently in the range of $140 million.
Nevertheless, Chu’s nomination would help further Kansas City’s reputation as a center for the arts and arts leadership.