The National Endowment for the Arts stirs so little controversy these days that a Senate committee overseeing the federal agency approved its nominee for chairwoman Wednesday on a voice vote with almost no discussion.
Jane Chu, president and CEO of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, almost certainly will be the new NEA chairwoman when the full Senate votes on her nomination.
“There’s no controversy,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat and chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. “NEA has only been controversial among a certain subset; read: tea party. That’s a small slice of the Congress.”
The arts agency, which has periodically raised conservative hackles for supporting controversial projects, remains at risk of being on the chopping block. While that has largely meant having its funding cut, the NEA has been operating at a stable $146 million budget.
Chu, 56, was not present at the committee and is not commenting until she is confirmed, said a Kauffman official. Julia Irene Kauffman, who founded the center, issued a statement saying she was pleased by the committee’s approval of Chu.
The nominee, whose resume spans arts management, philanthropy and the performing arts, has drawn strong support among Senate Republicans.
“She’s an accomplished leader in Kansas City and we are fortunate to have her nomination,” Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the panel’s ranking Republican, said before the vote.
Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, issued a letter as part of the committee record praising Chu for being “uniquely qualified” to lead the agency.
“In the Kansas City area and throughout Missouri’s arts community, Dr. Chu is well regarded for her successful oversight of the $400 million Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts project,” Blunt wrote.
The Kauffman Center, which opened in 2011, is home to the Kansas City Symphony, the Kansas City Ballet and the Lyric Opera of Kansas City.
After the hearing, NEA supporters sounded relieved.
“All I can say, happily, is that there seems to be bipartisan support and no controversies on the nomination process,” said Robert Lynch, president and CEO of Americans for the Arts, an arts advocacy group.
Chu has undergraduate degrees in visual arts from Nebraska Wesleyan University and in piano and music education from Ouachita Baptist University. She holds a master’s in piano instruction from Southern Methodist University as well as a master’s in business administration from Rockhurst University and a doctorate in philanthropic studies from Indiana University.
The annual salary for the NEA chair is $167,000, according to the agency’s office of public affairs. Chu’s salary from the Kauffman Center is $225,703, according to an IRS filing for the nonprofit.
The NEA has been without a chair for over a year and stakeholders are eager to have a new leader in place. While Chu will have support from Capitol Hill, the agency has tried to avoid pitfalls by distributing funds to all the states through targeted programs supported by grass-roots organizations.
“They did a better job of serving the whole country,” said Lynch.
Harkin said “there are those who think it’s elitist.” But he recalled an NEA program that brought jazz musicians from New York to Iowa.
“They had programs that reached out to schools in rural Iowa,” he said. “That wasn’t elitist at all. It was responding to kids that didn’t have any knowledge of jazz. Kids in rural areas have been helped greatly by NEA.”
Chu is unlikely to silence all of the NEA’s critics.
“Funding art projects, concert series and various exhibitions isn’t the proper role of government,” said Dan Holler, a spokesman for the conservative Heritage Action. “These sort of activities can easily be funded by individuals and there is ample evidence the private sector is doing just that.”