The new offices of the National Endowment for the Arts are ultra-modern: A glass-enclosed, transparent, updated look that is exactly what the new chairwoman wants the once-controversial agency to be.
R. Jane Chu is well-regarded in arts circles, although barely known by the general public. She’s been the top cultural official of the U.S. government since June, overseeing nearly $150 million in grants, encouraging artists and artistic activity and promoting arts in a more welcoming climate than during the culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s.
Chu made her professional name in Kansas City, where she was involved in the arts for 20 years. From 2006 until being confirmed by the Senate as the NEA chief in June, she was the president and CEO of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.
She returns to the Kauffman Center on Monday for the first time in her new role to meet with arts grantees and to speak about creative leadership.
Chu spearheaded the building of the structure heralded by a New York Times critic after its 2011 opening as “enjoyable, exhilarating.”
Her resume covers the breadth of the arts. She is an artist, a pianist and an educator with multiple degrees, including advanced degrees in business and philanthropic studies.
The daughter of Chinese immigrants, she was born in Oklahoma and raised in Arkansas with parents who spoke Mandarin. “I grew up navigating cultures,” said Chu, who speaks with a faint Southern accent.
The NEA has needed diplomatic skills in the past, when it drew conservative fire for supporting controversial exhibits including the showcasing of Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic photographs.
With a period of relative calm in the 2000s, the NEA has had stable funding for a number of years, now at $146 million for fiscal 2014. The high point in the last 10 years was $167.5 million in fiscal 2010.
Chu wants to “leverage” — a favorite word — the funding she has to reach more Americans and have them touched by the arts.
NEA grants, whether for a museum, an arts festival or a poet must have a one-to-one match from private or government sources to qualify. Chu said grants are usually getting one-to-seven matches, and often one-to-10, matches from local sources.
“The grant is like a ripple effect,” she said. “The NEA really is the only agency that brings this level of resources, and the platform we have is about having every American participate in the arts.”
She’s determined to debunk the impression that the NEA promotes cultural elitism. The charge, and an alleged bias toward New York City, has dogged the agency. The NEA has a variety of programs, including a rural initiative and “Our Town” grants that are arts projects connected to community development.
But there are still critics, some who see no role for for government in the arts business.
“Even Kickstarter raises more money for the arts than is available from NEA’s budget,” said Romina Boccia, a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, referring to the crowd-funding site. “Federal funding for the arts is neither necessary nor within the proper scope of the federal government. … The NEA should be eliminated.”
Those calls for elimination have quieted down in recent years, and arts advocates are enthusiastic about Chu.
“She brings quite a well-rounded package of knowledge, both in visual art knowledge and training, as well as performing arts knowledge and training,” said Robert L. Lynch, president and CEO of Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit.
“A big part of the chair’s job is being inspirational,” he said. “To arts groups, she seems like a wonderfully enthusiastic person who is a true believer.”