Local arts leaders are elated Jane Chu could lead the National Endowment for the Arts

Jane Chu smiles after she was introduced by Julia Irene Kauffman as the new president and CEO of the Metropolitan Performing Arts Center
Jane Chu smiles after she was introduced by Julia Irene Kauffman as the new president and CEO of the Metropolitan Performing Arts Center

Nobody saw it coming.

When the White House released a short statement Wednesday announcing President Barack Obama’s intention to nominate Jane Chu to be the next chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts, it came as thrilling and unexpected news for the Kansas City arts community.

“This is huge,” Jeff Bentley, executive director of the Kansas City Ballet, said Thursday. “I was stunned when I got my first email before 5 a.m. this morning. … I heard nothing in the community about this. I didn’t hear a single drumbeat.”

Chu, president and CEO of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, is among the key leaders who have elevated Kansas City’s national profile as a city known for the quality and quantity of the arts. Chu is withholding comment on the president’s announcement, and a spokesman for the Kauffman Center said Chu would not comment during the deliberation process. Her nomination must be confirmed by the Senate.

Chu assumed her current position in 2006. Before that she had served as fund executive at the Kauffman Fund for Kansas City; vice president of external relations for Union Station; and vice president of community investment with the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation. Chu holds degrees in visual arts, piano performance, piano pedagogy and business administration. She holds a Ph.D. in philanthropic studies.

Julia Irene Kauffman, chairwoman and CEO of the Muriel McBrien Kauffman Foundation, who led the fundraising effort to build the $400 million Kauffman Center, released a statement praising Chu.

“Although we will miss her at the Kauffman Center, I believe the president has chosen wisely, and we wish her well in this important endeavor,” Kauffman said. “The nomination is another validation of the important role the Kauffman Center is playing in the performing arts locally and nationally. … We look forward to supporting Jane through what we hope is a speedy confirmation process.”

Deborah Sandler, CEO and general director of the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, said the possibility of someone from the heartland leading the NEA is significant. Established in 1965, the NEA works with various agencies — from local to national — to support arts education and innovation; its annual budget is around $140 million.

“I’ve sat on a lot of NEA panels, and nobody has ever said this … but there is something of a perception that the most innovative and dynamic work is happening on the coasts,” Sandler said. “And that leaves everybody else out of the conversation. I think it will be interesting to have someone from smack-dab in the middle of the country at the NEA.”

Sandler said the nomination could only enhance Kansas City’s growing reputation as a center for the arts.

“We want to be a first-class arts city,” she said. “Jane’s background is so varied that she brings a number of different skills. … She has a Ph.D. in philanthropy, she has a master’s in business administration, and she knows about the challenges facing arts organizations and the challenges facing presenting organizations. And she’s very smart to boot.”

Like Bentley, Sandler had heard nothing about Chu’s possible nomination before the White House announcement.

“I was quite surprised,” she said. “Happily surprised.”

The news represents one more step away from Kansas City’s traditional “cowtown” image, said Harlan Brownlee, president and CEO of the Arts Council of Metropolitan Kansas City.

“I think it’s just terrific,” Brownlee said. “I think it’s a huge compliment for Jane, and at some level it speaks to the importance of the arts in Kansas City.”

As a classically trained pianist, Chu has a background consistent with the arts credentials of others who have led the endowment, including actress Jane Alexander, Country Music Foundation director Bill Ivey, poet Dana Gioia and Broadway producer Rocco Landesman, who stepped down at the end of 2012. But Chu also has extensive administrative and fundraising experience that Brownlee sees as an enhanced qualification.

“She does have this very strong background in philanthropy,” Brownlee said “Anybody who understands how to talk about the arts (and) competing for dollars I think is going to be essential.”

If Chu is confirmed, her departure will raise more questions about the future of the arts in Kansas City, according to Brownlee.

“The big question now, of course, is what happens when she leaves,” Brownlee said. “What happens to the Kansas City arts community if she is confirmed? What will that mean for the Kauffman Center? That’s a big pair of shoes to fill.”