Art Works Blog

Inside the NEA: Get to Know Joan Shigekawa

Joan Shigekawa. Photo courtesy of Ms. Shigekawa

Joan Shigekawa may be new to her position as acting chairman of the NEA, but having served as the agency’s senior deputy chairman since 2009, she has already more than made her mark. From her intimate involvement with the agency's groundbreaking partnerships with federal agencies, such as the Department of Defense and the Health and Human Services Agency, to her hosting of mini-staff retreats to discuss what innovation in the arts means for the 21st century, Shigekawa is committed to the vision of the arts as important---and necessary---to every part of life. Her storied career has included leadership positions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Rockefeller Foundation, as well as more than two decades of experience in the media arts and theater. We caught up with Shigekawa just before the start of the new year to find out, among other things, how Variety (and donuts) led to her first job in the arts.

NEA: What do you remember as your earliest experience or engagement with the arts?

SHIGEKAWA: My dad was many things, but among them he was a musician and he played for a little while in the Sacramento Symphony Orchestra. So I remember being very young, maybe four or five, and going to the symphony to watch my dad play---he was a percussionist.... You know, I was so little, but I remember not having the patience for the entire symphony and having to leave the auditorium. It's a vivid memory of seeing my dad on stage.

NEA: How did you end up in an arts career?

SHIGEKAWA: I had a major and a minor in college. My major was history, but my minor was history of art---Northern Renaissance art. And then I decided that I did not want to pursue a PhD and that what I wanted to do was work on historical documentaries. At that time there were historical documentaries on all the major television networks. There were such documentary series as See it Now and 20th Century, many of them based on stock footage…. I had no background in film, but I just decided I would like to do it and work on historical documentaries. So when I went to New York City to job hunt, pounding the pavements, I was interested both in print journalism and television journalism and I was knocking on every door. Every network door, every magazine door---getting nowhere. I actually just used to buy a big bag of doughnuts at the end of the day to console myself.

But then a light bulb went off and I decided well, if I want to find a job in TV, I need to read what they read---whatever that is. So I started to buy and read Variety, which was totally new to me. In my careful, front-to-back reading of Variety, there was a little story about a producer who was coming to New York to produce cultural specials. I didn’t know he was famous. His name was Julian Claman and he had produced a very early television western called Have Gun - Will Travel with [the lead character] Paladin. I didn’t know that he worked with CBS---these facts were not in the story because he was so well known to a Variety reader that everyone knew that. It said he was coming to New York to do cultural specials and I thought, that's really something I would like to do.

So I called Information to see if they had a new listing for Julian Claman and they did. I called his house. His wife at that time was a famous actress, Marian Seldes. Marian answered the phone, and I said, "I am calling because I am wondering if Mr. Claman is setting up an office and might need some help." And she said, "Well, darling, yes he is. Here's his number." So I called him in his office. I was so green that I didn't know that CBS had three offices in New York---I only knew about their main office, their headquarters office. I had gone there and filled out a personnel thing and put my name on a list for possible jobs. So I called [Julian Claman] and asked if he was going to hire an assistant, and he said, "Well, yes I am, why don't you come over?” I was interviewed, and he hired me. When I went back to personnel to fill out the forms, and the human resources person said, "Well, we see you wormed your way into here.” I was just putting one foot in front of the other, but a lot of people had wanted that job…. So that was my very first New York City job---working on cultural specials at CBS television.

NEA: Let’s flash forward to you arriving here at the NEA. Why did you want to work at the agency?

SHIGEKAWA: I had served the NEA as a panelist in the past, in the media arts division. So I knew a little bit about [the agency], but basically, I had not been thinking about working at the NEA. I was working at the Rockefeller Foundation and I loved my job. But then one day my phone rang and it was Rocco. Of course I knew who Rocco was, but I didn't know Rocco. And he just said, “I need to hire a deputy and people tell me I should talk to you.” So we went and had lunch. He was so interesting, his ideas were so provocative, he had such high energy, and this kind of zest for the work and for life that I thought this could be a lot of fun. So I just bit the bullet and said yes.

NEA: Prior to joining the agency, what would you say you were most proud of achieving in your work in arts and culture?

SHIGEKAWA: I was very proud of the work we did in developing countries, especially in Southeast Asia, for the Rockefeller Foundation… We set up wonderful cultural exchanges between U.S. artists and artists in Vietnam and Cambodia and Thailand. We did something that was not usual---we used the artists as kind of the pilots. We sent dancers to talk to dancers. We sent playwrights to talk to playwrights, and theater directors to talk to theater directors to help us shape our program. So we actually sent the artist out into the field to try to ascertain what the needs were, especially in places like Cambodia, which had so few resources. When you sit in New York or San Francisco [you think that] what you need to do is send over your choreographers or your theater director or your writers. In fact, the artists in Cambodia and Vietnam wanted our lighting directors, they wanted our sound designers, because they wanted their work to look as wonderful as it possibly could. And when they wanted to build a network they were most interested in building a network not between themselves, New York, Paris, and London but between themselves and Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Singapore---places which were more within their reach in terms of having actual ongoing colleagues.

NEA: And what are you most proud of to date since you have been with us?

SHIGEKAWA: Oh there’s lots! I'm really proud of our work with the Department of Defense, including Blue Star Museums and our partnership with Blue Star Families, and the work we are doing with the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence where we're bringing our programs into the most advanced center for the study of post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury in the country. We’re setting up serious research protocols to study the ways in which art may heal the spirit, the soul, the mind, which may, some time in the next five years, actually provide proof of the healing impact of arts engagement. That is enormously exciting to me. And I love our new partnership with the Bureau of Economic Analysis to set up the arts and cultural productions satellite account because it’s a first, and the arts and cultural sector, the creative sector, will be called out and singled out as a player in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and I think that's important for people to understand we are part of the productivity of the nation and that there is data and evidence to demonstrate that. So I am thrilled about that.

NEA: Who are some of the artists that inspire you?

SHIGEKAWA: I just saw a piece by Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd called Holding it Down, which is about the dreams of veterans of color from the last ten years of war. It was at the Gatehouse at Harlem Stage. And that is another person who really does inspire me, Patricia Cruz, who made the gatehouse at Harlem Stage happen. She's wonderful. With Vijay, it’s not just that he is a consummate musician, but it is the way he crosses every boundary so that there is poetry, there is video, dancing, and, of course, there is music in the piece. Vijay and his collaborators are actually working on contemporary issues of high relevance to the whole country. We need to understand what's happening to these folks who are returning from ten years of war and how to help them. So, Vijay is one artist.

Elizabeth Streb---for her derring do and her total fearlessness---is to me an amazing artist. There’s also an audio artist Janet Cardiff, whose work I find mysterious and exciting. Another favorite artist is media artist Ben Rubin, whose installation Listening Post (done with statistician Mark Hansen) combines art, music, technology, and science, and is wonderful. I am also a big fan of NEA National Heritage Fellow Sophiline Cheam Shapiro for her cultural courage in preserving and advancing Cambodian dance. And Jawole Willa Jo Zollar of Urban Bush Women, whose Shelter is an unforgettable piece about the struggle of being homeless. Other favorites are theater artist Marty Pottenger for her deep engagement with the lives of working people, and visual artists Ernesto Neto and Marshall Arisman for the outsized scale of their imaginations and their never-ending experimentation.

NEA: I know innovation is a concept that is very important to you. How do you define innovation in terms of the arts?

SHIGEKAWA: Innovation is something sustainably new that didn't exist before. So artists are always innovative… but when they break through to new levels, that is where we are defining innovation within the arts here at the agency. We see artists working with arts, science, and technology in totally new ways.... Artists are fascinated by nanotechnology, something that you cannot see, so they are working with nanotechnologists, working with computer scientists. Often now we are seeing artists who are both computer scientists and artists in the same moment and in the same person. But from the point of view of innovation, it’s something sustainably new.

I think the way we put it in the guidelines is projects that are innovative are likely to prove transformative with the potential for meaningful change, are distinctive and offer fresh insights and new value through unconventional solutions, and can potentially be shared and/or emulated, or may lead to other innovations.

NEA: You’ve lived in Washington, DC for a few years now. What are some of your favorite arts and culture things to do here?

SHIGEKAWA: I just saw the Ai Weiwei exhibit at the Hirshhorn. It’s an incredible exhibition, and, as I am sure you know, there are more museum professionals living in DC than any other American city. So some of my favorite things are to look at the very newest art, at places like the Hirshhorn, and the very oldest art, at places like the Freer-Sackler. And I love it when the art is public art, such as Doug Aitken’s Song 1, which was a 360-degree projection outside of the Hirshhorn last summer.

NEA: There are two questions that we most always ask artists when we interview them. One is, what is the role of the artist in the community? And then, conversely, what is the responsibility of the community to the artist?

SHIGEKAWA: The role of the artist in the community is the role of any other citizen in the community---to participate, to contribute, to share, and, when possible, to lead. But to all of those tasks they bring something extra: the ability to see in a different way. The ability to create music that brings people together. The ability to create movement and joy in the summer at a festival. So both their role as a citizen and then their contribution to share their creativity as best they can.

And the role of the community to the artist, well, we know from the Knight Poll, the 40,000 people from the Knight Foundation’s Gallup poll, that aesthetics and beauty and opportunities for social engagement and activities that you can do together are the top three key elements that make people love their community and artists are often at the center of those actions. So the community needs to support and love its artists. And appreciate how they make life better for everyone from little kids to senior citizens.

NEA: The final question is what does the phrase “Art works” mean to you?

SHIGEKAWA: One of the interesting things that Rocco did was build, on behalf of the agency, a really strong partnership with the U.S. Health and Human Services Agency and with all of its component parts including the National Institutes of Health. We recently had a symposium at the National Academies on the role of art and human development and, in this particular instance, the focus was on aging. So researchers from all over the country brought projects that demonstrated art could really make a difference in the quality of life of older people. I think the thing that was amazing is, that when you talk to art practitioners and the art therapists, [they say] the arts activities act as interventions to improve the quality of life. They have no side effects. They only bring joy and pleasure and connection with other people and connection with oneself. But it’s not like a drug that may have some side effects. So art works in human development. I think it sounds abstract when you say it that way, but I think that is something that Rocco has brought forward at the agency that is potentially going to be very important as we seek to understand the role of the arts. We already do that in arts education for young people, but as we seek to understand the role of the arts throughout the human lifecycle, I think its connection to people will become more apparent.

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