Art Works Blog

Five Questions with NEA Chair Jane Chu

As Jane Chu concludes her term as Chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts, we asked her to reflect on what it's like to work at the agency and what she's learned about the arts landscape of the U.S. while making more than 400 site visits in communities throughout the country. Here's what she had to say. 

NEA: Many times you have noted that “how we do something is just as important as what we do.” Can you talk about what that means to you in terms of the work of the NEA?

JANE CHU: I’m talking about paying attention to the approach we take when we do our jobs at the NEA. We have choices as to how we interact with each other either in a manner of respect or disrespect. We have choices in how we work with our partners in the field, in a manner that either lets them know we hear them and honor their work, or we can choose to be dismissive. We have choices in how we help grant applicants understand the grant proposal process, either in a manner that provides supportive guidance, or we can choose to be abrupt and judgmental. By paying attention to the approach we take in how we do our jobs, no matter what our job description requires, the more we will be able to provide the kind of working environment where we are supportive of each other. 

NEA: There have been many accomplishments under your chairmanship: expanding Creative Forces, launching the Creativity Connects grants, the NEA Musical Theater Songwriting Challenge for High School Students, and expanding our research into the arts from an economic standpoint. What are you most proud of accomplishing during your NEA tenure? 

CHU: It’s about finding meaning in our lives. We didn’t create these activities just to check something off of our list. We launched and expanded programs to create heartfelt meaning in the lives of others through the arts. So, when each of the 435 Congressional Districts in the nation had NEA grants, people understood that the arts were present in small towns, and remote and rural areas, as well as in larger, densely populated cities. When we expanded our Creative Forces military healing arts initiative from two sites in Maryland and Virginia to 12 sites across the nation, from Alaska to Florida, more service members and veterans with brain recovery conditions, as well as their families talked about healing and the newfound ways to engage in the arts in their communities and feel like they belong. When we launched $2 million in Creativity Connects grants, people from other sectors noted the value of the arts to optimize creativity within the work they do in science, technology, health, agriculture, aging, and other non-arts sectors. When we launched the economic research of the arts in each state, community leaders saw hard evidence that the arts were not just a frill, but a contributor to the economic vitality of their states. When we launched the NEA Musical Theater Songwriting Challenge for High School Students, and paired them with current Broadway performers and musicians, those high school songwriters were more emboldened to express themselves than before. When we visited Cuba and China to begin artist exchanges between the NEA and their ministries of culture, we brought the countries closer together through the arts. And when we received three back-to-back increases in the NEA budget in FY2016, 2017, and 2018, we sensed that Congress understood the value of the arts in their districts and for the nation. 

NEA: Under your tenure the NEA has been ranked number one in Best (Small Agency) Places to Work in the Federal Government. What do you think it is about the NEA that makes it a great place to work?

When I first came to the NEA, I had the opportunity to meet with each employee. I learned from them about the types of positive working environments which energized them, and what other types made them weary. It was great to discover that each person cared about the work they do, and that they wanted to do a good job. And it was even greater to see that the employees cared about each other, especially their teammates, and that they also had a genuine respect for the work of other teams, including those with whom they did not interact on a daily basis. If we can create working conditions where people feel like they belong, and that no matter what their job description entails, they know that they are contributing to the success of the organization, then we are moving in the direction of creating a workplace where people enjoy going to work. 

NEA: As NEA Chairman, you have traveled to all 50 states, 200 communities, and made more than 400 site visits. I know you often say that if you’ve seen one community, then you’ve seen one community. Still, are there commonalities you see in the role of the arts and artists in the places you’ve been?

CHU: When we examined through the Creativity Connects initiative how artists work today, as compared with how they worked before the onset of the internet, we discovered that the previous definitions of an artist were no longer fully representative of the ways artists now work. Certainly, there are musicians who perform on stage or in recordings all of the time, and painters and sculptors who rarely venture out beyond their studios. But now, we also see artists whose work focuses on areas like social practice. And there are folk and traditional artists who do not sell their work, but create solely for the cultural or spiritual life of their communities. We’re also seeing artists working in hybrid ways. While there are many artists working in the traditional models, there’s also an explosion of opportunities to work across art disciplines, and artists are becoming proficient in multiple disciplines simultaneously. Other artists maintain their focus in a primary discipline, but pursue cross-discipline collaborations. These are the findings that were common to each place I visited.

NEA: What will you miss most about being at the NEA?

CHU: I typically do not look back at anything and yearn for what was before. Instead, I will celebrate and remember with much fondness the time I had with the NEA, and take those NEA experiences with me in my next steps going forward. I’m so appreciative of having the NEA experience.

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