Phenomenal Woman: Get to Know National Endowment for the Arts General Counsel India Pinkney

By Paulette Beete
India Pinkney

India Pinkney. Photo by Carrie Holbo Photography.

India Pinkney is the first Black woman to be general counsel at the National Endowment for the Arts, making her part of a small cohort of women of color in the role at other federal agencies. Though Pinkney pursued Middle East and Foreign Affairs in undergrad, followed by earning a law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law, as she told us during a Zoom interview, she has also been a creative writer since childhood, using poetry and short stories as a way to help make sense of the world around her. The Arts Endowment has also been a part of Pinkney’s life since childhood. In her home state of South Carolina, Pinkney’s mother worked with the state arts commission, and Pinkney saw first-hand growing up how the arts were integrated into economy of her hometown and other locations across the state. In the interview that follows, in her own words, Pinkney talks about the continuing importance of the arts in both her private and work lives, the opportunities and challenges of being a Black general counsel for the federal government, and why she remains optimistic about the importance of the work of the NEA to the nation.

India’s secret superpower is that she’s a creative writer.

I have always loved the arts, and been active in different ways. I always wrote poetry because I’m an only child and my parents moved a lot for work when I was young. My dad was a corporate person and we moved to France for his job. I had just really started elementary school, I didn’t know any French yet, and so I went to French school in the morning and American school in the evening. As I was getting acclimated I would write poems about what I saw, write poems about what I thought, and I just never stopped. I did other artistic formats, like ballet and music; but it’s always been centered around writing.

I write all the time everywhere. I write short stories; I write poetry. I have part of an unedited novel written. I just write all sorts of things, whether they’re think pieces, whether they are fictional pieces. I observe everything, and so I’m always creating characters. It’s very relaxing for me, and particularly now when there’s so much happening, it helps me process the world around me and what’s changing, what’s staying the same, what are people noticing, what are people perhaps not noticing. I try to reflect that through the development of characters and stories.

While legal writing and creative writing are distinct modes of writing, India credits her creative side with helping her to be a better lawyer.

When you do your opening statement [for a case] and you’re describing the situation, the arts and the creative side definitely help with that, because [storytelling] helps to put the judge or jury in the moment. When I was writing briefs, the same thing [was true], particularly in weaving the facts of the particular case and the law together, Even now, when I don’t do a lot of [litigation] directly—we typically either work with the Department of Justice or we work with outside counsel on litigation-related matters—even from a transactional sense or understanding what the goal is for a project or being persuasive, it helps to be able to describe things in a non-legalese way that other people can relate to.

Even before coming to the Arts Endowment the arts played a crucial role in India’s work.

I previously worked at the Federal Aviation Administration, and I traveled overseas a lot doing international work. On those long-haul trips I would write about what I saw, about what I’d experienced.  Art was also a connector with my work. We were often negotiating around very difficult subjects that were sometimes culturally sensitive [even if not on the surface], and when I say culturally sensitive I mean [some of the nations had cultural issues with other nations] going back thousands of years or so. Oftentimes art was the great equalizer. If people had seen a play or a particular piece of visual art or music, we would start to break down barriers and comfort levels in [conversations about those experiences] and it [then] became easier for me to engage with people from a place of trust [in the diplomatic discussions on international aviation].

Joining the Arts Endowment as a staff lawyer has been a transformative experience for India.

It was so fascinating for me learning about some of the amazing people, like Alvin Ailey, who received one of the first dance grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and seeing some of the artists who come to the NEA to engage on panels. The legacy of the NEA made me feel very proud [to become part of it]. I was also a little nervous because [I was going to be] practicing in-house; it’s so different when you’re at a firm and you have clients because you have distance. When you are in-house, you’re right there at the entity that you’re representing with everyone. There’s no distance there. I was really excited about it but I didn’t know how lawyers were received at the NEA, whether we were viewed as assets or obstacles.

I was also curious as to how the NEA viewed itself, and what I saw was transformative in a few ways.  One, I learned then and I’m even more certain now, of how important and how critical the arts and culture are to our larger society. An artist’s observation of the world, how they may reflect that, really helps to not only inform others, it also starts conversations, and it documents [what is happening]. In the future historians, anthropologists, sociologists will try to assess [through the arts] what was important to this society at this particular time. In that context, I really view working in the arts as a precious opportunity. The second thing was I was just amazed at how much we were able to accomplish throughout the country with such a small footprint as an agency. When I say small footprint, I mean we have a small staff compared [to] the amount of work that we’re able to accomplish in terms of the impact throughout the United States that we have. Being able to work in a setting where I’m interfacing with people who have all of this depth of expertise in so many different areas that touch on the arts, it really makes me feel like I am working in an arts lab. It makes me feel like I am working collectively with people on something that is important from a national sense and will be for a very, very long time in the future.

A lot of people look to [the Arts Endowment] for excellence in the arts through our grant making and what that looks like. I see huge opportunities for the agency over the next several years to really engage, in the ways that we can that are appropriate, [in giving] people creative ways to look at things. It’s a freshness that really makes me enjoy working at the agency.  It’s the creative root that goes throughout everything [at the agency]. While we’re funding creativity, there are so many creative people at the agency itself that it just promotes creative thinking no matter what someone’s area of specialization is, whether it’s an artistic discipline or on the administrative side. [That creative viewpoint] promotes ingenuity in thinking and looking at processes: “Is this still the best process for this now, or is there something else that could bring out the agency’s work under the statute with a little bit more clarity or with a different focus given what’s important in the world today? It’s that engagement with each other that really keeps it interesting and will really produce some interesting and dynamic things.

In addition to meeting the current moment through grantmaking, India thinks the Arts Endowment also has a role in terms of asking the right questions.

Whatever someone’s function is at the agency, [it’s important] that we’re staying connected with each other and working collectively in a forward motion. By that I mean pulling together around what are some things that we can do to highlight certain aspects of this moment? Like asking questions internally: What makes the arts relevant now? What are some things that we can do as an agency to make sure that artists as a community, and arts organizations, are heard? We have parameters around how we have to do that because we are a government entity, and quite frankly, any organization has those [parameters], whether it’s a government entity, a company, or a foundation, but we [still need to] have those conversations around the arts. What is the connection to some of these ideas around social justice and the reality of what happens in the day to day, particularly now, when we’re clearly undergoing a transformation, in a sense, as a country? What is the arts’ role to play? What is the agency’s role to play? Are there ways that we can push forward a conversation? And if so, what is that conversation? What are the appropriate bounds of that conversation, and what are the concrete aspects that can come as a result of it? I do think that the arts are critical because art and culture tell us who we are, and when you really look at everything that is taking place in the country today, it really comes down to who we are. Who we’ve been, who we are, and who we intend to be going forward, and the discussions and the determinations and the assessments and the reflections around those three things are going to really help inform how the country moves forward, and whether we’re able to do things in a productive way.

Being a Black general counsel in the arts is both a challenge and an opportunity.

It’s hard, because obviously a lot of what the country is experiencing impacts me directly as a woman of color. I see the comments. I read the op-eds. I see everything both said and unsaid in a national sense. Being a lawyer on top of that adds nuance because I totally get and can see, even intuitively at this point, because of a lot of years of practice, where systems have gaps, where structures have gaps, how things can unravel and unfold, and then simultaneously how they can be buttressed, protected, guarded and operate within the realm that allows us to be the awesome country that we are. Taking those two things and bringing them together and honoring my full self, because it is a full-self thing, has resulted in just some very deep moments over the past year in particular, because it’s required me to really take a step back in order to move forward sometimes. I may have just seen something on the news that makes me feel horrible, as an American, as a Black woman in America, but yet I have to keep going. I’m answering legal questions coming in at breakneck speed, having to get in a different zone, and yet trying to still honor my humanity at the same time by taking the time to process the reality of everything that’s occurred. That’s the challenge.

I think the opportunity in it is that it has provided me—and others who are similarly situated, because obviously it’s not just me—a unique opportunity to bear witness, call truth to power, and actually also know the steps to truly implement actionable change. Whenever I feel myself getting drained or feeling tired or worn down by all of the things that have been taking place in what I refer to as a period of transition or transformation in this country, then the opportunity aspect of it is what pushes me forward and allows me to feel encouraged and hopeful and try to share that with other people.

As we celebrate Women’s History Month this March, the National Endowment for the Arts will shine the light on some phenomenal women, past and present, through the agency’s blog, podcast, and social media channels. While the stats may continue to be disappointing in terms of equity, we believe that as we work to address those disparities it’s also important to celebrate the impact women have made and continue to make in the arts. From Phillis Wheatley, an enslaved woman who was also one of the best-known poets in pre-19th-century America to dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, whose work lives on not only through her dancers but through the company’s venture into mixing dance with technology, we’re celebrating women who, to borrow from Maya Angelou’s famous poem “Phenomenal Woman” have fire in their eyes and joy in their feet.


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