Maria Rosario Jackson, PhD
Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T, from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of Free Music Archive
Jo Reed: From the National Endowment for the Arts, this is Art Works, I’m Josephine Reed
Maria Rosario Jackson: The ability to have art, culture, design in our lives as part of our daily lived experience that is a really critical element of places where all people can thrive, and it's part of what we aspire to as a just society. And I think that the NEA is a national resource that helps to ensure that all people have the ability to lead artful lives. This includes opportunities to explore our creativity and imagination, opportunities to express ourselves, to tell our own stories on our own terms, and learn about others, all the while acknowledging and celebrating our common humanity. So the NEA is a key player in making sure that the arts are an important part of our collective efforts to truly be a nation of opportunity and possibility.
Jo Reed: That was the Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson. Chair Jackson was sworn into that position a little over a year ago. I had spoken to her then about her thoughts about the arts in all its possibilities and the arts endowment at that moment of reopening and reimagining the art sector…and we thought that her one-year anniversary was a good time for a follow-up, for her to share her reflections, observations and some of the agency’s accomplishments of the past year, as well as her ideas, plans, and initiatives for the Arts Endowment going forward.
Jo Reed: Chair Jackson, welcome.
Maria Rosario Jackson: It's great to be with you, Jo.
Jo Reed: You came to the agency at a really challenging moment, but also at a time filled with opportunities. The creative sector was severely affected by the pandemic, and I know you've traveled across the country speaking with artists and arts administrators, so I'm really curious what you have observed both about the challenges that the arts are facing but also the vitality of the arts and arts organizations across the country.
Maria Rosario Jackson: The last three years have been really complicated. They've been tough. All aspects of the cultural sector were impacted, and everyone was challenged to think differently and adjust to how to work in a new environment. I hear some stories of hardship and loss, but I also hear stories that are really heartening: people re-imagining how to connect with communities, how to support artists, how to advance opportunities to live artful lives, all in an environment that we couldn't predict, and without question there's so many lessons in our experience over the past three years. We need the opportunity to harvest what we've learned. I believe that. And as I've spoken with different audiences in the past year, I always talk about how we can't just uncritically aspire to snap back to what was pre-pandemic. We have to take stock and figure out what we've learned, figure out what's been affirmed, what's been challenged, what might even have been debunked. Our arts ecosystems are much like our natural ecosystems, they're shifting, demanding new ways of working and new ways of gauging success and progress.
Jo Reed: Well, what part can the Arts Endowment play in encouraging this taking stock and rethinking the arts and creating an environment for that rethinking?
Maria Rosario Jackson: I'm really excited about leaning into our identity not only as a grant maker but also as a national resource. We are in a moment when the arts sector has to reckon with what the next version of itself needs to be, you know, what it needs to look like, how it needs to function and, again, relatedly how we gauge progress and hold ourselves accountable. The Arts Endowment has to be a partner, I think, and a source of support in that process, and to me this means bolstering our ability to convene, to create learning communities, to create the forums for much-needed conversations and explorations. I think we have a role to play in lifting up important ideas and new and more impactful ways of working. I think we have a role to play in encouraging creativity and imagination and in helping people to dream big and think outside of the box as we create the next version of the cultural sector. The sector creates opportunities for people to live artful lives, that's our work. And to understand how to do that in a different environment is part of what the Arts Endowment has to encourage. You know, a sector that recognizes that the arts have the greatest power and impact when they don't exist in isolation, when they don't exist in the bubble. I think this is something that we need to advance.
Jo Reed: Well, you've noted that many arts organizations are thinking very creatively about engaging with audiences, and I wonder if there are any examples that particularly stayed with you as you traveled throughout the country.
Maria Rosario Jackson: You know, I actually prefer to think beyond the notion of just audiences. For many years in my own work when I talk about arts participation I've used the concept of publics rather than audiences. I think it includes participation as audience but it also holds many other ways of engaging, you know, thinking about making, doing, teaching, learning, in addition to participating as audience or to consuming art. But I think to your larger point, organizations around the country are showing a lot of imagination and creativity in reaching people and making arts experiences available. So many organizations have deeper experience with virtual participation now, and know better about the possibilities and the limitations of that modality. Many organizations have kept parts of virtual participation practices that they resorted to during the height of the pandemic, and they're re-imagining the connection or even interdependence of virtual participation and live participation as it pertains to audience engagement as well as instruction even in some cases. In recent years I think people have had to deal with the challenges of touring and getting audiences to their conventional presenting venues. And some organizations have turned to increasingly lifting up artists from their own communities in the absence of being able to tour, and they've expanded presentation practices to more frequently include community venues like churches and community centers. So I think there's a lot of innovation in that, and also there's a lot of lifting up of practices that were on the margins before the pandemic that became the way of working in the last three years, so they've shown up as we emerge from the pandemic possibly as continued practices that are not so marginal anymore.
Jo Reed: You and I had a conversation when you first came to the Arts Endowment as chair, and in that interview last year you said you wanted to listen to what people in the arts sector were saying, and I wonder if anything in particular resonated with you.
Maria Rosario Jackson: So much. I think travel in the last year has been so interesting and instructive. I went to a wide range of places in all regions of the country. So I visited urban, suburban, rural communities, and talked with artists and arts administrators from all artistic disciplines as well as people from other fields like the health and transportation community development who are also working with artists and arts organizations. I met with mayors and elected officials, and I had the great honor of seeing the work of many of our grantees as well as visiting with people who benefit from the work of our grantees. And in many conversations and site visits we learned much more, with much more nuance, about the impacts of the work that we're supporting, the direct impacts and the ripple effects. So for example we saw evidence of Our Town investments from many years ago that are just now bearing fruit because of the nature and tempo of development. It was really heartening to learn that an NEA seed grant that supported a planning process or a feasibility study 5 to 10 years ago, and 5 to 10 years later there's a huge state of the arts artist housing complex that actually counts the NEA's seed grant as part of its origin story. That was an example from LA, from Los Angeles. Similarly, we saw a beautiful performing arts center, a regional performing arts center, in a small town in Oregon that also had a similar origin story. It started with an Our Town investment from many years ago. So as we did a site visit to understand the work at the intersection of arts and health with the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs through our Creative Forces program, it was really exciting to see the replication of that program and its evolution to include programming and services beyond clinical settings but now in communities outside of clinical settings to serve military personnel and their families. That was really exciting to see the growth of that program and the impact that it's having. One trip that I did with staff members to Alabama, we visited Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma, and we actually did the tour with the director of the state arts agency as well as the director of the regional arts organization for that part of the country. And it was so invaluable to learn about how they function and how they can imagine more strategic alignments among all of us. So how can federal, regional, state, and local agencies work more effectively if we're aligned? There was an opportunity to explore a bit of that. We were also able to talk with grantees and gained deeper insights about the possible removal of barriers to access to resources for historically marginalized communities, and there were really terrific insights that came from those conversations. In that same trip in Alabama we also saw evidence of how the NEA can be inspirational and catalytic. When we were in Montgomery we were able to visit a place called King's Canvas. It's a creative and cultural hub on the west side of town, and it was started by a local resident, Kevin King, and his intention was to give artists in this primarily Black community, a space in which to connect or reconnect with each other and with their own creativity. Kevin told us that he had initially been inspired by the creative placemaking work supported by the NEA many years ago. It was exciting to see the impact of that work on something very real in that particular community and to understand how it gave Kevin a greater vision for what's possible in his neighborhood. That trip was really rich. There's more, I mean, over the course of the year I had the opportunity to meet National Heritage Fellows as well as jazz masters, and learn not only about their artistry but also about the roles that they play in their communities through their art forms, and the roles that they play in the ecosystems that support the art forms themselves, again, learning more about how the arts don't exist in a bubble or in isolation.
Jo Reed: You've said very interestingly that the art process can be as important as the product, and I'd really like you to say more about what you mean by this, and also how the NEA can support this.
Maria Rosario Jackson: Sure. This idea that art process can be as important as or in some cases even more important than art product, that's been one of my guiding principles for a large part of my career. And I believe that being engaged in an art process or a creative process not only for the purposes of developing the product at the end but for the benefits that being engaged in creativity has to offer, I think that that's important in so many different ways. There are many examples of work that the NEA supports whether it's around arts therapy or art in public health or arts in education, sometimes focused on trauma informed learning environments, or the work of the Our Town Program that focuses on community engagement and creating healthier communities, all of these are very process focused. And I think it's important to lift up artwork as product when that is what the artist or the creators intend to deliver, but equally important is the emphasis on just lifting up that creative process and recognizing that sometimes the thing at the end isn't the point. The point is being engaged in creativity, in imagination and that that journey itself has value, it has value related to health, related to the discovery of your own potential as a maker. I can go on and on about that because I feel strongly that our human participation in creative process is part of what makes us whole. I'm really happy to share that we just added creative process to our definition of artistic excellence in the NEA's newly published grant guidelines, and that adjustment I think helps us lean into advancing a more meaningful focus on the creative process and art making.
Jo Reed: You've used the term "arts in all", and this is central to your vision. So this is another two-part question which is first, can you really define that term for us and then explain its centrality to the work of the arts endowment?
Maria Rosario Jackson: Sure. I think unleashing the full power of art requires animating the work at the intersection of other dimensions of our lives, so arts in education, arts in community development, economic development, climate, the very important work happening at the intersection of arts and health and wellbeing. I've been referring to the necessary integration of arts in our daily lives and to the integration of arts in other areas of policy and practice as arts in all, so arts in all refers to the intention of full integration of the arts in how we live. Not only does the concept push up against the relegation of arts as something separate or just extra, but we're also leaning into arts integration that will create new opportunities and unlock resources for artists and arts organizations. I mean, there's lots of examples of this in the NEAs work. A recent one is a collaboration with the General Services Administration, and that's a collaboration to encourage a diverse range of artists to join the National Art Registry and have their work considered for upcoming artist commissions. In that collaboration together with GSA there's about 17 million dollars in commissions around the country that we hope to make more available to artists. I certainly hope that we can continue to work with GSA and other federal agencies to help unlock opportunities and lift up the many ways that the arts contribute to society. As I've said before, the sector doesn't and shouldn't exist in a bubble.
Jo Reed: You've expanded the NEA's ongoing work at the intersection of art and health.
Maria Rosario Jackson: Yes, this is an area where the NEA has worked for many years. It shows up in our grants, our research, our national initiatives. We've worked for a number of years with the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs on our Creative Forces Initiative, which I mentioned earlier. And last year we announced the inaugural grants in our Creative Forces Community Engagement Program, and these grants aim to improve the health and wellbeing and quality of life for military service members and veterans exposed to trauma as well as their families and caregivers through art making experiences. We also recently partnered with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the CDC, and the CDC Foundation to launch an initiative that helped engage artists and arts organizations to promote COVID vaccine readiness in their communities, and as a result, with funding from the CDC, the CDC Foundation awarded grants to 30 organizations nationwide to support these efforts, and we're really proud of that. It's also important to recognize that arts and health work also extends to the impact of art space strategies in our communities. So building social cohesion and paying attention to community wellbeing, that's really important. Last year the NEA contributed to an equitable long-term recovery and resilience plan, and this is something that was led by the US Department of Health and Human Services. It's utilizing a whole of government approach, and the plan emphasizes arts and culture is critical to achieving success in a number of domains including belonging and civic muscle, and there's a lot more. I mean, I've always admired NEA's work at this particular intersection and believe that we have so much more to contribute as the nation seeks to heal and mend in so many ways. There's lots of interest from colleagues in other federal agencies about how the arts play a role in addressing mental health and our social fabric among other issues, and we'll step up to be good partners in that work.
Jo Reed: Well, speaking of a whole of government approach, in September an executive order on culture vitality advances a whole of government policy for the arts, the humanities, and museum and library services. And its purpose, as I read it, is to integrate the arts and humanities, and museum and library services, into policies and programs and partnerships throughout the federal government which of course this aligns so nicely with your vision of arts in all. So I'm curious how you see the agency continuing and expanding its outreach and collaborations with other agencies.
Maria Rosario Jackson: So I'm hopeful that this executive order bolsters our work at the intersection of arts and other sectors in ways that are both known and surprising. I have appointed a senior staff member dedicated to moving this work forward, and staff at the NEA as a whole recognize this is a priority. Advancing partnerships with other federal agencies to extend the mission in reach of the NEA is something that's very central to us now, and I'm very much looking forward to continuing to build relationships with other agency leaders and staff that can carry out the work hopefully in very durable ways. These are win-win relationships. I really do believe that when we say we aspire to be a nation of opportunity and possibility, arts, culture and design have to be integrated in all our efforts to do that, and that certainly includes work at these intersections.
Jo Reed: Well, let's look at the year ahead. The NEA of course, we fund the arts, but you also want to emphasize the agency's role as a national resource for the arts ecosystems. What are some of the ways you see the agency assuming this role?
Maria Rosario Jackson: So these are the ideas that we've been talking about with arts in all. Our work with other agencies is impacting how the NEA is and will continue to show up. We continue to be a funder, a grant making organization, which is how we're primarily known, but we'll also focus on our role as a national resource for creating and bolstering healthy arts ecosystems, and these are ecosystems that contribute to building healthy communities where all people can thrive. As a national resource, the NEA will access all of its assets, all of the assets that it has at its disposal, and this includes grant money and financial resources, and it also includes our relationships to other federal agencies like the Department of Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, all the while identifying ways in which the arts can contribute in these realms and, again, unlocking opportunities for new investments and opportunities for arts organizations and artists. We also have access to the bullhorn of the executive branch and the imprimatur of the federal government, and this is also an asset that we can use strategically. The infrastructure of state arts organizations, regional arts organizations, and local arts agencies, as well as other networks, that's something else that we can leverage more intentionally as we go about this work. Another asset is the view and analysis that we can render from a national perspective. That's not something that everyone has available to them, so the ability to share that and make sure that we're making the best use of it as we deliver information and understanding about trends in the field, that's another important role, and our ability to commission and conduct research about the roles of arts in our society focusing on health and wellbeing but also other areas. And last, I think our ability to connect and convene communities of learning and communities of practice, our ability to catalyze and amplify more effective ways of working, that's something that I'm really excited about.
Jo Reed: With Executive Order 13985, the Biden administration advanced equity and justice across the federal government by calling on federal agencies and departments to assess whether and to what extent their programs and policies perpetuate systemic barriers for historically marginalized communities. How is the NEA responding to this directive?
Maria Rosario Jackson: So last year the NEA introduced the Equity Action Plan for fiscal years 2022 to 2026, and this plan builds on our advancement of community engagement and inclusion and equitable access to the arts for all Americans. This has resulted in changes such as making our grant guidelines available in Spanish, and working to provide additional outreach and resources about the NEA's grant opportunities. We're also working on a pilot program with the regional arts organizations focused on advancing the work of organizations that can help us increase access to arts opportunities to underserved populations, and we hope that these are going to be systemic investments that are durable. Additionally, the concepts of artful lives and arts in all, those inherently have a focus on inclusion. They embrace a diverse range of art forms, and create pathways for more opportunities in which the arts can impact people's lives and benefit us.
Jo Reed: Obviously there is a lot going on at the Arts Endowment, and I wonder what is on the horizon that you are really excited to see?
Maria Rosario Jackson: So I'm, again, really excited about the NEA showing up as a national resource. There are some specific things that I'm looking forward to in addition to things I've already talked about, and one is a series of national conversations that the NEA will host about the future of the sector, the intersection between arts and other areas of policy and practice, the role of the arts in civic infrastructure at the local level, and on a related note the creation of learning communities that help people harvest lessons from the last few years and not just uncritically snap back or aspire to snap back to what was pre-pandemic. So I think that these national conversations are really necessary, and I'm so delighted that the NEA can play a role in helping to make that available. We're looking at bolstering some existing programs and program areas like our work with the Mayors Institute on City Design and the Citizens Institute on Rural Design, so the enhancement and augmentation of those and possibly adjacent new programs that, again, help to build capacity around art design and impacting in communities and cities, that's really important to me. Another thing I'm really excited about is helping to unlock opportunities for artists and arts organizations to contribute to mending our social fabric, alongside federal investments and our physical infrastructure. So as we think of rebuilding the physical structures in communities and cities, we also have to look at the social fabric and understand that there are really important connections between our work in physical infrastructure and social fabric and social infrastructure. There's some work underway that I think is necessary and really important, and it's focused on local arts agencies, how they operate, what they need how they can be most impactful going forward, and that's a body of research that will be underway soon. There's also some research on historically Black colleges and universities that will help us better understand their roles in communities in relation to local arts ecosystems, and more generally to the cultural sector. This will help us understand how we as the NEA can be most helpful in relation to those institutions. So I'm excited about the NEA'S role in walking alongside the arts community as we adapt and dream big together.
Jo Reed: And I think that is a good place to leave it. Chair Jackson, thank you. Thank you for giving me your time, and here’s to the year ahead!
Maria Rosario Jackson: Thank you, Jo. It's been wonderful talking with you.
Jo Reed: Thank you. That was the chair of the National Endowment for the Arts Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson. We have a video of Chair Jackson discussing in depth the principles for engaging in and living an artful life. You can find it on the NEA’s YouTube channel, and we’ll have a link to it in our show notes. You can keep up with the work of the Arts Endowment by following us on twitter @NEAarts and by checking out our website at arts.gov
You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. We’d love to know your thoughts—email us at email@example.com. And follow us wherever you get your podcasts and leave us a rating on Apple, it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Chair Maria Rosario Jackson looks back at her first year leading the Arts Endowment and shares her ideas, plans, and initiatives for the year ahead. She discusses the philosophy that guides her vision for the NEA: "artful lives" and "arts in all" and reflects upon her travel throughout the country meeting with artists and arts administrators as well as local and civic leaders. The chair also notes the NEA's collaborations with other federal agencies, including the General Services Administration, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Veterans Affairs, as well as a partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chair Jackson also discusses the NEA's Equity Action Plan that builds on the agency’s work with community engagement, a recently announced pilot program that helps increase arts opportunities to underserved communities, and the agency's expanding role as a national resource on many fronts for the arts sector.
You can also watch Chair Jackson further discuss the principles for engaging in and living an artful life on our YouTube channel.