WASHINGTON — The National Endowment for the Arts is so non-controversial these days that the Senate committee that oversees the federal agency approved its new chairman Wednesday on a voice vote with almost no discussion as senators raced off to other meetings.
Jane Chu, president and CEO of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Mo., almost certainly will be the new NEA chairman when the full Senate votes on her nomination.
“There’s no controversy,” Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, told McClatchy after the vote. “NEA has only been controversial among a certain subset; read: tea party. That’s a small slice of the Congress.”
That doesn’t mean the committee doesn’t display a partisan divide. The affirmative vote on Chu followed a divisive debate on an education bill for preschoolers that passed on party lines.
The arts agency, which has periodically raised conservative hackles for supporting controversial projects, is still at risk of being on the chopping block. While that has largely meant having its funding cut, the NEA has been operating at a stable $146 million budget.
Chu, 56, was not present at the committee and is not commenting until she is confirmed, said a Kauffman official. But the nominee, whose resume spans arts management, philanthropy and the performing arts, has drawn strong support among Senate Republicans.
“She’s an accomplished leader in Kansas City and we are fortunate to have her nomination,” Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the panel’s ranking Republican, said before the vote.
Her home-state senator, Roy Blunt, R-Mo., issued a letter as part of the committee record praising Chu for being “uniquely qualified” to lead the agency.
“In the Kansas City area and throughout Missouri’s arts community, Dr. Chu is well regarded for her successful oversight of the $400 million Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts project,” Blunt wrote.
The Kauffman Center, which opened in 2011, is home to the Kansas City Symphony, as well as the city’s ballet and opera companies.
After the hearing, NEA supporters sounded relieved.
“All I can say, happily, is that there seems to be bipartisan support and no controversies on the nomination process,” said Robert Lynch, president and CEO of Americans for the Arts, an arts advocacy group.
Chu has undergraduate degrees in visual arts from Nebraska Wesleyan University and in piano and music education from Ouachita Baptist University. She holds a master’s in piano instruction from Southern Methodist University, as well as a master’s in business administration from Rockhurst University and a doctorate in philanthropic studies from Indiana University.
The annual salary for the NEA chairman is $167,000, according to the agency’s office of public affairs. Chu’s salary from the Kauffman Center is $225,703, according to an IRS filing for the nonprofit.
The NEA has been without a chairman for over a year, and stakeholders are anxious to have a new leader in place. While Chu will have support from Capitol Hill, the agency has tried to avoid pitfalls by distributing funds to all the states through targeted programs supported by grassroots organizations.
“They did a better job of serving the whole country,” said Lynch.
Harkin told McClatchy that “there are those who think it’s elitist.” But he recalled an NEA program that brought jazz musicians from New York to Iowa.
“They had programs that reached out to schools in rural Iowa,” he said. “That wasn’t elitist at all. It was responding to kids that didn’t have any knowledge of jazz. Kids in rural areas have been helped greatly by NEA.”
Chu is unlikely to silence all of the NEA’s critics.
“Funding art projects, concert series and various exhibitions isn’t the proper role of government,” said Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action, a conservative group. “These sort of activities can easily be funded by individuals and there is ample evidence the private sector is doing just that.”