The new offices of the National Endowment for the Arts are ultra-modern: A glass-enclosed, transparent, updated look that is exactly what the new chairman wants the once-controversial agency to be.
R. Jane Chu, well-regarded in arts circles though barely known by the general public, since June has been the top cultural official of the U.S. government, overseeing nearly $150 million in grants, encouraging artists and artistic activity and promoting arts in a more welcoming climate than during the culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s.
She does not preside from the classic “corner office” but from a sparse glass office, off of a conference room, decorated with a single white orchid. But the conference room showcases something telling about the new chairman: one of her paintings, a colorful closeup of a rumpled quilt with an Amish double wedding band pattern.
It is a modern interpretation of a classic, which is very much what Chu is bringing to the job.
“There’s something symbolic about it,” she said of her painting.
Chu, whose first name is Rose but she goes by Jane, is a cultural powerhouse of her own. Slender, elegantly turned out in a subdued gray suit, the new face of American arts rocks a short, spiky salt and pepper hairstyle that at 56 she effortlessly pulls off.
Chu made her professional name in Kansas City, Mo., where she was involved in the arts for 20 years. From 2006 until being confirmed by the Senate as the NEA chief in June, she was the president and CEO of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, a venue that could be likened to the John F. Kennedy Center of the Midwest.
She returns to the Kauffman Center on Sept. 15 for the first time in her new role to meet with arts grantees and to speak about creative leadership.
Chu spearheaded the building of the sleek new structure, one heralded by a New York Times critic after its 2011 opening as “one of the most enjoyable, exhilarating arts centers I’ve been to.”
“That will be an unusual feeling to go back to the building and to speak there,” Chu told McClatchy in an interview.
Her resume covers the breadth of the arts. She is an artist, a pianist and an educator with multiple degrees, including an associate of arts degree, two bachelor degrees, two master’s – one in business _ and a doctorate in philanthropic studies.
Chu, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, was born in Oklahoma and raised in Arkansas with parents who spoke Mandarin. “I grew up navigating cultures,” said Chu, who speaks with a faint Southern accent.
And for the high-achieving Chu, it was the arts that were her “beautiful channel.” She loved drawing and painting – she still draws constantly – as well as playing the piano.
The NEA certainly has needed diplomatic skills in the past, when it drew conservative fire for supporting controversial exhibits, such as one showcasing Robert Mapplethorpe, whose homoerotic photographs sparked cries to eliminate federal arts funding altogether.
After a period of relative calm in the 2000s, the NEA has had stable funding for a number of years, now at $146 million for fiscal 2014. The high point in the last 10 years was $167.5 million in fiscal 2010.
After being nominated by President Barack Obama to head the NEA, the Senate easily confirmed Chu, with strong bipartisan support from Missouri Sens. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, and Roy Blunt, a Republican.
Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a former Kansas City mayor, conducted her ceremonial swearing-in in July in the Indian Treaty Room at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
It is a new time for the arts grant-making agency, which was without a permanent leader for 18 months after the resignation of her predecessor, Broadway producer Rocco Landesman.
“The arts are thriving. They are so robust,” Chu said.
But for her the challenge is to “leverage” – a favorite word – the funding she has to reach more Americans and have them touched by the arts.
NEA grants, whether for a museum, an arts festival or a poet, are not just handed out. Applicants must have a one-to-one match from private or government sources to qualify. The pleasant reality, said Chu, is that grants are usually getting one-to-seven matches and often one-to-10 matches from local sources.
“We think the grant is like a ripple effect,” she said. “The NEA really is the only agency that brings this level of resources, and the platform we have is about having every American participate in the arts.”
In a show of Washington savvy, she added, “There is a grant in every congressional district.”
The nation’s new arts chairman is determined to debunk the persistent impression that the NEA promotes cultural elitism. The charge, and an alleged bias toward New York City, has dogged the agency. The NEA has a variety of programs, including a rural initiative and “Our Town” grants that are arts projects connected to community development.
In August, Chu toured Pawtucket, R.I., where a $75,000 NEA grant will fund public art to decorate unsightly highway overpasses.
But there are still a lot of critics out there.
“The NEA continues to have to live down its bad press from the ’90s,” Bruce Cole, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, said in an interview. “The challenge is to make sure the grants are good and consequential.”
Some critics still maintain the federal government should not be in the arts business at all.
“Even Kickstarter raises more money for the arts than is available from NEA’s budget,” said Romina Boccia, a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution, referring to the crowd-funding site. “Federal funding for the arts is neither necessary nor within the proper scope of the federal government. . . . The NEA should be eliminated.”
Those calls for elimination have quieted down in recent years, and arts advocates are enthusiastic about Chu.
“She brings quite a well-rounded package of knowledge, both in visual art knowledge and training, as well as performing arts knowledge and training,” said Robert L. Lynch, president and CEO of Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit.
“A big part of the chair’s job is being inspirational,” he said. “To arts groups, she seems like a wonderfully enthusiastic person who is a true believer, and I think she’ll do a wonderful job.”