Jane Chu, the current chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, is stepping down next week at the end of her first term. She was appointed in 2014 by President Barack Obama after his first Endowment chair, Rocco Landesman, abruptly resigned at the end of 2012, eight months before his term expired. But then for well over a year, Obama declined to name a successor, leaving the agency to function under an interim head and disappointing those who’d expected the President to pay closer attention to programs like the Endowment.
Now, however, one is tempted to say that the wait was worth it, because Chu proved to be a very good leader for an agency that often feels it has a target on its back. She came to the Endowment from being President and CEO of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, then one of the newest such facilities in the country, and home to the city’s symphony, ballet company, and opera company. Her personal background is even more deeply rooted in the arts, particularly music. She has undergraduate degrees in music education and piano performance, along with graduate degrees in piano pedagogy. (She also has an MBA and a doctorate in philanthropic management.)
I thought that her experience running the Kauffman Center, and, even more, her deep interest in music in would serve her well, and it did. In listening to her talk about the NEA one always had the sense that this was an agency whose mission she took personally. Some previous Endowment heads had been in the art world before—Landesman and earlier, Roger Stevens had been successful Broadway producers, Dana Gioia a celebrated poet, Jane Alexander an actress, and Bill Ivey the director of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum—but such experience was no guarantee of smooth sailing. Jane Alexander had trouble moving the Endowment forward after the culture wars of the early 1990s in which it had been embroiled, and Landesman’s status as an insider in the theater world was more than offset by his tenure being strewn with controversy ranging from his disparaging remarks toward small and mid-level arts organizations to his determination to slash Endowment programs that enjoyed deep support in Congress.
In the four years she’s been at the helm, Chu has made no such missteps as she’s travelled all over the country to see NEA dollars in action and appeared before Congress as the face of the Endowment. I recently learned that not only is she an accomplished pianist, she’s also a very good visual artist and after every community visit, she made sketches of people and places that in her eye made them memorable.
The past two years have been particularly difficult as President Trump has made no secret of his desire to do away with the agency. His antagonism probably played into the decision by William Adams, former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, to announce his retirement a year ago just as the President released his budget zeroing out both endowments. I think some people suspected Chu would follow Adams out the door in protest—some even hoped that she would to make a point—but I was particularly relieved when she remained at the helm, providing a needed measure of stability to the embattled agency in a tough time. (In a rebuke to the president a short time later, Congress not only declined to cut the NEA’s budget, it boosted it.)
Chu also oversaw the creation of new programs designed to make the arts more accessible to more people throughout the country. Others, like the new “NEA Musical Theater Songwriting Challenge for High School Students,” about which I wrote a couple of weeks ago, seek to nurture artistic creativity in young people. “We didn’t create these activities just to check something off of our list,” she explained just a few days ago. “We launched and expanded programs to create heartfelt meaning in the lives of others through the arts.”
“The National Endowment for the Arts is doing effective and meaningful work to help the arts thrive and connect to individuals and in communities large and small,” Chu said when she announced her plans to retire. Let’s hope that whomever the President nominates to take her place has a similarly serious view of the Endowment’s potential.