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PBS Arts Advisor and Former NEA Director Addresses Working in the Arts

“It’s a great time to be involved in the arts.”

Jane Chu, arts advisor for PBS and the former director of the National Endowment for the Arts, put concerned minds at ease during a talk about her work and the state of the arts in America on November 15 at the McCormick Foundation Center Forum.

“Sometimes, I’ll see reports that the arts are just tanking,” Chu said. “But they’re not; they’re thriving and expanding.”

Chu, who was a guest speaker of the Masters of Science in Leadership for Creative Enterprises (MSLCE) program, was interviewed by program director Jennifer Novak-Leonard. Chu provided details of her atypical cultural background; her parents, both born in China, met in Chicago. She herself was born in Oklahoma and raised in Arkansas, an experience that she described best as a “bok choy corndog.”

“I learned how to live in multiple cultures at one time,” she said.

When her father passed away when she was just 9, Chu said the arts helped her express her grief.

 “I’m not sure that all 9-year-olds have the vocabulary to express their grief over the death of a parent, but I really did not because of the multiple cultures I came from,” she said. “But the arts, there was something about music at the time and I loved to draw… something about it that was not only soothing, but it was also a way of expressing myself that transcended the use of everyday linear conversation.”

“It was far deeper and incorporated my heart,” she added. “I look at the arts as a way of communication, as a way of feeling that I belong.”

During her tenure as the director of the NEA, the government threatened to defund it more than once. She traveled to all 50 states, connecting with different elected officials from members of Congress to local officials, and helped them promote art in their own communities through myriad projects.

“We wanted to dispel the myth that arts are just for some people at the exclusion of others, when all of us can experience the arts in so many ways and we need to celebrate that,” she said. “Art is happening everywhere, and not just on the coasts.”

She added: “We saw two patterns. One of them was people yearning to express their identities. Art is a great way to honor our identities and feel we belong without force-fitting everyone into a specific category. People also were yearning to be able to dream and to imagine, and not get caught in conversation that says it can only be done this way and if I win, you lose. People wanted to dream themselves out of a box, and solve a problem.”

It also meant that Chu had to help keep morale up.

“We all learned to trust each other,” she said, and when threats of defunding came, she addressed it directly. “I’d tell them to keep your head down and do your work. Your job is to help promote and support art across America, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

Chu told students and faculty that to succeed in arts management that candidates don’t necessarily need a linear career path, but they do need to know their subject—and to have one key skill.

“You need to know how to operate something very well, but now they’re much more attracted to people who fundraise,” she said. “And I laugh because people say, ‘Oh, at the NEA you didn’t fundraise.’ Oh, yes, I did. I fundraised every day. I used exactly the same approach.”

But this is not about asking for hand-outs.

“Real fundraising is connecting people to the things they love and that they care about in your organization,” she said.

Brenna Cronin, an MSLCE student, said she found the talk enlightening.

“I was really struck by how important relationships are in fundraising, and how she talked about connecting people’s passions with projects,” she said. “It gave me a lot to think about.”

By Cara Lockwood