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Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts
Episode 31

Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts

CI to Eye with Jane Chu

This episode is hosted by Erik Gensler.

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Erik and Jane discuss the history and mission of the NEA and dig into how the independent federal agency distributes funds to arts organizations and artists. They also talk about how participating in the arts helped Jane through a challenging time in her life, and propelled her to her to eventually become the head of the NEA.

Erik Gensler: What is the mission of the National Endowment for the Arts?

Jane Chu: Well the mission of the National Endowment for the Arts has been about making sure that the arts can thrive in so many different ways all across the nation, so that’s the way we think in our activities. That’s the way we think in terms of the grants awarded. Is the nation able to help, and really engage with the arts in so many different ways.

Erik Gensler: How and why was the institution founded?

Jane Chu: We’ve seen the benefits of participating in the arts, and that is why it was founded 53 years ago, when I first got here, to the National Endowment for the Arts, I looked at the enacting legislation, and we wanted to make sure that we have followed, that specific legislation from the beginning, which is to help the nation thrive through the arts. There are many, many opportunities, milestones that we’re so pleased to see, and they range from making sure that there are arts activities, and that the NEA has been able to support across the nation, so all 50 states, all 435 congressional districts, There’s 19 thousand communities in the United States, and the National Endowment for the Arts supports 16 thousand of them.

Erik Gensler: Wow.

Jane Chu: We’ve seen a really good track record of new projects helping organizations get off the ground who are really doing good work. I think back to Prairie Home Companion, National Endowment for the Arts was able to see that at the very beginning. American Film Institute, we sponsored a deaf initiative to make sure that people with low hearing, and people who were deaf would be able to participate in the arts, Deaf West Theater in California. The arts are for everyone. I think of everything from Steppenwolf theater to Sundance Film Festival, Live from Lincoln Center, literature translations in about 86 countries. early on in the early 70s the National Endowment for the Arts recognized that, dance was a really wonderful way to express, ourselves in the arts. Not everybody in the nation had the opportunity to participate in dance, see dance, so back then they sponsored a dance initiative. It took about four years, a touring initiative to take dance across the nation, and now I would be confident to say most everybody in the nation has seen dance, and understands, what it is in so many different forms. That started with the National Endowment for the Arts.

Erik Gensler: I’ve worked in the field for a long time. I’ve never worked directly in development, and I’m sure the development folks listening would know, but just in a nutshell, how does the distribution of any funding work?

Jane Chu: One of the forms that we, distribute is through our wonderful partners, our state arts agencies, and our regional arts organizations, so every state has a state arts agency, and we are able to every year give 40% of the grant making funds right off the top to, to the states, and we love that combination, because each state knows what, resonates with their state, and now that I’ve traveled to all 50 states I can easily say when you’ve seen one state, you’ve only seen one state.

Erik Gensler: (Laughs)

Jane Chu: When they are able to re-grant this money it is also very satisfying, because it really meets the needs of the arts across each state. That coupled with the direct grants that are award from the National Endowment for the Arts when any, nonprofit arts organization that can apply for an arts project.

Erik Gensler: So 40% is issued by the state, the other 60% organizations can apply directly to the NEA and be funded?

Jane Chu: That’s right. That’s right, so it’s not an either or situation. It’s a both and.

Erik Gensler: What should arts administrators know about the NEA? Our audience is pretty much arts, people working in nonprofit cultural institutions.

Jane Chu: Well one of the things I really like about our model at the National Endowment for the Arts for America, is that there isn’t a minister of culture in the United States, and there are in other countries, and if it works for that country great, but I like the way we’re in this together. We’re helping support and shape the arts in America together, so when you mention arts administrators, the, we have a three step process at the national endowment for the arts when it comes to awarding grants. The first folks who make recommendations on which applications should be funded is the first group is our arts experts across, from across America, because we have a panel of citizen experts who read the grants, and they make recommendations because they know, they’re out in the field, they know what works, and they know the dynamics, and they can say, “This is a really great project” or “That’s a really great project.” And they can make recommendations, and then the second step of three is that our national council also experts in the field then also make recommendations, and then the third step is the chair who signs off on this. So, that is a different process than someone sitting in some office sequestered by themselves pointing here or there, and saying “This should be funded, that shouldn’t.” We’re shaping the arts in America together.

Erik Gensler: I imagine public opinion can really move the needle, and I’m curious how you spread the gospel about the great work that the NEA is doing, do you have internal marketing, partnerships with grantees, social media, and I just imagine for many of your partnerships people who are the ultimate recipients of them, perhaps don’t know that the NEA was involved, so I’m just curious how you’re addressing that?

Jane Chu:We do have a wonderful communications team that makes sure that we are communicating, and we’re transparent, For example I’ve been to all 50 states, and that I’ve probably seen more than 400 site visits, I’ve gone to at least 300 communities in 50 states, and so all of this at the same time is because we’re a public agency. Getting out the message, and communicating with each other, in the arts there’s really for me nothing better than having a one to one conversation, or an in person conversation and deepening that relationship so people can see our body language, and, how we, how we express ourselves. There are all kinds of other cues that we get from each other to help us know each other more. So traveling across the nation has been absolutely worth it. I know where every vegan sandwich is in every airport.

Erik Gensler: (Laughs) So in preparing to speak with you I polled my colleagues who had some questions, and I want to, to ask two of them today. So the first asks, the NEA at a glance is siloed by artistic genre, there are separate departments devoted to, each one, and I’m curious to hear how you’re staying connected to each other. Sharing information, or collaborating when it comes to artistic mediums that aren’t so clear cut.

Jane Chu: We have really celebrated the fact, and we spent these last few years looking across the nation to say, “Do we see any trends and patterns in the arts?” And one of the things that we saw, can speak to the question about our different arts categories. We have about 20 different arts disciplines, and what we’ve been seeing is that there was a watershed moment of the internet that really changed how many artists work. What is happening in the nation is a giant mashup, so there’s certainly opera over here, and there’s certainly dance over there, and certainly museums here, and folk art, and we’ve got those categories, but we also have seen that they’re all meshing together, so sometimes we’ll go into a museum, and we’ll see a visual arts exhibition that is so mashed up and fused with a performance aspect of it that if you took them, and teased them apart you’d lose the whole exhibition, and so, even though we see we wanna honor the arts projects that are specifically focused in a specific category, and we’re also honoring the connections between the arts projects, so it is getting to be a mashup, another both and, it’s not this category versus that category rather they contain fused projects together.

Erik Gensler: A lot of our museum clients are now doing dance performance, and a lot of our performing art centers have, you know, art exhibitions in their lobbies, or outside in their gardens, and it’s, it’s really fun to see that.

Jane Chu: That’s right, it also bodes well for creating a network of partnerships where we’re all in this together.

Erik Gensler: The second question that one of my colleagues wanted me to ask was, do we actually have a crisis in funding arts education in schools, or is the situation better than we think it is?

Jane Chu: We were very concerned when arts was being cut out of specific schools, because we see value, especially in schools, especially with kids. We see value in them participating in the arts, because it opens up their mind to creativity, and it promotes them from understanding that they can solve these old and tired problems in new ways instead of feeling like anyone is stuck, because it hasn’t been done that way before. So teaching the arts, is a wonderful way to encourage creativity, so we don’t want that to go away, so we have done some practical things regarding that, and one is to make sure that, with our new collective impact grants. Where we are instead of just only supporting one arts project in one school, which we still do, or arts training for educators, which we still do, we also have a collective impact grant where arts programs in the community, and they’re doing wonderful work, connect with specific schools so that all students can benefit as well as the community itself.

Erik Gensler: Many people who work in the arts were, were touched by seeing a performance, or, or experiencing something at a young age, so I’d love to hear about your, early childhood, and, and how the arts had an impact on you.

Jane Chu: Well my early childhood really represents, an example of how I certainly wasn’t born and grew up saying, “I wanna be an artist.” It was, I was taking piano lessons when I was eight, but my parents came from China, I was born in Oklahoma, I grew up in Arkansas, wildly different perspectives coming together, that I was navigating, and, after my father died when I was nine. It was, it was really only the piano lessons that I was taking that soothed me, and allowed me to find a vocabulary beyond just the use of linear everyday conversations, I wasn’t able to as a kid, totally express my grief over the loss of a parent, maybe most nine year old cannot do that, but I really could not, because my parents spoke Chinese, and they wanted me to speak English at school, so music, soothed me, and allowed me to feel like I belonged, and I was so passionately interested in that form of expression, because I knew I could do it, and participate, so I sought out as many arts, projects, and opportunities I could. From going to music camp every year until I graduated to singing, and playing in ensembles and a band, and all kind-, and I drew almost everyday, and I took lessons in visual arts, and then majored in, the arts in college. So my example is one of many that are you come to the arts, and you realize, that you have something there that transcends just one way to be, that you, that your world instead of saying, “I’m gonna draw a fence around these capabilities, because I need to develop this.” Your world in the arts, expands with you. If you can imagine, then you can expand, and you can grow, and you can help other people think about different ways to solve old problems in new ways. So I, that’s how I came to be.

Erik Gensler: You have a graduate degree in music, and piano studies, and then a second graduate degree in business, you have an MBA, a PhD in philanthropic studies, I’d love to talk about that path. Did you have a destination in mind?

Jane Chu: I didn’t, and, many people who know what their trajectory is from the beginning to the end, I envy them, because it’s really great that they can stay on that path, and, but I unfortunately, or fortunately maybe, I followed my heart, and so each time I would go after, something that I really wanted to do, it was just because I thought it would be fun, and interesting, and every single time it opened up the door to the next piece, so for example I’ve been trained in the arts, and, loved it, but then realized that similar to my upbringing indifferent perspectives, and different cultures at the same time, I wanted to understand the culture, and the language of the business world. It’s so funny, because most people, follow a career trajectory, and then they say, “I think I’d like to create now.” And that’s wonderful, but I did the complete opposite. I’ve been thinking out of the box my entire life, and why don’t I learn about business culture, and understanding everything about operating, a business by enrolling and getting an MBA, and that’s the reason I did it. Did I know that it would’ve opened up something else? I wasn’t thinking that way, but good for those who do think that way.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, you must be incredibly right brained and left brained at the same time.

Jane Chu:Now I am, I was used to, I used to only be incredibly right brained.

Erik Gensler: So like almost everyone listening you are an arts administrator, before this role you served as the president and CEO of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City. What did you take away from your role leading the Kauffman Center that has been most helpful to you in your current role as the chair of the NEA?

Jane Chu: Probably the level of communication, when I was at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts it was very helpful to have an arts background, because I could speak the language of artists, or at least I understood why this center was being built and created, and at the same time, on a daily basis I might be talking with an oboe player as well as a dry-waller, and so, understanding when to switch hats, and, communicate in a way that I believe they could hear, requires actually the same training as when I was being trained in the arts, I don’t play Beethoven the same way I play Debussy, and I understand the composer’s styles, and so similarly I learned through the Kauffman Center ways to communicate why we needed so much drywall, because I knew that the acoustic purity, could be conveyed even more for the musicians, or for the artists and the dancers depending on what the setting was, so I think that that was one of the key things is communication in so many different ways, and knowing who you’re speaking with.

Erik Gensler: Under your leadership the NEA ranked first among small agencies and best places to work in the federal government for 2016. I think that’s amazing. My company, we won Crain’s best places to work in New York for two years in a row.

Jane Chu: Congratulations.

Erik Gensler: I think organizational cultures are so important, and I’m curious in your mind what are the keys to making a great workplace?

Jane Chu: Well I loved what you just said in terms of the organizational culture, because often that is downplayed, and they substitute, we’ve got the following things, checked off our list, but how you do something is just as important as what you do, and so, that is what’s so great about the arts in general is it allows you to appreciate the process of creativity, but the process of creating, whether you’re creating, an organizational culture, or whether you’re creating a masterpiece that’s related to art itself, so a product, so, in terms of what I’m learning, and I emphasize learning, because an organization is very dynamic if it has any people in it. We want to honor that, so there isn’t a formula that is, related to what is a good organization versus what is a bad organization, but at the heart of it I think it’s about listening, and paying attention to those, not only what you say, and how you say it, but who you’re listening to, and imagine. You can run an organization, and you can say, “I’m the boss, and so it’s gonna be this way.” Or you can have an organization, and try to create a culture where somebody wants to be there, and wants to work, and that’s a harder thing, because it takes a longer process, it takes getting to know each other, takes a lot of practice, and so I wouldn’t pretend to say that we have figured it out, but I would say that’s, that’s the goal, is does everybody feel heard? One time when I first came to the National Endowment for the Arts, we were looking at all of the functions, and what everybody was doing, and I met with every single person in the agency, and it really became clear of such wonderful folks here at the National Endowment for the Arts, so caring, and it became really clear that they loved their team they were working on as well, and we noticed that really if every team is functioning optimally, they’re actually sometimes butting heads with each other, cause they all, if in a really healthy organization you want, you will have staffs who are almost doing opposite jobs to make sure that the organization is functioning well, and that’s a, that’s a celebrated creative tension that you can really honor, and figure out how to handle. It’s not one versus the other, so those are the things, you can do that if you have everybody working, because they wanna be there, but it requires us to listen.

Erik Gensler: I love that. I love the accepting that there’s gonna tension, cause it’s working towards betterment of the organization, and some healthy tension, as long as people are listened to, and it’s in the spirit of moving the mission forward it’s, it’s a good thing.

Jane Chu: It’s by no means, easy, but it’s something we can certainly celebrate, and, be a lifelong learner.

Erik Gensler: Do you think speaking about workplace culture that arts organizations are doing enough to value people, and create great work environments where we’re nurturing future generations of leaders?

Jane Chu: I have seen many arts organizations do just that. So, we all can be lifelong learners in that as long as there are people, the organization will be very dynamic, and it will, change, because if we’re really healthy, so I would say there are many, and there are many tangible, activities that are going on that speak just to the question about are we encouraging, our staff, and are encouraging the leaders. I think of things like, the museum initiative that AMD is doing to, create mentorships. Especially in the area of diversity, and, staff members who can engage in being a leader who haven’t previously had an opportunity, the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture is doing a mentorship initiative that really is doing that same type of empowering and many arts organizations in and of themselves are taking upon themselves to say, “How do we train the next leaders? Uh, how do we make sure our organizational cultures are, one that can honor everyone doing their jobs here, and that it’s not just about one versus another?” So, I see that across, and we can all grow too.

Erik Gensler: As chairman you have a really powerful platform, and I was wondering if there are conversations that you would like to start, or prompt, or encourage in the field?

Jane Chu:Similar to my own situation which was a bok choy corn dog setup. Being born in Oklahoma and Arkansas, growing up in Arkansas, and then also with my parents from China. We can celebrate our different ways of being without force fitting everybody to be exactly alike, because you can’t. The arts are one of the best ways to be a leader in that. So that’s the conversation I’d love to make sure people understand. The arts really are for everyone if you looked at a food system, and you looked at all the different ways people participate in eating food. There’s everything from five star restaurants, Michelin restaurants, and diners, and food trucks, and home cooked meals, and everything in between. I see the arts as a similar type of setup, because there is something for everyone, but we don’t eat every single, meal in a five star restaurant. we tire if we just participate in one way of eating, and so you can do the same in the arts. You can be engaged in something very deeply and love it, and then you start saying, “Oh I didn’t realize especially now, because there’s such a wonderful mashup going on, I didn’t realize that, this performance aspect was tied also to healthcare. Or I didn’t realize that the visual arts exhibition over there needed this, dance aspect, or the creative writing aspect, that’s connected to our military, service members who have brain recovery conditions.”

Erik Gensler: I love that food analogy. So going to the Kennedy Center is like the Michelin star restaurant, but if you go to a free event at a park by your house, that may be like the food truck. (Laughs)

Jane Chu: It all counts.

Erik Gensler: What are you best at, and what is one thing you’re working on improving as a leader?

Jane Chu: Leave it to anybody else to say what I’m best at, but I can talk about where I get the most energy. I get the most energy when I am able to bring together people in so many different ways. It may just be a simple conversation, or it may be a group of people, and coming together around an idea. That energizes me as well. I get the most energy when I feel like I am creating something, and it may be my own creations, or it may be honoring and empowering someone else. So that would be the piece that is the most energizing to me personally. In terms of, did you ask what am I bad at? (Laughs)

Erik Gensler: (Laughs) we could spin it as-

Jane Chu: I could probably-

Erik Gensler: …what is something you’re working on to improve?

Jane Chu: I’m always working on all of it, but early on when my father was alive he really, helped me understand when I was even three years old that, how you do something is just as important as what you do, but somehow he was able to turn around when I was a kid even what was work. Even school assignments into thinking that that was fun, and so somewhere over the years I have believed that, work can be as fun as play, and it’s hard for me to see them as separate, isn’t that sick? (Laughs)

Erik Gensler: (Laughs)

Jane Chu:But I do believe that. I do believe that being in the situations . Sometimes people see that there’s a balance between, but I sort of see it as, altogether of how I can be, and so maybe I should work on having a balance, but I’m having too much fun.

Erik Gensler: I think it’s the concept of flow. That idea of being in that, that place where it’s all coming together, and you’re energized, and I think that probably also relates to perhaps you won the best places to work if you can create a work environment that doesn’t feel like work, but it’s actually, you know, fun. (Laughs)

Jane Chu:They do, people do better work when they feel like they belong, and people do better work, when they feel like there is a flow to it, and I’m glad you referenced that book. I’ve read, the book Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and, that’s exactly how he speaks of it as well, so.

Erik Gensler: So this is your CI to Eye moment, and the question is if you could broadcast to the executive directors, leadership teams, staff and boards of a thousand arts organizations, what advice would you provide to help them improve their businesses?

Jane Chu: Well first of all I would thank everybody for the great work they’re doing. I don’t think I’ve ever run into anyone who is, isn’t totally dedicated and committed to wanting to be their best, wanting to do the best job that they can do, and contribute to the organizations, with which they work, but I would also say something that, again, I say to myself which is don’t lose sight of your vision. So when you get caught up daily into the things you must attend to, or when you meet something that you really don’t care for, there’s an opportunity to turn it around and say, “Well I don’t care for that, so what is my vision?” And you know, that, helped me make sure it was more clarified that I could go toward the vision I have. Don’t lose sight of what you want to be someday, and that vision is really important. That’s what I would say to boards, and staff, and myself as well.

Erik Gensler: Absolutely, well thank you so much. This has been a, a real pleasure.

Jane Chu:Thank you for giving me the opportunity.

About Our Guests
Jane Chu
Jane Chu
Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts

Jane Chu is the eleventh Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). She has a background in arts administration, philanthropy, and is an accomplished artist and musician. During her tenure to date, Jane has awarded more than $400 million in grants to nonprofit organizations and artists, issued new research reports on arts participation and the impact of the arts and cultural industries on the nation’s GDP, and has visited all 50 states. Before coming to the NEA, she served as the president and CEO of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Missouri.

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