Obama picks low-profile arts center executive to chair the NEA


Opting for arts-administration and fundraising credentials over star power, the White House announced Wednesday that President Obama will nominate Jane Chu, president and chief executive of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Mo., as the next chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Chu has led the Kauffman Center since 2006, when it was still being planned. She oversaw a $414 million campaign to build the center, which opened in September, 2011.

Chu, who has spent most of her life in the Midwest and Texas, has had a much lower national profile than most nominees for the NEA chairmanship over the past 20 years. Obama’s first appointee, Rocco Landesman, headed Jujamcyn Theaters, a leading producer and landlord for Broadway shows, before Obama tapped him in 2009.


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Landesman turned 65 in 2012 and retired at the end of the year; the NEA’s senior deputy director, Joan Shikegawa has been acting NEA chairman since then.

“Jane’s lifelong passion for the arts and her background in philanthropy have made her a powerful advocate for artists and arts education in Kansas City,” Obama said in a written announcement. “She knows firsthand how art can open minds, transform lives and revitalize communities, and believes deeply in the importance of the arts to our national culture.”
Chu’s appointment is subject to Senate confirmation.

Robert Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts, a leading national advocacy group that pushes for better NEA funding, praised Chu as “a strong nominee” who brings “a valuable mix” of skills that are “important to our nation’s key public sector arts position.”

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Lynch praised the diversity of the Kauffman Center’s programming under Chu, and said “she understands the value of art at the community level.”

Under Obama, the NEA’s budget appropriation has fallen each year since 2010, when his Democratic party lost its majority in the House of Representatives, which controls the budget reins. Funding fell from a recent peak of $167.5 million in 2010, according to the NEA’s website, to $138.4 million in 2013 following the most recent round of cuts due to the government-wide “sequestration” policy that aimed to reduce the federal deficit.

Apart from a brief round of wider attention when the Kauffman Center opened, a search of Nexis, a publications data base, reflects scant press coverage of Chu outside of Missouri.

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A 2006 profile in the Kansas City Star, when she was named to head the Kaufmann Center, said that Chu, now in her 50s, was born in Shawnee, Oklahoma, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, and spent most of her childhood in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. Her father was an economics professor.

She has an academic background in music and visual art, and, according to the Star, she wrote and illustrated a 2002 children’s book about the challenges of growing up Asian-American, “Joy’s Discovery.”

Chu has worked mainly as an arts administrator and fundraiser, including serving as chief fundraiser for the Van Cliburn Foundation in Ft. Worth, Texas before coming to Kansas City, where she was an executive for two charitable organizations, the Kansas City Community Foundation and the Kauffman Fund, before being hired to lead the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

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She focused on piano studies as an undergraduate at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, after earning an associate’s degree in visual art at Nebraska Wesleyan University. She earned a master’s degree in music from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, a master’s degree in business administration from Rockhurst University in Kansas City, and a doctorate in philanthropic studies from Indiana University, where, according to the Star, she completed her degree after taking over at the Kauffman Center, focusing her studies on the funding and administration of arts centers around the United States.

Adjusting for inflation, the NEA’s funding remains far below where it stood early in the Clinton administration. Severe cuts were enacted after Republicans gained a House majority in 1994 and made “culture wars” a cornerstone of the GOP’s campaign to brand Democrats in general and the NEA in particular as out of step with mainstream American values.

Funding had partially recovered after 2000 under George W. Bush and Obama before falling again.

Poet Dana Gioia led the NEA during George W. Bush’s administration (he’s now a professor at USC) after Bush’s first appointee, Michael Hammond, an orchestra conductor and Rice University music school dean, died in 2002, a week after starting the job.

Bill Clinton’s NEA chairs were actress Jane Alexander and Bill Ivey, who previously had headed the Country Music Foundation, which oversees the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.


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