Photo by Strauss Peyton Studios
NEA Chairman Jane Chu talks about her ideas for the agency and the place of the arts in her own life.
Jo Reed: Meet the new Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Jane Chu. Welcome to Art Works, the weekly podcast produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed. This week, Jane Chu was sworn in as the 11th chair of the National Endowment for the Arts. A tireless, passionate, and astute advocate for the arts, it's hard to imagine someone better-suited to the job. Jane is a pianist with undergraduate and graduate degrees in music and piano. She has a masters in Business administration and PhD in philanthropic studies. She has vast experience in arts administration, most recently serving as the president and CEO of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Missouri. There she led a $413-million campaign to build the center which opened to great acclaim in 2011. Despite an amazingly hectic first day, she was gracious enough to sit down with me and open up about her ideas for the agency and the place of art in her own life. Here's our conversation.
Jo Reed: Welcome Jane Chu to the National Endowment for the Arts, we are thrilled to have you.
Jane Chu: And I'm thrilled to be here, thank you.
Jo Reed: Jane, your story is the quintessential American story. Tell me about your parents?
Jane Chu: My parents, both from China, didn't meet each other until they arrived here in the United States. My father came over a year before the communists became the communist government in China so that was about 1948. He came to the United States to get his doctorate and while the change of regime happen in China, he knew he could not go back. So he stayed to get his doctorate and ultimately became a college professor in the United States. My mother was a teenager and she had just graduated from high school and they were going under the change of the government to communists and her parents decided that she was just at the age among five siblings where she could do anything with her life. So they made a decision that they would help her leave China. So under that idea, they walked her to the train station one day with no travel permission and she could not carry suitcases because it would've been too conspicuous since she didn't have that permission. But they knew that there was a train that would take eight days to get her out of her hometown which is Qingdao and go over to Hong Kong where there was a different government and her uncle and aunt lived in Hong Kong along with her cousins. And nobody knew she was coming. And they had this understanding with her parents that they would not contact each other because there was so many restrictions at the time and there was violence going on and if the communists had found a communications trail between her and her parents, they might have harmed the family that she left behind. So instead, they made a pact that they would not communicate with each other, at least for a while and they didn't know if they would ever see each other again, which they never did.
So she got on the train with no suitcases but she wore eight pairs of underwear, one over the other, and she put her money in her underwear and began the eight day journey to Hong Kong. So the procedure was that at every stop between all the villages between Qingdao and Hong Kong, the guards would get on the train and inspect the travel permission of everyone and those with no travel permission, of course were taken off the train and jailed and punished. So with no travel permission, she awaited in fear and at every stop, the guards would inspect the travel permission of the person in front of her and skip her and then go on and inspect the permission of all those behind her. So they skipped her 141 times. By the time she got to Hong Kong, she was able to get in, even though she didn't have a British passport. The guards waved her on in for some reason, though they would definitely shoot over the heads of other people trying to get in. But she got in and walked in and she knew she had only a little bit of money left, so she got on a train that she thought was an inner city train, thinking that if she got on this train, she'd find her uncle who didn't know she was coming. And as soon as those train doors shut and the train began to move, she realized she hadn't been on the right train and it was going to Kowloon, the island outside of Hong Kong instead. So, she had no more money and then she really was in the wrong place. So she got out of that train and walked around the neighborhood in Kowloon. She went up to a door and just knocked on it, happened to be someone who used to live in her hometown, in Qingdao. And in she walked and there was her uncle who had just decided to make a visit to Kowloon and so she was able to unite with her uncle and aunt. So the story of this is just magnificent because if you think about our ages when we were teenagers and to go at this alone, is bravery beyond what many of us experience.
Jo Reed: And they also obviously lived through the Second World War in China which was, China was devastated by that war. Those questions about you left one life behind that you know you so loved before and you created something almost out of nothing, there's something about the ability to problem solve and establish yourself wherever you are. I mean frankly, it's very similar to one of the great compelling features of participating in the arts because sometimes you build something out of nothing and sometimes you do have to think out of the box. When you thought you were going to go one way and everybody changed the rules. So that has held good stead for my mother and my father and me and I've learned from them.
Jo Reed: You were in Oklahoma?
Jane Chu: Born in Oklahoma.
Jo Reed: And then raised in Arkansas?
Jane Chu: Yes, grew up in Arkansas.
Jo Reed: And I'm from New York. There are many, many Chinese Americans in New York. I don't think about Oklahoma and Arkansas having a large Chinese American community.
Jane Chu: In the '60s and the '70s when I was growing up, there were very few Chinese. I can't think of anybody else except my mother and father and me. But the community, especially because my father was a professor in a college, the faculty and the students embraced our family, so we really did have a good support system, though it was not Chinese.
Jo Reed: Did you feel hyphenated when you were growing up?
Jane Chu: Absolutely. Learning to live in a multi-cultural setting where my parents who spoke Mandarin at home but for me, they wanted me to assimilate and they pushed very hard for me to assimilate, so much so, that they wanted me to speak English. I didn't participate growing up in speaking Mandarin back to my parents. They would speak to me in either English or Mandarin and I would respond in English. So, they wanted me to fit in well with my friends and at school because they wanted me to be a successful citizen. And knowing the ways of school life, that's why they pushed me to assimilate. That was a big deal to them at the time.
Jo Reed: Music came into your life?
Jane Chu: It did.
Jo Reed: Was that an international language in some ways?
Jane Chu: That's a very good way to articulate why music was so meaningful to me. It began because I started playing the piano at age eight but my parents weren't really that involved in the arts. It's not a situation where you have a family who all grew up in the arts and they did such a great job helping their kids know the value and the importance of art, it wasn't so much about that. It's just that I was taking piano lessons but then my father who became ill and died of cancer, died when I was nine. So when you are that age and you lose a parent, it's hard for many children to articulate the grief and the loss they experience. They don't have enough words yet and I certainly did not have enough words to articulate my grief of my father's death. But for some reason, music was very soothing to me and it transcended the need to put a linear set of words together. It allowed me to feel soothing. I could live in the moment and so I became very interested in music actually for that reason. It just spoke to me in a holistic way and I knew the value of it. Now as I got older, I became much more interested in the art of creating the music. I'd listen to other musicians and how they created. It didn't have to be a certain type of music, it was just that there was just something about creating something or listening to how they structured music and composed or the instruments they used or sang that helped me get training through music.
Jo Reed: Now you also have an Associate's Degree in visual art, tell me about that side of the equation?
Jane Chu: I just love art and I've always loved drawing. So after I finished graduate school in music, I wanted to keep and learn more about the fundamentals of creating visual art. So I went back and got an Associate Degree to learn those fundamentals and now it's been so great because I can look at other people's paintings and other drawings and I get it. I know what they had to go through in terms of creating the basics, how they put together their own compositions and structures and I just marvel at what people do.
Jo Reed: I read your children's book, Discovering Joy, which you wrote in 2002 I believe and I was surprised to discover that you not only wrote it but you illustrated it.
Jane Chu: It really was just a 32-page children's book that's just semi-autobiographical of how I viewed straddling those multiple cultures. The Chinese culture and the American culture and trying to make sense of it and going through and by the end of 32 pages, you realize you can appreciate who you are and that's what I did.
Jo Reed: You have a graduate degree in music and piano studies but then you have a second graduate degree in business, you have an MBA, from whence did this come?
Jane Chu: It really was the opposite of what a lot of people do because I had been so trained in music and the arts and I wanted to train that linear side that I hadn't participated in and I knew that the business of the arts and having that business acumen would be helpful and it has indeed. That along with philanthropy and combining it all have been critical skills for me to understand in my jobs.
Jo Reed: What was it about arts management that drew you?
Jane Chu: I understood already what it was like to be an artist, to produce, to create, to perform but what drew me to it was that when you look in the business of it you start seeing an infrastructure and realization that you can create an environment for the arts to bloom and thrive. And having that business infrastructure and the business acumen of how to make the arts work so that the arts can really shine, I learned a lot in business school about how to do that and that's typically how I think. How can we create an environment for the arts to bloom and to thrive? How can we create an environment that helps people understand that the arts are relevant and they belong to us all? That's what I learned in business school, thinking about that structure, those processes.
Jo Reed: And also a PhD in philanthropic studies, I'm assuming that augmented?
Jane Chu: Well it did because then I had that opportunity to bring together the three sectors that we think about in the United States, especially with the business sector, the private giving, charitable contributions and public funding at the same time and understood how they played together. So it's been a good thing to understand for me.
Jo Reed: And you certainly had to put all those skills to use in many of your previous jobs, not the least of which was the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City?
Jane Chu: That's right.
Jo Reed: You birthed that center in many, many ways.
Jane Chu: We said it was like giving birth to a child on reality television. Putting together a 400 million dollar performing arts center and it wasn't me alone, it was a huge team from our board of directors to construction workers. and what was so satisfying about it really was that the essence of what we've been talking about already and that is standing in the middle of sometimes what is ambiguity but standing in the middle of a number of different people and perspectives that are sometimes seemingly opposite and who all can walk in there and be so comfortable and say, "We're all working for the same project." And that's what the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City gave me the opportunity to learn about. So satisfying in terms of that and now we're doing it again in other settings with the arts nationally.
Jo Reed: When the Kauffman Center finally opened, can you describe what that was like for you, what was that day like?
Jane Chu: It was so much fun and we had a grand opening weekend, so we had several performances with artists from, everybody from Placido Domingo and Itzhak Perlman, Diana Krall, Bobby Watson, Tommy Tune, Patti Lupone, you name it. We had a whole slew of performers and a very satisfying third day where we had an open house for the public free, come over and see the building. We had ongoing performers for five and six hours and we planned that day for about 10,000 people to show up. We planned logistically, do we have the right people, do we have the right ushers and things like that. Then we thought, well maybe we should get ready for 20,000 just in case and 55,000 people showed up in the rain to see our free open house and come in. It was so satisfying because we wanted this performing arts center to be something accessible to the public, make them feel like they belonged and that was really the right way to start.
Jo Reed: Clive Gillinson who is the head of Carnegie Hall, he said in an interview, "A lot of great institutions get stuck because they're stuck on thinking what's best for the institution. I remember," this is he talking, "when I started, people would say what's best for Carnegie Hall and I would say, "That's not the question. The question we should ask, the only question is what's best for the impact we can have on people's lives through music." And it seems like that's a question you're interested in asking.
Jane Chu: That's a very well articulated way of looking at it and that's what we wanted to think about too and what we can think about, about the arts in general. Cultural institutions specifically, especially ones that have just opened, fall into a challenge if they think, "if they build it, they will come". This is really about making yourself relevant, providing some type of an excellence for everyone. And so if we can along the way make ourselves relevant to what the community needs, if as we open the community, we have a job to do to say, "Now this is yours so what kind of things do you need, what kind of things do you want," as well as some of the offerings that we can do. If we can provide a menu of options there, then we've made ourselves relevant to the community and that is I think aligned with what Clive said.
Jo Reed: Yeah, the Kauffman Center really has been seen as pivotal to the revitalization of downtown Kansas City. Was that something that you had in mind going into this project?
Jane Chu: I think the vision of Muriel McBrien Kauffman, who it was her dream to have a performing arts center for Kansas City, so she really gets the credit years ago when she said, "Let's build a performing arts center because I've seen what they can do in other settings" and I believe that this was part of her dream. So her daughter, the chairman of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Julia Irene Kauffman, set forth to carry her mother's vision and make it reality. So what happened was, sort of what I like to call the front porch effect. When you have an organization and we weren't the only ones, there were several, who set forth and went into the downtown and said, "We want to build something here," you have this front porch effect because you know how you'll sweep your front porch and somebody else will say, "Hey, she's sweeping her front porch, I ought to sweep mine too." And so pretty soon everybody around you is sprucing everything up. So the Kauffman Center did play a role in vitalizing and revitalizing the area and so did a number of other and I think it was the confluence of all of these organizations together, all sweeping their front porches that made this happen.
Jo Reed: Jane, you are known for many things, including being a skilled fundraiser. What was your approach to fundraising?
Jane Chu: When you look at fundraising and you think about, I'm making a pitch for money, that's one way to look at it. But when you really look at it and you say, "Fundraising really is about connecting people to the things they care about." Then you're starting to listen and you're starting to listen to what do they really care about and I have some entry points for you and let me give you a menu of options because I want you to win and feeling like there's meaning to your giving as much as I am asking you for money as well. And when you put that framework around it, you're connecting with people and it's a lot more meaningful and frankly easier.
Jo Reed: Why is federal funding for the arts particularly important?
Jane Chu: It's very important because there needs to be a place that provides a framework, an environment for the arts that allows the arts to bloom and thrive and is really seen as that pure noncommercial money that creates that framework that doesn't have any agendas or anything like that. And the federal funding can do that.
Jo Reed: How do you see philanthropy and public funding working together to encourage vibrant art?
Jane Chu: Well I think they work together very well and even research has shown this. One of the things that public funding can do, is it can spark private giving. It can spur people on to say, "Well, we have this framework here, I can help give my private dollars, my charitable contributions to that." So that's a wonderful public, private partnership. You've got two different sectors coming together, that's very satisfying.
Jo Reed: You've just been sworn in as Chairman for the National Endowment for the Arts. What are your priorities for the agency?
Jane Chu: I think that our job, to make sure that our actions and the grants really are reaching Americans, that they're accessible and that we've attended to making sure that the Americans can say, "Yeah, the arts do belong to me and I can see how doing without the arts would be a tragedy", that would be our main priority is that in all we do through our grants and through the way we convene, the way the NEA brings people together, that we are building communities.
Jo Reed: As chairman, you have a wonderful platform. Are there conversations that you would like to start or prompt?
Jane Chu: The first conversations I want to have really are about being a convener on how we can all work together that we don't play zero-sum game and the arts are not off standing off in some kind of a silo by themselves because they are so applicable to our everyday lives. I want to make sure that everybody who's coming to the table, we're having good discussions, we're having the hard ones too as well as the fun ones. We've got to bring people together and make sure that people understand that the arts are not off by themselves, that they are relevant and we cross sectors and cross conversations. We have multiple people and different perspectives who come to the same table.
Jo Reed: Yeah, I find that sometimes because the arts are so pervasive, it's the design of a cop's uniform, it's the busker in the subway, it's the music on our iPods and because it's pervasive, it can also be invisible.
Jane Chu: Well that's a good point to make and it behooves us to make sure that we can make the arts recognized in a way that people understand, that in some ways it's going to be hard evidence from everything from the economic benefits of the arts to the meaning behind it. So we want to provide as many different perspectives about how the arts comes together, but it behooves us to make ourselves much more conscious of where the arts are around us and how they affect us. And we have a great opportunity to explain this and show it and have people experience it.
Jo Reed: How do you think we can go about nurturing a nation of arts lovers?
Jane Chu: Well one way certainly is to make sure that people understand the relevancy of the arts, even in non-art settings. So they can see the value of this, that not everybody has to participate in the arts by being a painter, for example. Painting is a wonderful thing but appreciating it and how it transcends and teaches you skills in other areas is just as important because we're all about nurturing creativity here.
That was the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Jane Chu. You'll be hearing a lot more from her and her vision for the arts in the days and weeks ahead. You’ve been listening to Art Works produced by National Endowment for the Arts. The Art Works podcast is posted each Thursday at Arts.gov. You can subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U; just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page. Next week, 2013 national heritage Fellow Seamus Connolly. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAarts on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.