The daughter of Chinese immigrants, National Endowment for the Arts Chairwoman Jane Chu grew up in Arkansas with “bok choy and corn dogs,” she said, drawing laughter from the room of arts leaders at the Esther Simplot Performing Arts Academy on Tuesday in Boise.
This odd cultural juxtaposition hits at the core of her approach to her job as the nation’s arts leader.
“It’s about the word ‘and,’ ” she said. “ We shape the arts in America together: You and I, the states’ arts agencies and the NEA, together, and it is possible. We can do far more with partnerships than we can if we think of ourselves as separate entities.”
Chu spoke with arts leaders, toured the Simplot Academy, and visited The Cabin literary center and Artisans for Hope. On Wednesday she and Simpson will travel to the Twin Falls Center for the Arts in the morning and then meet with Boise State University’s Leslie Durham and Amanda Ashley in afternoon. The two will talk about their NEA- funded research pertaining to how universities work as cultural anchors in communities.
Many Treasure Valley arts leaders were in attendance, along with Boise Mayor Dave Bieter and Idaho Commission on the Arts director Michael Faison.
Having Chu in Idaho is a remarkable opportunity, said Terri Schorzman, head of the Boise Department of Arts and History.
“It’s a terrific way to connect us to the bigger narrative that’s happening in this country,” she said. “It’s great because we’re trying to put Boise on the arts map.”
A pianist and artist, Chu also is an arts administrator who led the $413 million building project of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Mo. The center is now one of the country’s most dynamic, bridging the distance between Kansas City’s more affluent and emerging neighborhoods.
Simpson, who also is a painter, is an strong advocate of the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities at a time when both organizations have seen their funding erode.
This past year, the NEA’s budget granted $146 million to state arts agencies, such as the ICA, and other arts organizations across the nation — including Idaho Shakespeare Festival and The Cabin.
“We’ve had to fight off amendments year after year to cut the NEA’s funding, but not this year,” Simpson said. “This was the first year we didn’t have to fight.”
Simpson took that as a sign that the tide against arts funding might be turning and floated the idea Tuesday of creating a five-year plan for Congress to double the funding for both endowments.
“When you look at more than a trillion dollars of discretionary budget we have, $154 million is a drop in the bucket, considering what the arts do,” he said. “I think we can make that happen.”
Chu has been called a perfect partner for the task and has been lauded as a keen communicator.
“I get a lot of energy from being in situations where I get to be with multiple perspectives,” she said. “Sometimes they’re opposite to each other, but it’s important to be able to honor all the different perspectives without forcing them into the same form.”
Chu is impressive, said ISF producing artistic director Charles Fee.
“She a great choice because she seems to have a very strong bipartisan sensibility, and she’s charming in that way,” he said. “She has the ability to bring the two halves of our Congress together, which is going to be critical if we’re going to ... double endowments.”