The shorthand for Jane Chu's personal story is "bok choy and corndogs." The daughter of Chinese immigrants who fled their nation's political unrest, Chu was born in Oklahoma and raised in Arkansas. "So I have navigated a bok choy/corndog set-up," she likes to say. Chu went on to become a pianist, earn a Ph.D. from Indiana University and ultimately be named the 11th chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts in 2014.
"And heeeeeere's Michael," said Chu, playing an introductory flourish on a nearby piano when Boise Weekly asked her to play a few bars on her favorite instrument. "Michael" is Michael Faison, executive director of the Idaho Commission on the Arts. Chu insisted Faison be at her side during her recent visit to Idaho, and Faison was quick to remind us the ICA and NEA are in perfect harmony.
What might you tell a stranger what you do for a living?
Chu: I run a federal agency that is all about sparking the vitality of the arts in the United States. We certainly know of the transformational power of the arts on individuals and communities.
Faison: When the NEA was born 50 years ago, it was a spark for local arts across the country. It began leveraging enormous local support that breathed life into state and city agencies and particularly local arts council that hadn't existed before. That all resulted because of that spark that Jane spoke of.
Chu: The NEA gives 40 percent of its budgets to the states.
I'm assuming Idaho's arts commissions and state agencies across the country can't exist without the NEA and vice versa.
Chu: Other nations have cultural ministers. We don't. What I like about that is that together, we shape the arts in America. No one is telling the other what you can or can't do when it comes to the arts. That's one of the reasons I love to travel so much.
How much time do you spend out of your D.C.office?
Chu: Probably 80 to 90 percent. I've been at the job for a year and, so far, I've been to 60 communities.
Faison: But in her first year, she chose to come to Idaho. That's huge for us.
In the half-century history of the NEA, many of us recall times when its very existence was threatened, particularly by budget cuts. In fact, the NEA still hasn't seen it previous funding restored.
Chu: But we're moving in the right direction, especially when people understand that the arts are thriving because the NEA works in tandem with the states. That said, there's a paradigm I want to change. I want people to understand that the arts are not just for some and not others. I want to get to the point where more people say, "I don't think I can live without the arts."
Does the nation's economy have to grow to find adequate federal dollars to restore NEA funding?
Chu: We need to show through hard evidence that the arts are important in our everyday lives.
Again, doesn't the NEA need more federal funding?
Chu: I'm not a fan of saying, "We can only do more if the economy grows."
Conversely, don't the arts continue to be a tangible economic engine for many American communities?
Chu: Absolutely. The most recent Bureau of Economic Analysis report shows that the arts and culture sector provides 4.3 percent of the nation's gross domestic product. That's more than transportation, more than construction and many other sectors.
Michael, we should take note that Chairman Chu's visit to Idaho included some time to visit Artisans for Hope here in Boise.
Faison: They do extraordinary work, supporting our community's newcomers to creatively express their stories and share their personal journeys to Idaho. Many of them have come from war-torn nations and have lost everything. But we greet them in Idaho with open arms and we're so anxious for them to share their extraordinary stories. Artisans for Hope helps them share those moments through things like story quilts and the Idaho Commission on the Arts and the NEA proudly support that effort. And the Artisans for Hope particularly resonated with Chairman Chu because of her own personal story and how her parents immigrated to America to make a new life for her to thrive in such a glorious way.
Chairman Chu, if you were queen for a day, what kind of sweeping change would you effect?
Chu: The Brookings Institution tells us that by 2020, the population of Americans 18 and younger will be a minority-majority [minorities will be the majority of that demographic]; by 2040, the population of 30 and under will be a minority-majority. That in itself reveals the multiple perspectives of our nation, and the arts spark us to honor all of those perspectives. If I were royalty, I would say let's honor that even more right now.