The new NEA head: Let’s hope she’s not a team player

Initial reactions to President Obama’s nomination of Jane Chu as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts are positive. Chu not only has a background in the arts, she has a reputation for managerial excellence and vision.


Dr. Jane Chu (Courtesy Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts)

But the President has put her in a box. Obama allowed 13  months to pass between the departure of former NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman and his appointment of Chu yesterday. That not only leaves her with little time to make a mark on the agency, it is distressing evidence that the president and his administration are not particularly interested in the wellbeing of the NEA or the role of the arts within American culture. From the very beginning of Obama’s administration, when the then director of communications at the NEA, Yosi Sergant, used a conference call to encourage artists to back Obama’s domestic policy agenda, it was clear the administration took a purely instrumental, and trivial, view of the arts. Sergant resigned his position after that gaffe, but the incident was clearly a symptom of something deeper in the Obama administration’s approach to arts and culture.

The long leadership gap at the top of the NEA is one of the perplexing mysteries of this administration: Why has it neglected one of the fundamental tools it has for shaping attitudes to American culture? Why did President George W. Bush manage to use the NEA so effectively while Obama has manifested only indifference?  Is this the sad reality of the technocratic mindset, that culture is secondary or tertiary, and not worth the bother?

And yet, Chu’s greatest challenge also presents an opportunity. While it may not be possible, given the time constraints and fiscal realities, to make transformational change at the agency, she will have more freedom to speak out about how shamefully it has been treated, and all the things that it might accomplish if it were adequately funded.

At this point, it makes more sense to treat the job as a bully pulpit, something more like the role of the Surgeon General, than the usual stewardship role, with its delicate portfolio of responsibilities, which include playing nice with Congress and never offending the administration. She may not be able to do much with the time she has, but she can certainly say the things that need saying.

Most people who hold the job for which Chu has been nominated spend a huge amount of time working with Congress, tending to the budget, struggling to keep the radicals from defunding it entirely. That burden will fall on Chu, too. But she should also feel free to speak truth to power, and the power that needs to hear that truth is the President himself.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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