National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Jane Chu visits MIC

Music Institute of Chicago Academy students, NEA Chairman Jane Chu, Academy Director Jim Setapen, and MIC President and CEO Mark George

January 27, 2018


On Saturday, January 27, the Music Institute was pleased to host a special program featuring Jane Chu, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, in conversation with the Music Institute of Chicago’s Academy on the beautiful stage of Nichols Concert Hall in downtown Evanston.  


Photo by Steve PetersonJane Chu is the 11th chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. With a background in arts administration and philanthropy, she is also an accomplished artist and musician. She leads a dedicated and passionate group of people to support and fund the arts and creative activities in communities across the nation.
During her tenure to date, Chu has awarded more than $377 million in grants to nonprofit organizations and artists; issued new research reports on arts participation and the impact of the arts and cultural industries on the nation’s gross domestic product; visited all 50 states, including hundreds of communities across the nation to see firsthand how the arts are impacting people and places; and launched the United States of Arts project, which demonstrates the importance of the arts in our communities and our lives. In 2015, Chu launched her signature leadership initiative, Creativity Connects, to investigate the current state of the arts in our nation and explore how the arts connect with other industries. She also oversaw multiple-year increases to the NEA’s Congressional budget appropriation to expand its military healing arts initiative Creative Forces. In addition, under Chu’s leadership, the NEA ranked first among small agencies in Best Places to Work in the Federal Government for 2016.
The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Chu was born in Shawnee, Oklahoma, and raised in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. She studied music growing up, eventually receiving bachelor’s degrees in piano performance and music education, as well as master’s degrees in music and piano pedagogy, a PhD in philanthropic studies, an MBA, and three honorary degrees. Prior to coming to the NEA, Chu served as the president and CEO of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Missouri.


A Conversation with MIC President and CEO, Mark George

In advance of her visit, Music Institute President and CEO Mark George had the opportunity to speak with Chu about her influences and experiences as well as her thoughts about the powerful role the arts can play in today’s society.


You were born in Oklahoma and grew up in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, the daughter of Chinese immigrants. You are now the leader of the largest arts agency in the United States. How did your childhood influence your passion for the arts?

The beginning of my strong connection to the arts connects to a milepost in my life, the death of my father when I was nine years old. He was a college professor in Arkansas. I was taking piano lessons dutifully, but because my parents were from China and I grew up in Arkansas, it was those piano lessons and music and ultimately the arts that helped me find a way to express myself. Because I was born into two cultures at the same time, I didn’t follow a linear trajectory. My parents spoke Mandarin at home, they wanted me to speak English at school, and, in the midst of that ambiguity, I needed to find enough vocabulary to express my grief over losing my father. Most nine-year-olds don’t have enough vocabulary to do that and I certainly did not. But music did soothe me—and it didn’t matter what kind of music it was, my piano lessons allowed me to express myself. Over the years I sought out many opportunities to play and take lessons; I was in wind bands and choirs and grew as much as I could. Then I grew intellectually interested in it as well, which allowed me to select the arts, particularly music, to major in when I went to college.

You are an accomplished pianist, holding bachelor and master of music degrees. How did your background as a musician, including your time as a music student, prepare you for your career path in arts administration?

 I laugh because sometimes people think those are completely different realms, but I found that my preparation in music and the arts was perfect for my current position as an arts administrator, and the level of creativity I sought and continue to seek is also present in my daily job here. For example, when I look at all the different styles of performance I studied, I don’t approach them the same way: I don’t play Beethoven the same way I play Scriabin or Ginastera the same way as Ravel. Similarly this is how I approach people in terms of leadership and administration—you don’t approach everyone the same way, you pay attention to them and determine the optimal approach that makes them feel heard by you. This is the same as paying attention to the nuances of music you practice and learn; so much of the music we study depends on the nuances that make the piece everything the composer wanted it to be.

You have traveled around the country meeting artists, visiting arts education programs, and speaking to diverse audiences. On a broad level, how has that affected or informed your ideas about the arts?
I’ve traveled to 50 states and hundreds of communities, and I’ve seen the arts thrive in so many ways. But when you’ve seen one state, you’ve seen only one state; when you’ve seen one community, you’ve seen only one community—the differences in each place are what the arts are and how we need to celebrate them. So instead of force-fitting everyone to be exactly alike, it’s better to honor and celebrate the different characteristics in each community, the different ways people participate in the arts, and the choices people make about the arts. On the flip side, traveling across the nation and seeing different ways people engage in the arts, we see two things—first, the arts are thriving in new and different ways that are beyond the traditional. They are broadening and expanding as opposed to being exactly alike everywhere you go.

The other thing we’re seeing is there’s a pattern now that more musicians don’t focus on only one genre or style of music and exclude the others. The same musician can toggle between different styles and expand their reach in many different ways. We’ve seen this happening especially since the Internet has become more ubiquitous.

For example, the Baltimore Symphony is a well-known orchestra that now not only performs beautifully during its regular season but also went out in the streets and performed during the riots. They are expanding their presence in the community in a way that is truly needed, that allows people to be able to hear their music as well as see musicians playing a role in the community.
More musicians and artists are also involving themselves in different realms, like classical as well as folk and traditional. It’s all starting to fuse together—musicians, artists, and dancers are evolving themselves in multiple different ways. It sends out a message that we’re not limited to specific categories; the world is at our fingertips.

If you go down to the very essence of who we are, one of the key pieces is the need to create and expand and be that lifelong learner. We can stop forcing ourselves to be one way as opposed to reaching out in the world to solve problems in new ways. The arts are at the heart of that, and that’s certainly why I’m in the arts.

One of your key initiatives at the NEA was Creativity Connects, which investigated how the arts contribute to the nation’s creative ecosystem. In particular, the initiative explored the relationship between the arts and other non-arts sectors. What opportunities do you see in these kinds of “connecting” projects?
Creativity Connects came about because there were opportunities on a couple of levels. We were hearing businesses, scientists, technology, health, and other industries saying they were seeing the value of the arts and were looking for artists to make art within their own industries. What a wonderful opportunity! It’s not the arts sector versus others; it’s both together. For example, the Shands Hospital in Gainesville, Florida, hires musicians and visual artists to work with patients in the ICU because they’ve found there’s something very healing, soothing about creation that suspends other worries. Even doctors were noticing the healing process was being optimized because of that participation in the arts. Those are the kinds of things we’re seeing with Creativity Connects. We decided to launch a grant program in that area to encourage those types of cross-sector partnerships. Many of us who participate in the arts know its value in our lives, but when we see others not in the arts also recognizing its value, we think that’s a good thing for the whole environment.

Any final words?
I don’t think there’s ever been a better time to engage in and participate in the arts. As someone who was born into an ambiguous situation, having parents from one culture and living in another, I saw how the arts are one of the best ways to expand our vocabulary and express ourselves.  


We as artists, musicians, dancers, and others are empowering—we can stand in the middle of ambiguity without shrinking back. We are the leaders. When others don’t know the next step to take, we can walk in as artists and see a blank canvas and say the world is at my fingertips.


This is why it’s so exciting for students like those at the Music Institute of Chicago—at a time when they can be leaders in our community or of a team or themselves. The arts have empowered them with skills to know how to guide others in times when people don’t know how to solve problems. Artists do!

How the Arts Enrich Society

January 27, 2018

(Left to Right)

Scott Verschoor, MIC Board Chair; Jane Chu, NEA Chair; and Mark George MIC President and CEO

The Academy at MIC, a nationally recognized training center for aspiring professional musicians, hosts a weekly enrichment program featuring master classes, lectures, workshops, and panel discussions from world-renowned arts professionals. Saturday, January 27, eleven string and piano high school students from the Academy had the opportunity to ask thoughtful questions of Chu including topics like how to engage young people with classical music, using the arts as a tool for philanthropy, and strategies for promoting the arts to potential stakeholders. The program was open to Music Institute of Chicago students and their families as well as the MIC board, faculty, staff and special guests. Past enrichment programs have featured arts professionals such as renown violinist/violist/conductor Pinchas Zukerman (who will visit the Music Institute of Chicago again this May for a celebration weekend including a concert, master class, and gala event), Pamela Frank (violin faculty, Curtis Institute of Music), Sergei Babayan (piano faculty, Cleveland Institute of Music), and Miriam Fried (violin faculty, New England Conservatory).