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On tour of Alaska, NEA chairman advocates value of art

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: June 30, 2016
  • Published August 29, 2015

"I spend a good deal of time arguing for the arts," said Jane Chu, describing her job as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Chu is making her arguments in a six-day swing through Alaska this week, her first visit to the state. In an interview at the Anchorage Museum on Friday, she said the purpose of the trip is to "see firsthand what's happening in arts in Alaska."

"You have to be in Alaska to really understand what's happening," she said. "I travel a lot for the NEA and one thing I've learned is that when you've seen one community, you've only seen one community. There is no template. They're all different."

One thing that makes Alaska unique, she said, is how people here use art to both "celebrate long-established traditions" and still "move ahead" with creative work and finding new ways of expression.

Born in Oklahoma, Chu trained as a classical pianist and moved into administration, investment and fundraising before being sworn in as the 11th NEA chairman in July 2014. On Friday she met with arts groups in Palmer and Anchorage. On Monday she'll tour the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage and then go to Juneau and Sitka. The weekend would be set aside for what she described as "personal time" with no particular plans. "I'm just going to wing it," she said.

Chu's Alaska trip began with a tour of the Glenn Massay Theatre at Matanuska-Susitna College in Palmer on Friday, followed by a look at the Anchorage Museum with museum director Julie Decker.

Chu said the "arts ecosystem" has "strengthened Alaska's social foundation." She pointed to research that suggests exposure to arts increases science and math scores for students and enhances the economy. She described how art therapy has been adopted as part of the treatment program for wounded veterans at Walter Reed Hospital in Maryland.

Chu said the $5 billion that the NEA has given in grants over the past 50 years is estimated to have generated seven to nine times that much money in "actual dollars." For example, the arts contribute $45 million dollars to the Anchorage economy, she said. "That's the equivalent of 1,200 full-time jobs."

The number of people "addressing" the arts, either as consumers or creators, is said to be increasing with the population. "Two new research reports show that 3/4 of adults in America, 167 million people, first address the arts through electronic media," Chu said. "So we want to pay attention to that."

After touring the Anchorage Museum, Chu spoke to a small audience in the auditorium. They asked her about the loss of arts education in public education, how grant recipients are selected and what is "too edgy" for public art.

One of the members of the audience, poet Joan Kane, said she was "troubled by the rhetoric focusing on the utilitarian value of the arts," the numbers, dollars and presumably quantifiable results given in certain studies. "It's nice to hear about good metrics, but what about risk-taking and creativity?" she asked. "Using the arts as a tool is almost demeaning to the arts."

Chu answered from her personal perspective. "As a young person, I couldn't have survived without the arts," she said. "It was something that allowed me to be struck by beauty, a place where time stood still."

The aesthetic value of art is essential to civilization, she suggested, noting that opposing views often find themselves at loggerheads. "But the arts are comfortable in ambiguity. They can guide us through this time of transitions. They allow us to stay calm enough to be creative."

Nonetheless, she insisted, arts supporters need to find ways to show that the arts are not trivial "through hard evidence." It gets people paying attention when they can see an art program that benefits an injured soldier who is a member of their family, she said, or how art classes connect to better grades and lower truancy rates.

In September, the NEA will celebrate its 50th anniversary. Activities include a place on the agency website, arts.gov, where people can tell about how the arts have affected their lives. (Click on "Tell Us Your Stories.") So far, hundreds of comments have been received, but only one was from Alaska.

"So I'd like to invite you to tell the country what arts mean to Alaskans," Chu told the audience. "The arts are for all of us."

Jane Chu's Alaska visit continues with a tour at 3:30 p.m. Monday at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage.

In Juneau on Tuesday, Chu will meet staff and actors with Perseverance Theatre at noon, visit the Sealaska Heritage Institute at 2 p.m., the Juneau Arts & Culture Center at 3:30 p.m. and attend a reception at that location at 5 p.m.

In Sitka on Wednesday, Chu will visit the studio of artist Teri Rofkar at 11 a.m., the arts groups at the Sheldon Jackson Campus at 1:30 p.m. and the Island Institute at 3:10 p.m.

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