Donald Munro

NEA chief puts her focus on Fresno

NEA chairman Jane Chu visits Fresno Sept. 20-21.
NEA chairman Jane Chu visits Fresno Sept. 20-21. Special to The Bee

Who could resist breakfast at an organic peach farm?

David “Mas” Masumoto, the noted Del Rey author and farmer (and Bee columnist), is a member of the prestigious National Council on the Arts. Being a member means getting to do some nifty stuff, such as recommending the winners of the National Medal of Arts (Sally Field just received one), establishing guidelines for National Endowment for the Arts grants and offering input on budget priorities.

Plus, you get to hang out with the head of the NEA, sort of this country’s chief spokesperson for the arts.

That’s how Masumoto pulled some strings and arranged a visit for Jane Chu, the NEA chairwoman, who is visiting the Fresno area for the first time in her official capacity since she was appointed by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 2014.

Included in the invite: breakfast at Masumoto’s famed farm, which inspired him in such books as “Epitaph for a Peach.”

“She wanted to get to know me, so I figured I’d bring her to the farm,” he says. “She asked to see the Valley through my eyes.”

Chu’s agenda kicks off today (Sunday, Sept. 20) with a notable event open to the public: a town hall discussion at Arte Américas hosted by the Alliance for California Traditional Arts. On Monday, Sept. 21, she will conduct site visits at Radio Bilingue, Centro Binacional Para el Desarrollo Indigena Oaxaqueno (CBDIO) and the Youth Orchestras of Fresno.

For Chu, who has spent a lot of time on the road since assuming her post, her itinerary should help her get a feel for the character of the central San Joaquin Valley.

I know this firsthand: When you’ve seen one community, you’ve only seen one community.

Jane Chu, NEA chairwoman

This country is big and varied enough, she says, that you can’t make sweeping generalizations about how it celebrates the arts.

“I know this firsthand: When you’ve seen one community, you’ve only seen one community,” she says.

At Radio Bilingue, she’ll learn about the station’s efforts to support arts and culture. At CBDIO, the focus will be on the upcoming NEA-supported Guelaguetza California 2015 festival on Sept. 27, which will feature folk dances from the seven regions of Oaxaca.

And with the Youth Orchestras of Fresno, she’ll listen to a performance and engage in a discussion about arts education.

A lot of what Chu does is listen. At the Arte Américas event, she’ll make some remarks and then participate in a Q&A with the audience, with the discussion moderated by Masumoto.

“Jane is wonderful in engaging in conversation, and that’s what I hope we have the most of,” he says.

I only had a short phone conversation with Chu before her visit, but even in those 15 minutes I could tell how diplomatic and carefully spoken she is when discussing the arts, which in certain manifestations can become flashpoints for the culture wars. Her NEA is not the agency of a few decades ago, when conservative politicians seized on controversial works (think Robert Mapplethorpe) to rally against government support for the arts.

She’s certainly not as outspoken as her predecessor, Rocco Landesman, who chafed against NEA funding levels he considered inadequate. In January, Chu told the San Francisco Chronicle, “I’m pleased with where we are” in terms of the NEA’s current appropriation of $146 million.

On one hand, that figure isn’t so hot, considering that the budget in 2010 was $155 million, according to the Chronicle.

A favorite topic of hers is the importance of creativity in the arts, a crossover trait valued by other industries and disciplines.

On the other hand, making as few waves as possible is smart on her part, considering she’s dealing with a Republican Congress, not a few of whose members would rather the federal government get out of funding the arts entirely. Keeping a steady appropriation is actually a pretty big victory for Chu.

Instead, she focuses on the positives. A favorite topic of hers is the importance of creativity in the arts, a crossover trait valued by other industries and disciplines. Another is the democratization of art: “I want to move away from the idea that some people can participate in the arts and others cannot.”

Still, the fact remains that many traditional arts organizations in this country are hurting, whether it’s because their support often relies on the wealthy – whose own largesse tends to be cyclical depending on the economy – or aging audiences.

I told Chu about a recent conversation I had with Andreas Werz, artistic director of the Philip Lorenz Memorial Keyboard Concerts series, which brings world-class pianists to Fresno State. Season ticket subscriptions are down 25 percent this year. And out of this year’s crop of 150 or so subscribers, only 10 – count them, 10! – are younger than 62.

Werz is worried.

There are no easy answers, Chu tells me. Here’s the closest she can come to something encouraging: NEA research indicates that there’s a large, untapped audience for people who tell surveyors they would like to attend arts events but don’t because they have young children, have issues with physical mobility or don’t have anyone to go with and don’t like the idea of attending alone.

Still, I don’t want to end this column on a downer. It’s a big deal for Fresno to get to show off a little for the head of the NEA.

It will be a nice time, too, for Masumoto, who is interested in expanding the scope of the arts agency to include the culinary arts, a field in which he has great expertise. Everybody eats, after all.

Including Chu, who tells me that getting to sample one of Masumoto’s fresh peaches is at “the top of my list” – but who will probably have to settle for preserves. But that’s OK. She’ll just have to return during peach season and sample more of Fresno’s arts scene.

Jane Chu

What: Town hall discussion with the NEA chair

When: 2-3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 20

Where: Arte Américas, 1630 Van Ness Ave.

RSVP: info@actaonline.org or 559-237-9812

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