Jane Chu, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, wants people in every corner of the country to know that art isn’t meant to be elitist.
“That’s what we want to dispel,” she said. “What we really are here to do is celebrate art and how it belongs to all of us.”
Chu kicked off a visit to Fresno on Sunday with a public town hall at Arte Américas discussing the importance of art and getting a taste of Fresno’s local arts culture. On Monday, she will meet privately with Radio Bilingüe, Centro Binacional para el Desarrollo Indígena Oaxaqueño (Binational Center for the Development of the Indigenous Communities) and Youth Orchestras of Fresno.
David Mas Masumoto, an organic farmer from Del Rey and member of the National Council on the Arts, invited Chu and moderated the discussion, which drew more than 60 people. He started by asking the crowd how many artists were in the room. Most raised their hands.
Masumoto asked how many were leaders of arts organizations. Slightly fewer raised their hands.
He asked how many knew what the NEA does. Only a few raised their hands.
The federal agency, established 50 years ago, funds the arts through partnerships and grants. The NEA has awarded $5 billion to date. Forty percent of its budget goes to state arts councils.
Centro Binacional received one of the latest local grants from the NEA. The nonprofit announced Thursday that the $11,000 grant will support its 17th annual Guelaguetza, a Oaxacan folkloric dance festival to be held next Sunday at Roosevelt High School.
Masumoto said Chu is “one of us.” She grew up as the daughter of Chinese immigrants in rural Arkansas. And he said her focus on how art affects daily life is much like Fresno’s own focus.
“Sometimes I think artists in the Valley have an inferiority complex because we aren’t L.A. or San Francisco,” he said to Chu. “Have you sensed that in other regions too?”
Chu tries to dissipate what she called an “either-or mindset.” She has traveled to 105 communities in the past year and people often ask her how theirs compares to others. She said that question is amusing because she sees each place as unique.
“The arts help us see what is so exceptional about who we are and where we live,” she said. “We have this opportunity to celebrate our differences rather than viewing them as a means of division.”
Chu also opened up about her own background in art. Before receiving degrees in piano performance and pedagogy, she was an only child navigating two very different worlds.
“I’ve grown up in this bok choy/corn dog set-up,” she said.
That ambiguity influenced the way Chu sees art. She said she feels energized by multiple perspectives.
The arts were also there for her when her father died of cancer.
“There weren’t enough words for me to express my own grief at the loss of my father,” she said. “I would play the piano and there was something about music that soothed me.”
As chair of the NEA, Chu’s goal is for everyone in the country to feel that strong of a connection to the arts.