At Colorado Creative Industries Summit, NEA Chairwoman Jane Chu stresses impact of the arts

National Endowment for the Arts Chairwoman Jane Chu addressing the Colorado Creative Industries Summit in Breckenridge on Thursday.
Eli Pace/Summit Daily News |

BRECKENRIDGE — The national debate about the value and future of the National Endowment for the Arts has been good for the organization, its chairwoman Jane Chu argued Thursday at the annual Colorado Creative Industries Summit.

The White House had reportedly considered eliminating the federal grant-giving organization, along with the National Endowment for Humanities and Corporation for Public Broadcasting earlier this year. A budget approved by the House of Representatives this week would retain — and slightly increase — federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.

Chu didn’t directly reference these developments, but said recent attention on her organization has led to a better national understanding of what it does and the impact its programs have nationwide.

“We’re done with that old perception that the arts belong in a corner and they’re siloed by themselves,” Chu said during her keynote address to the annual gathering of Colorado artists, arts administrators and educators.

Chu used her speech to detail the ways in which the arts are being integrated into sectors far beyond galleries and concert halls.

“It wasn’t that long ago when the word ‘creativity’ was almost exclusively associated with individual artists,” she said. “If you were not a musician or a painter or a writer, you probably didn’t have much use for creativity in your life. … That notion has now changed dramatically in recent years. There is greater appreciation, not only for those traditional artists, but for how valuable an asset creativity can be.”

Chu cited the growing numbers of artists who are working as artists in non-arts areas, specifically calling out science and tech companies, senior centers, hospitals and health care providers. She also pointed to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who has created a cabinet-level arts and culture position that integrates arts-based solutions in every city department, from transportation and safety to public housing. In Minneapolis, Chu noted, artists are embedded in various city departments to work on community outreach issues.

The NEA’s Creativity Connects initiative, launched last year, is aimed specifically at using the arts to solve issues beyond the arts sector. Chu pointed to programs funded by Creativity Connects — which gave out its first grants, totaling $2.5 million, in September — that help imprisoned parents connect with their children by writing lullabies and another that developed technology that enables people with traumatic brain injuries to perform improvised music.

She also praised Colorado for its “creative districts” initiative, launched in 2011 to use the arts for economic development, saying, “You are a good model to follow.”

The health care industry, she noted, has been a leader in integrating the work of artists. The NEA has jumped on board with its Creative Forces program, which runs art therapy programs for military veterans. U.S. Congress last year approved increasing the NEA budget by $1.9 million to expand these programs to nine additional sites, including Fort Carson.

“We’re thrilled that other sectors are saying, ‘The arts are valuable to us, too,’” Chu said. “What this shows us is that the arts aren’t some separate category of society. They’re not exclusively for some people while excluding others. They’re not a form of entertainment for once in a while. The arts are an integral part of our national and global lives.”

The perception that the NEA is an elitist organization focused disproportionately on coastal cities, Chu noted, is also quickly fading. It funds programs in every congressional district in the U.S., she pointed out, and allocates half of its education grants to high-poverty areas. In recent months, as future funding appeared to be under threat, arts leaders in diverse communities across the country — including Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley — defended the value of the NEA.

Chu also came to Breckenridge armed with data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis that spoke to the sizable economic impact of the arts. The arts and culture sector in the United States, she noted, added $729.6 billion to the U.S. economy in 2014, comprising 4.2 percent of the national economy. Its contribution to the gross domestic product, she noted, grew by 35 percent between 1998 and 2014 — outpacing the tourism, transportation and construction sectors.

In Colorado in 2014, the arts sector employed 96,000 workers, making up 3.7 percent of total employment but constituting more than 4 percent of compensation, Chu said, landing the state 16th in arts and culture employment rankings.

“When it comes to arts and culture and employment, Colorado is one of the leaders in the nation,” she said.

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