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“The Arts are for Everybody”: 10 Quotes That Inspired Us from Jane Chu, Former NEA Chair and Recipient of SMU’s Distinguished Alumni Award

NEA Chair Jane Chu
The NEA thrived under Jane Chu’s leadership. (All photos by Kim Leeson)

Jane Chu earned a Master of Music degree from SMU and has spent her career in arts administration and philanthropy. During her four-year term (2014–18) as chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, Chu traveled to all 50 states, visiting more than 400 arts organizations in 200 communities.

It was a bustling Homecoming weekend at SMU. The Division of Art hosted a conference that brought in experts in the field from around the world. Opera soared from the lobby. That morning, Jane Chu sat with the students of the joint M.A./M.B.A. (with Cox Business School) in Arts Management and M.M. in International Arts Management to chat about ethics, career paths, and what it means to lead. Chu led with optimism on the state of the arts, and recalled her time at SMU Meadows. Her responses to the students of the graduate programs, like her memories, were crackling with inspiration. Later that day, she was presented with the SMU’s Distinguished Alumni Award.

“The arts belong to everybody each and in their own ways. You don’t have to solve all of the problems in the world. We have the opportunity to show that arts are leading the community. It’s in you already.”

“The arts are for everybody. We’re really all in this together.”

On leading a business in the arts: “There will be so many opportunities for you to stand in the middle of something that’s never been done before.”

Jane Chu and SMU grads
Alex Turrini–Chair and Professor, Arts Management and Arts Entrepreneurship–led the discussion with Jane Chu (’81).

“How you do something is just as important as what you do. You can choose to be a leader. If you can be a leader that has people wanting to follow you, then you can get more done. And have people that are happy that they work there. You really are ready for this.”

“I draw at least an hour a day…I’m continuously learning.”

“The most effective leaders know how to pull specific tools out of their tool belts at the right time. That’s what leaders do…Imagine the kind of leader you want to be–even if you can’t see the path to it.”

“You are the future. You are already doing it. But you can be doing more.”

“If you can develop ways to communicate with people that don’t know the arts, so it’s not me vs you, that’s good leadership.”

On her role in the National Endowment for the Arts: “We really wanted to dispel the myth that the arts are for the elite.”

“Your heart is going to take you to the next place. I went to business school because I wanted to learn the language. But I was never in a box. Follow your heart. I don’t care if it’s linear or not linear.”

The students of SMU’s MA/MBA program and M.M. in International Arts Management with Jane Chu (center) Arts Management chair Alex Turrini, and Meadows Dean Sam Holland.

About Jane Chu

The NEA thrived under Chu’s leadership, awarding $430 million in arts support to 16,000 communities and receiving endowment budget increases for three consecutive fiscal years (2016–18). The NEA’s Creative Forces military healing arts initiative, which brings creative arts therapies to service members and veterans, expanded from two U.S. sites to 12. The agency launched Creativity Connects, giving $2 million in grants that support partnerships between arts organizations and the non-arts sectors, and started the national Musical Theater Songwriting Challenge, in which high school student songwriters compete for publication and a scholarship, as well as mentorship opportunities with Broadway musical theater professionals. The NEA received a 2016 Special Tony Award, a 2018 Drama League Award and two Emmy nominations.

Prior to the NEA, Chu was president and CEO of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, in Kansas City, Missouri. She holds two bachelor’s degrees from Ouachita Baptist University, an M.B.A. from Rockhurst University, a Ph.D. from Indiana University and four honorary doctorate degrees.

By Nick Rallo