By Holly Haber
Jane Chu, the accomplished arts advisor to PBS and immediate past chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, is a humble woman.
Asked what she’s most proud of, she pauses for the first time during a nonstop conversation.
“I, um, I’m trying to think,” Chu says. “There are projects that bring meaning to my life and those are the ones I remember the most, but everything I’ve done has been an opportunity to appreciate something or bring meaning to other people or myself.”
Always mindful of the big picture, Chu is a rare amalgam of a musician and fine artist who is also a specialist in philanthropy and administration.
In fact, she’s been an unusual blend since birth.
“I’ve always had what I like to call a bok-choy-corn-dog life,” she says.
Chu was born to Chinese immigrants in Oklahoma and reared in Arkansas, so she’s accustomed to navigating multiple cultures simultaneously.
After graduating with a Bachelor of Music in piano performance and Bachelor of Music Education from Ouachita Baptist University, Chu headed straight to SMU for a Master of Music.
At the time, the Meadows School of the Arts was one of the few colleges nationwide that offered a master’s degree in piano pedagogy – the art of teaching piano playing. The program, which was developed by revered professor Louise Bianchi, offered alternative methods, such as an ensemble piano class.
“I was really impressed by the system they put together,” Chu says. “SMU gave me excellent skills and experiences, and I got a good education there.”
But she wasn’t yet finished with her education. Chu went on to earn an M.B.A. at Rockhurst University and a Ph.D. in philanthropic studies from Indiana University.
Yet what’s made her so successful as an arts administrator, she feels, is her background as an artist.
“I don’t know whether there’s ever been a better time to be a leader in the arts because what we are looking for in our communities and leaders is the ability to stand in the middle of multiple persons and points of view without shrinking back – the ability to synthesize different ways of thinking and expressing ourselves as opposed to one way versus another.”
The arts provide that perspective, she points out.
“When you are creating, you are having to press the reset button in your mind so you don’t come with preconceived ideas,” Chu says. “You are saying you are open to all kinds of approaches because invention is pulling something out of nothing. Artists and musicians will show us and model for us how we can be in our everyday lives, how we interpret one another and how we express ourselves, because they have a lot of those abilities through their art.”
As chair of the NEA from 2014 to 2018, Chu visited more than 400 arts organizations nationwide and started a program that connects arts and non-arts groups. She also started a songwriting scholarship competition for high school students interested in musical theater. Under her guidance, the NEA won a Special Tony Award in 2016 for its ongoing funding for the arts, education and access, and a 2018 Drama League Award.
At PBS, Chu helps the network explore a wider variety of arts stories.
“Since I had traveled to all 50 states while I was at the NEA, I was able to say there is fantastic stuff going on out there in so many different communities – rural and remote as well as large, densely populated cities. There’s this perception that the arts are tanking, and we saw for ourselves that this was not true. PBS really wants to get all those stories about what’s going on around the nation.”
Chu wants to peer behind the proverbial curtain.
“You might see the final production, but it’s rich with behind-the-scenes stories, on either the performers or the people who work backstage,” Chu notes.
“From professional artists to those who create on their own time as a hobby, the arts belong to all of us, each in our own ways. This is a wonderful message, because it allows us to be accepting of our own creativity. That is what will allow us to solve old and tired problems in new ways. That’s what we are talking about – bringing out that creativity in each of us through our stories.”