In Inspiring Visit to BU, National Endowment for the Arts Chair Champions Impact of Creative Community Engagement and Arts Administration

There’s a core riddle at the heart of successful arts administration: how does one realize, cultivate, champion, and advance the value of arts, culture, media, and expression in our society in effective, meaningful ways?

Given how culture fuels things like entrepreneurial innovation, our lifestyles via urban design, common social understanding, and overall well-being, how should those who accomplish and succeed in these meaningful but often underfunded areas be compensated for the ideas for change they contribute? And who is qualified to support these far-reaching endeavors?

No one has given these concerns more thought than Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), an independent US federal agency. On Wednesday, April 12, Dr. Jackson visited Boston University as the featured speaker for the second annual Daniel Ranalli Lecture, a series established by BU Metropolitan College’s Arts Administration program. The series, which invites senior leaders in the arts to share their perspectives, outlooks, and lessons learned over long careers with MET students, was named for program founder and Associate Professor Emeritus Daniel Ranalli, who has long held the mantra, “Make the world safe for art; not art safe for the world.”

To a rapt audience gathered in the Boston University School of Law Auditorium, Dr. Jackson outlined the guiding principles she’s brought to her post at the top of the NEA, the largest funder of the arts and arts education in communities nationwide and a catalyst of public and private support for the arts. By advancing equitable opportunities for arts participation and practice, the NEA fosters and sustains an environment in which the arts benefit everyone in the United States.

Dr. Jackson became the 13th chair of the National Endowment for the Arts in January 2022, following her nomination by President Joe Biden and confirmation by the US Senate. It was a history-making appointment, as she is the first African American and Mexican American person to serve in the role. Before becoming NEA chair, she served on the National Council on the Arts (which advises the NEA chair) for 10 years, having been appointed by President Obama.

Offering insights gleaned over her more than 25 years spent working in strategic planning, policy research, and evaluation with philanthropic, government, and nonprofit organizations, Dr. Jackson described her mission to elevate arts, culture, and design as critical elements of healthy communities by blending social science and arts- and humanities-based approaches to comprehensive community revitalization and systems change.

Jackson delved into her formative experiences in the arts—facilitated by parents who believed in prioritizing artistic expression and a strong understanding of where she came from—as a powerful method to instill pride in her individuality and cultural background. She repeatedly challenged the attentive audience to remember that arts and culture do not exist in a vacuum and should not be siloed from other aspects of advancing the common good.

“None of the things that we say we aspire to, as a nation of opportunity and justice, are possible without the intentional integration of arts, culture, and design into all facets of our lives and the systems we rely on to care for each other,” Dr. Jackson said.

Jackson spoke about her background working at the intersection of arts and culture with community development and urban planning and how early in her career she was sometimes discouraged from her focus on arts and culture as a way of addressing racist structures and improving neighborhoods. But, she explained, over the course of her career she found the words to describe her commitment: “What I’ve been able to say for a number of years now is, if around the world and throughout the ages you look at strategies to disempower, the first thing that is tampered with is one’s ability to make meaning, to ask questions, to have aesthetics, to express yourself creatively—to do the things that we do through art. So, if something is so powerful that it has to be tampered with in order to control or oppress, why don’t we understand it as core to building?”

After all, Dr. Jackson explained that matters like urban planning, economic development, entrepreneurship, and social services are predicated upon the same creativity, imagination, and ingenuity the arts develop and inspire.

She insisted these values don’t exist in isolation—they are core to the world we build around us, from the design of urban environments to how people make sense of the world, share stories with one another, teach, learn, and think.

Dr. Jackson repeatedly stressed art’s benefits to human well-being. In that arena, she provided an overview of a notable partnership between the NEA and the Departments of Defense and  Veterans Affairs: Creative Forces, an initiative that seeks to improve the health, well-being, and quality of life for military and veteran populations exposed to trauma, as well as their families and caregivers. The initiative supports creative arts therapies at the core of patient-centered care at clinical sites throughout the country; increases access to community arts engagement activities; and supports associated research on the impacts and benefits—physical, social, and emotional—of these innovative treatment methods.

Research like this, the NEA leader explained, reflects metrics on the measurable impact of the arts beyond mere economic value—they are examples of collaborations with shared principles and defined goals. These sorts of efforts prove the importance of supporting the arts as fuel for other forms of meaningful change in our world.

“We say we want to eliminate poverty; we want to reduce injustice, all of these things. A lot of that requires [a] paradigm shift. It requires us to think fundamentally differently about some basic things,” Dr. Jackson said. “And what is true (there’s science behind this), [is] in order for people to be available to [the] paradigm shift, you have to touch their head, heart, [and] hand—intellectually, emotionally, and physically.”

She explained that there’s no shortage of ways for a well-educated arts administrator to make an impact, whether through philanthropy, large or small nonprofits, think tanks, or even higher education.

The NEA chair’s remarks were followed by a question-and-answer session moderated by Arts Administration Director Douglas DeNatale, which was followed by a reception the BU Arts Initiative hosted for those in attendance. This year’s Ranalli Lecture was sponsored by BU’s Metropolitan College in partnership with the College of Communication and College of Fine Arts.