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Arts for all: NEA chair will share her vision at Irvine Barclay Theater

As a kid growing up in Los Angeles, Maria Rosario Jackson will never forget those trips to St. Elmo Village. Cute cottages arranged around a colorful courtyard — with sculptures peeking through the shrubbery, forged from whatever was handy — it was home to a collective of wildly creative, free-spirited Black artists. Watching them create, right in front of her eyes, left her awe-struck.

Jackson — now chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, who’ll be speaking at the Irvine Barclay Theater at 10 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 7 — was also inspired by the richness of childhood trips to Mexico City, where grand murals and vibrant colors sparked a similar awe. Jackson, the first woman of Black and Mexican heritage to lead the nation’s preeminent public arts patron, passionately believes that we all need this kind of wonder. And she’s intent on putting it where folks may least expect to find it — in health care centers and federal buildings, in schools and on community centers, in museums and public spaces.

“I’m going to talk a little bit about my aspirations for us all to have artful lives as part of a just and healthy existence,” Jackson said. “We’re talking about an all-out, integrated role of the arts in society. It pushes up against the notion that the arts are in a silo or bubble or just extra. They aren’t just extra — they’re an essential and integral part of many things that we care about.”

Jackson with her mother, Elvira C. Jackson. Photo courtesy of Chair Jackson
Jackson with her mother, Elvira C. Jackson. Photo courtesy of Jackson

Her parents, she said, were not artists — her dad worked for the U.S. Postal Service and her mother for Los Angeles Unified School District — “but they wanted us to have artful lives — vidas artísticas,” she writes.

“They looked to the arts to help my brother and me cultivate understanding and pride in our heritages. They also wanted us to be curious about other people and able to recognize our common humanity.

“From an early age, I knew that the work of artists, designers and culture bearers was foundational to expressing and even transforming the human condition — helping us tell our stories, make sense of the world, ask questions, imagine different ways of being and connect to others.”

If Jackson sounds a bit like a college professor, that’s because she is.

She earned a master’s of public administration from USC, a doctorate in urban planning from UCLA, and is a tenured professor in Arizona State University’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. She also taught in its College of Public Service and Community Solutions. She’s on leave from ASU while serving as the NEA’s 13th chair.

But what, exactly, is the NEA, you ask?

Underwriting creativity

Driving along the Avenue de los Insurgentes with murals of Diego Rivera, Mexico City, Mexico, December 1978 (Photo by Frances M. Ginter/Getty Images)
Driving along the Avenue de los Insurgentes with murals of Diego Rivera, Mexico City, Mexico, December 1978 (Photo by Frances M. Ginter/Getty Images)

The NEA is an independent agency of the federal government, offering funding for projects exhibiting artistic excellence.

It was created in 1965, during President Lyndon B. Johnson’s term, as part of his “Great Society” push to end poverty, reduce crime, abolish inequality and improve the environment. The NEA is dedicated to supporting excellence in the arts, both new and established; bringing the arts to all Americans; and providing leadership in arts education.

Its budget is $207 million this year, but that’s been a bit of a political football since the 1980s.

Conservative lawmakers objected to NEA-funded projects that they found offensive. President Ronald Regan planned to abolish it and President Donald Trump tried to eliminate its funding, but Congress came to its rescue each time. A big part of Jackson’s job is to keep communication flowing with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

In a federal budget of $6 trillion, the NEA’s $207 million is little more than coins beneath the couch cushions (or 0.00345%, to be exact). But it is a lifeline to many artists, arts organizations and others, and is concentrating on fostering the creativity of those who have been long overlooked as well as those who are established. The first round of NEA grants this year includes $4.7 million for more than 200 California organizations from Eureka to the Mexican border.

That includes: $20,000 for Creative Identity in Anaheim; $30,000 for the Association of Arts Administration Educators Inc. in Claremont; $25,000 for South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa; $15,000 for the Irvine Barclay Theatre Operating Co.; $25,000 for the Pacific Symphony in Irvine; $40,000 for the Public Corporation for the Arts of the City of Long Beach; $20,000 for the American Film Institute in Los Angeles; $65,000 for the Los Angeles Opera Company; $30,000 for the Los Angeles Poverty Department; $80,000 for the Riverside School District; $50,000 for the San Jose Taiko Group; $100,000 for the Independent Television Service, Inc. in San Francisco; $30,000 for Friends of Peralta Hacienda Historical Park in Oakland; and many, many more.

See the details of who got what here:  California NEA grants 02-03-2023

You’re creative, too!

Everyone has this spark, and tapping into it leads to a better life, Jackson believes.

People seeing and telling their own stories, on their own terms, from their own experience, is a critical dimension of a just society, she said. It can and does happen in museums, theaters and concert halls, but should also happen in our homes, schools and community centers, as part of our everyday lived experience.

“There is immense opportunity in understanding the arts comprehensively and holistically, recognizing their intrinsic value and understanding how arts and culture can strengthen other fields — health, community development, education, transportation, among others,” she writes.

With pandemic hangover and growing concerns about mental health and isolation, the arts can play a powerful role in our health and wellness, she said. The new, $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure bill provides a great opportunity to meld the arts, culture and design into something that will benefit us all.

Jackson’s is the 13th Creative Edge Lecture, a series bringing renowned thought-leaders on creativity and innovation to O.C. to inspire the work of artists, educators and leaders. It’s presented by Arts Orange County, the Orange County Department of Education and the Fourth District PTA.

The talk is free, but pre-registration is required. You can do that here: .

“One of the interesting things about Orange County is that is has some of the least-planned, most organically grown communities,” Richard Stein, president & CEO of Arts Orange County, said by email. “Similarly, the arts have evolved from grassroots associations of artists like the 100+ year old groups that formed what became the Laguna Art Museum and the Laguna Playhouse… to the visionary creation of the Orange County Performing Arts Center, now the Segerstrom Center for the Arts including SCR and OCMA, employing world-class architects in a carefully planned campus….

“Like in some other communities, there are also the growing pains of displacement due to gentrification resulting from the re-discovery of urban core areas that are then transformed into centers for the ‘creative class,’” and public art itself can evoke strong reactions, not all of them positive, he noted.

That debate can be a fascinating part of the exchange. Jackson’s talk will mark the first visit of an NEA chair to Orange County since 1988. She is well-versed in the O.C.; she was recently wowed by an arts collective in Santa Ana, and cherishes the memories of those magical trips to Disneyland when she was a kid. “I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to visit, and I’m also looking forward to listening,” she said.

Source: Orange County Register

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