Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson (second from right) joined by NEA colleagues. (Courtesy photo)
Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson (second from right) joined by NEA colleagues. (Courtesy photo)

Ordinarily, receiving the news that the U.S. Senate had confirmed Maria Rosario Jackson, Ph.D., as the 13th chair of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) would have been reason to celebrate and make plans for the organization’s growth and continued success. 

But last December could not be deemed as routine as the world learned that the omicron variant of COVID-19 had begun to rapidly spread across the globe. 

Arts and entertainment organizations and venues, including theaters, museums and concert halls, that had begun to open their doors in September 2021, had to shut down again. COVID-19 had more damage to cause and everything, including the arts community, felt the impact. 

But Jackson, the first African American and Mexican American to lead NEA, remained focused on the organization’s priorities, making sure that under her leadership, they would find new ways to contribute to promoting and supporting “artful lives.”

“When I think about artful lives, that recognizes a creative dimension in one’s life that’s critically important,” Jackson said. “It can show up in many different ways so the notion of artful lives is an elastic concept to imagine how arts culture can be infused daily in lived experiences.”

Jackson touched on the breadth and depth of NEA’s work which impacts every area of American culture. For its FY23 budget (Oct. 1, 2022 – Sept. 30, 2023), NEA has requested $203.55 million, enabling the federal government agency to continue supporting the creative sector in the rebuilding of both nation and local economies.

Four priorities will continue toward FY23 for NEA under the leadership of Jackson: rebuilding the creative economy; healing the nation; advancing racial equity, access and climate justice; and serving the arts sector and enhancing the agency’s operations as a national resource. These priorities support longstanding NEA programs like Creative Forces®: NEA Military Healing Arts Network, Poetry Out Loud, NEA Big Read, Citizen’s Institute on Rural Design, Shakespeare in American Communities, Mayors’ Institute on City Design and the Musical Theater Songwriting Challenge.

NEA’s budget will also fund outreach to underserved populations through initiatives that will work with Historically Black Colleges and Universities, provide support for Native American arts and culture and focus on projects which make the arts more accessible to older adults, veterans, people living in institutions and those with disabilities. 

Beyond the approved annual FY22 budget, NEA also awarded $135 million from the American Rescue Plan to dozens of arts organizations in their efforts to support the recovery, rebuilding and reopening of arts and culture programs.

New NEA grants totaling $91 million were announced on May 18 with a total of $2,712,685 from this latest round distributed to 30 District-based organizations. Local groups receiving NEA grants included: the District of Columbia Commission on the Arts and Humanities; GALA Hispanic Theatre; Words Beats & Life, Inc.; and Building Bridges Across the River at the THEARC.

Jackson said she plans to actively position NEA as a resource in other areas beyond funding.

“I’m hoping to bolster the arts endowment’s ability to be understood as a national resource,” she said. “We serve to convene, to connect, to amplify and to help us learn. As we step into this post-pandemic phase, part of the work is to help figure out what we’ve learned and how we move forward.”

Ensuring inclusivity and diversity also count as part of NEA’s agenda. 

Jackson uses the term “cultural kitchens” to describe the approach she will take.

“I think of those places where people come together to make the culture we want to share,” Jackson said. “Those places where that can happen are critically important to healthy communities.”

Brenda Siler is an award-winning journalist and public relations strategist. Her communications career began in college as an advertising copywriter, a news reporter, public affairs producer/host and a...

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