Biden’s Pick to Lead N.E.A. Sees Culture as a Community Building Tool

President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s new nominee to lead the National Endowment for the Arts is a veteran arts administrator and tenured professor at Arizona State University with a background in urban planning and a history of embracing the importance of the arts at the neighborhood level.

The nominee, Maria Rosario Jackson, is a recognized expert in creative placemaking, a process that leverages arts, culture and design to spur economic development in communities and promote social change. Colleagues said she will bring a public policy lens to one of the nation’s top arts jobs.

“She is one of our nation’s most profound thinkers around how arts and design can be deployed to create healthier and more equitable communities,” Steven Tepper, the dean of Arizona State’s Herberger Institute for Design and Arts, where Jackson is on the faculty, said in an email on Thursday.

In taking on the role of N.E.A. chair, Jackson will be running an agency whose $167 million annual budget is a pittance compared to that of other agencies, but which has nonetheless been a target for conservatives who have sought to portray it as the sponsor of superfluous, elitist programming primarily attended by the rich.

The agency has fought that depiction, emphasizing that in its grantmaking — its primary function — it has financed art that attracts people across the income spectrum and noting that it has survived in large part because of bipartisan support within Congress.

If confirmed by the Senate, Jackson would be the country’s first African American and first Mexican American to lead the arts endowment.

“Our art, culture and creativity are some of our country’s most valuable resources,” Jackson said in the statement announcing her appointment this week. “They are evidence of our humanity, our ability to learn from our examined experience and our ability to imagine and innovate.”

Her approach seems in line with President Biden’s embrace of the arts for their potential to stimulate economic growth, a strategy seen during his years in the Senate and as vice president.

Rip Rapson, the president and chief executive of the Kresge Foundation, a grantmaking organization based in metro Detroit, said that Jackson, who has advised the foundation’s arts and culture program since 2012, is an ideal leader for the endowment.

“She has an incredible combination of deeply rigorous intellectual capacity and real lived experience,” he said in a phone conversation on Thursday. “To my mind, the fact that she is both a researcher, a grantmaker and a network builder makes her unique among the endowment chairs.”

The N.E.A. has been targeted by some conservatives for decades. The Trump administration tried unsuccessfully to do away with the endowment as well as the National Endowment for the Humanities, but both agencies have actually seen their funding increase in recent years.

The cultural sector is still struggling to dig out from the pandemic and continues to have some of the highest unemployment rates in the nation. New York, for example, lost two-thirds of its jobs in arts, entertainment and recreation over the past year, according to the state comptroller’s office.

Mary Anne Carter, who served as the endowment chair under former President Trump, has said that the sector has a great need for additional funding that was not nearly met by the $75 million in coronavirus relief grants the N.E.A. distributed last year.

For the 2022 fiscal year, President Biden has proposed a 20 percent increase in the arts endowment’s budget, to $201 million. If approved by Congress, it would be the largest increase — in dollar terms — in the organization’s history, the agency said.

Jackson, second from the right, in front of a mural in Los Angeles that was sponsored by LA Commons, an art organization of which she has been a board member. Credit…Leslie Tamaribuchi

Jackson, who was born and raised in south Los Angeles, received a doctorate in urban planning from the University of California, Los Angeles and a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Southern California.

In a 2007 article for the Urban Institute, she said that her African American and Mexican parents used the arts of their ethnic groups to teach her history that they knew she wouldn’t be exposed to in the classroom. Her father would point out blues lyrics about migration, and her mother showed her Diego Rivera murals.

She spent nearly 20 years at the Institute, a public policy research organization based in Washington, D.C., where she led research on the importance of arts and culture to healthy communities, as well as systems of support for artists and creative workers.

“Look for ingenuity and creativity,” she wrote in a 2007 article explaining why arts are vital to communities. “That may not be what’s most popular in the media. It may not fit the mold of what counts to make a world-class city. Whether it’s immigrants’ music, family or religious traditions, or street culture, cultural vitality may fall outside parameters of ‘high’ art or ‘refined’ art, but it’s vital.”

In 2013, President Obama appointed Jackson to the National Council on the Arts, which advises the chair of the arts endowment. Four years later, she began teaching at Arizona State, where, in addition to her post in the school’s arts and design institute, she also holds an appointment at its college of public service and policy.

Rapson, of the Kresge Foundation, noted that Jackson’s community-focused background and apolitical temperament make her a far cry from the typical Washington bureaucrat.

“Maria is such an incredibly warm, curious, caring, empathetic soul that I must admit it’s almost hard to imagine her in governmental service,” he said. “Except I think she’s the exact kind of person we need in government service.”

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