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Disruptors in the desert: Jen Cole to head new national accelerator at ASU

Photo of Jen Cole

Innovative arts leader Jen Cole will join the Herberger Institute in July to launch and lead ASU's National Accelerator for Cultural Innovation and Inclusion. Photo by Jerry Atnip.

April 25, 2018

Jen Cole, an innovative leader who sees arts and culture as a transformative public good rather than simply a commodity, will join Arizona State University in July to launch a national program that will integrate design and the arts across sectors to help find solutions to the world's biggest problems.

Cole, currently the executive director of Metro Arts Nashville Office of Arts and Culture, is already implementing her vision by using the arts to spur economic development, enhance wage growth, improve housing access and advance racial equity in Tennessee.

“I’ve always known that if I ever had the opportunity to work at a national and global level to change arts and culture, Jen would be among the first people I’d recruit,” said Steven Tepper, dean of ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. “She has some radical ideas that reimagine how arts and culture can intersect with all areas of society. Her leadership and ideas are a perfect fit for the transformation we hope to lead at Herberger Institute and ASU. The accelerator is the next step.”

Cole will design, build and grow the National Accelerator for Cultural Innovation and Inclusion at ASU, a new endeavor that will build on nationally funded work that Herberger Institute has already undertaken to advance innovative ideas in design, arts and culture. The accelerator will test and scale those ideas for national and global impact.

“The opportunity to continue the work I started in Nashville and advance it in a larger context at Herberger Institute is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Cole said. “What we’re going to do has never been done before.”

In her years heading Metro Arts, Cole shifted the focus from giving grants — which the agency continues to do — to creating societal change through the arts. That included, for example, producing arts-related interventions for youths dealing with the court system and training artists to work with community partners on such issues as affordable housing, justice and immigration.

“This is what we do at ASU,” said Sethuraman Panchanathan, executive vice president of research and innovation at ASU. “We have world-class faculty and researchers, we have tremendous students who will be the next generation of leaders in the arts, we have a global network of industry, civic and community partners. We can bring all of these players together to advance the best ideas in arts and culture and really serve as a catalyst for the enterprising work of so many talented artists around the country and the world.”

Cole has more than two decades of experience in organizational leadership and change management and has worked extensively in the public and nonprofit sectors in a variety of executive positions. Since 2010, she has led the city of Nashville’s efforts in arts, culture and creative economy in her role as the director of Metro Arts Nashville Office of Arts and Culture. She serves on the board of Americans for the Arts, where she chairs the U.S. Urban Arts Federation, and is a frequent national speaker about the role of arts in community transformation.

“Artists have long worked as allies in building equitable, healthy and sustainable communities,” said Jamie Bennett, executive director of ArtPlace America. “With this national accelerator, ASU can now offer the space, time, resources and support for artists to test and scale their ideas before returning with them to their communities. This may well be a tipping point for the field.”

The accelerator is being launched in partnership with ASU Gammage.

“Jen Cole has emerged as one of the most important arts leaders in America, known for advancing a new way of thinking about cultural policy,” said Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, ASU’s vice president for cultural affairs and executive director of ASU Gammage. “She is going to be an extraordinary asset for the university and for the region.”

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