ASU professor takes leadership of NEA

Jackson sees opportunity in re-imagining the role of arts in creating healthy communities

Portrait of ASU Institute Professor Maria Rosari Jackson.

Editor’s note: This story is featured in the 2022 year in review.

An Arizona State University professor is taking over the nation’s top arts agency just as arts organizations are working to re-emerge from the pandemic.

Maria Rosario Jackson is the first African American and Mexican American to lead the National Endowment for the Arts. She was confirmed by the Senate in December.

Jackson is an Institute Professor in ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and holds an appointment in the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions. She is on leave from ASU while she fulfills her term as the NEA’s 13th chair.

With a background in community development, Jackson has worked on the connection of the arts, culture and design as critical elements of healthy communities. At ASU, she created the Studio for Creativity, Place and Equitable Communities, which will have Chandra Crudup as its interim director while Jackson is on leave.

The pandemic has opened the door for re-imagination at the National Endowment for the Arts, Jackson said.

“I think the arts endowment is in a position to listen and learn from what is happening around the country and find ways, in addition to regular grant making and extraordinary grant making related to the pandemic specifically, figure out what that is,” she said.

“We’re not going back to what people think is normal.”

The NEA is in the midst of efforts to help arts and culture groups that are reeling from the effects of the pandemic shutdown. In 2020, Congress gave $75 million to the NEA through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, and $1.2 million of that went to 16 entities in Arizona. Last year, the American Rescue Plan appropriated another $135 million to the endowment. In addition, the NEA has created a guide to reopening for arts organizations, which offers data and best practices.

“Yes, it’s devastating,” Jackson said of the pandemic.

“I think it also compels us to think differently about how we’ve operated and to reimagine how we might show up in ways that could be even stronger or better. I worry about the ‘snap back’ without seeing this as an opportunity to change in ways that might be profoundly important.”

Here, Jackson answers some questions from ASU News:

Question: When you were confirmed by the Senate in December, your statement to the media mentioned your parents and how they valued the arts as a cultural expression. What are some examples of engaging with artistic cultural expression that you remember from your childhood?

Answer: It was so woven into how my brother and I grew up. Like a lot of kids, we had art classes at community centers and parks and that kind of thing.

Aside from that, what is very much alive for me in terms of remembering, is how my parents sought out art as a way for them to help us understand who they were — their origins and their heritage and where they came from and what we were connected to.

We’re more than just ourselves. We’re connected to a legacy and something bigger than us, and art was an important part of that.

They took us to exhibitions. My dad was really committed to exposing me to literature and Black writers. My mother, who is an immigrant from Mexico, was very insistent that we know cultural traditions, and when we went to visit her side of the family in Mexico City, we saw the kind of art she thought we needed. It wasn’t about being nice or extra. It was necessary from her perspective because she wanted us to have a deep appreciation for the country she came from. And similarly, my father wanted us to have a deep appreciation and understanding of the creativity and excellence within the African American cultural tradition.

Q: At ASU, you teach “Principles of Creative Placemaking.” Can you describe “creative placemaking” and discuss why it’s important in this moment of our country’s history?

A: The concept really speaks to the role of arts and culture in building healthy communities where all people can thrive.

The term “placemaking” goes back to the 1960s and '70s in the urban planning and urban design field. “Creative placemaking” is more recent — 2011 is when that was coined. It’s putting the arts at the table among the various kinds of people that need to be involved in improving communities and strengthening communities. How do you integrate arts and culture into that?

With the way I teach creative placemaking, there are premises that are important to heed. One is: Communities aren’t blank slates. They have culture and they have people who have aesthetic values and a point of view and a history. And it’s important to take that into consideration and build on it. And it’s important for people to be involved in the development and evolution of the places they live, both as stewards and innovators.

There is a productive tension in understanding the need to conserve and preserve and understanding the need to change.

And people and artists have to be part of that dynamic.

At its best, creative placemaking is about redressing historic inequities and understanding the critical role that arts can play in that.

In the last 10 years, there’s been concerted philanthropic and government investment in that kind of work. One of the examples I like to point to is in Los Angeles. As part of the Building Healthy Communities Initiative, which was an initiative of the California Endowment, there were some important examples of how artists played a really important role in programs intended to help communities with a health focus.

For example, one of the things that initiative included, in collaboration with the Alliance for California Traditional Arts, was a community asset-mapping initiative in one of the places where the Building Healthy Communities Initiative was active. In several places, that initiative was about helping residents identify the cultural assets in their communities that they valued. It’s helping them discern why they value those things and why they were important enough to make sure they were protected or advanced. What did that look like? It was people having conversations with neighbors with the intention of identifying those buildings and people and practices that give a community a particular flavor or characteristic – that make it feel like home. That is important.

That is, in some ways, the basis for lot of good creative placemaking practices — the idea of the existing assets in a place. What are the cultural assets that exist in a neighborhood to begin with?

That launched a number of other programs because people in those communities became clearer about what they have to work with, the things that matter to them and how they might be building blocks for other aspirations.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish during your NEA tenure?

A: Listening has to be part of what I do.

I have the benefit of having some proximity to the arts endowment because of my previous role as a member of the National Council on the Arts, so I know there’s a lot of great work happening already at the agency. I expect to build from some of the work that’s already there, perhaps refine some programs.

And I think definitely there will be some initiatives that are informed by what I bring as a leader of the arts endowment that have to do with things that won’t be a surprise, given my career focus, (like) the importance of art period, and the importance of art in connection with so many other things that are also critically important. The intersection with health, the intersection with community development, the intersection with the environment — I don’t believe that art exists in a bubble.

I think that at its most powerful, the places where it can and does intersect with other parts of our lives are really important to lift up.

Q: Why did you decide to come to ASU? How do you see ASU advancing your priorities?

A: ASU is an extraordinary place. Certainly, the charter is beautiful and the focus on access and inclusion is very important to me. At the time when I was being recruited to ASU, and it’s still true, the university was attracting so many interesting and remarkable people to its faculty and staff. It has become a magnet for folks who think outside of the box, for people who are interested in working outside of their lane and are curious about what others have to offer. And that is a very stimulating environment. It’s very consistent with my personal inclinations around the importance of curiosity and the importance of the diversity of perspectives that can render something more useful, interesting and perhaps even beneficial than if we work in echo chambers.

Two women in a recording studio

NEA Chair Maria Rosario Jackson (left) with anthropologist and folklorist Maribel Alvarez, recording a podcast on arts and culture in communities. Photo by Christina Park/Studio for Creativity, Place and Equitable Communities

Q: You started the Studio for Creativity, Place and Equitable Communities at ASU. What kind of work does the studio do?

A: It is a place and a set of programs that is specifically about the role of arts and culture in building healthy communities where all people can thrive with a particular focus on historically disenfranchised communities and what it takes to redress historic harm.

There are a number of programs that I’m very proud of that live in the studio, and it’s in very capable hands while I’m on leave. One of them is the Creative Faculty Academy, which is a collaboration between the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions. It’s a yearlong program that creates the place and experiences for faculty from Herberger and Watts to come together in ways they probably wouldn’t otherwise, with a focus on this notion of building healthy, equitable communities. It’s where you get to find out what someone from the School of Arts, Media and Engineering might have to offer to someone in the School of Social Work and vice versa. The kinds of inquiry and creativity that is possible when you have the opportunity for multiple exposures to diverse perspectives is very critical. There have been some cool things that have come out of that.

The Creative Measurement Lab is focused on research and evaluation to better address the role of arts and culture in neighborhoods, recognizing that traditional ways of conducting evaluations and even some kinds of research don’t really take into account the kinds of questions or the ways in which they should be addressed when you think about centering equitable intentions and understanding that multiple world views are valid. Multiple approaches to knowing and data collection are necessary.

Q: Personally, as someone who loves art, what are you excited about in the arts right now?

A: I think that intersection between arts and public health is particularly interesting and particularly generative. That public health is increasingly looking at diverse facets of the arts as critical to well-being is really important, both mental health as well as physical health, and when you look at the determinants of health outcomes and the ability to consider the role that arts can play in wellness is hugely important. I’m very excited about that, and it dovetails with community development interests as well. … That the arts can be considered alongside other elements of places that have been more traditionally understood as important, that’s big.

Q: Besides the effects of the pandemic, what are you worried about?

A: Maybe the "snap back" — the possibility that we might miss the opportunity to think differently and do better. I’m afraid of getting stuck. Not just in the arts, but in many ways.

I do think this is a particular time in our history where there can be important shifts that can be beneficial, and I think that worries me, if we miss that opportunity.

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