As a kid, Maria Rosario Jackson felt how the arts could shape a home. As an urban planner, she studied how the arts could transform a neighborhood. As a professor, she showed how the arts could be deployed to create equity within a city.
Now, as chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, Jackson will use the arts to boost the country.
How? Jackson has her eye on the big, the broad, the unexpected.
“I see a role for the arts, perhaps, in places others don’t,” she said in an interview.
Confirmed as the 13th chair of the arts endowment in December, Jackson visited the Twin Cities this month. She met with mayors, toured Springboard for the Arts’ new digs and delivered the Minneapolis College of Art and Design’s commencement address.
“Her impact on the NEA is something that’s going to be felt for generations to come,” said Sanjit Sethi, president of the college.
Sethi met Jackson years ago, when their 30-minute meeting turned into a three-hour conversation. Jackson “embodies this idea of being an empathic listener,” he said. “Maria is an incredibly dynamic figure. She also leads with a listening ear.”
Sethi and other local arts administrators also praised Jackson’s influential years at the Urban Institute, where she studied how arts and design can spur economic development. Back then, it was uncommon for urban planning to focus on the arts, Jackson noted in her commencement speech. Jackson’s colleagues would ask: “Why are you doing this arts and culture stuff?”
But she knew in her core that “all these things are interconnected.”
In an interview while in town, Jackson — who is the first African American and Mexican American woman to lead the NEA — talked about the personal and professional history she brings to the federal agency, best known for the grants it awards to arts organizations across the country. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Let’s start with your elastic definition of “the arts.” Why is it important to talk about them more broadly?
A: It’s healthy to have a big umbrella. It’s consistent with my idea of advancing artful lives and lifting up this idea of the arts as it relates to economic development, to our mental and physical health, to education. There’s a lot of critically important work at the intersection of the arts and other fields of policy and practice.
Q: I love that phrase, “artful lives.”
A: It’s the language I started to use to explain that with arts, culture and design, the best-case scenario is that they are part of our everyday lived experience.
Yes, of course, there’s the importance of the special and the sublime. That matters — those pinnacles, those punctuations are really valuable. And the ability to have expressive lives and to assert creativity as part of everyday lived experience also seems to be really important. So how to name all of that?
Q: You grew up in a family that valued the arts. Tell me about that.
A: My brother and I grew up with an African American father who endured Jim Crow segregation and a Mexican immigrant mother. Both were fiercely proud of who they were and are and who we were and are.
They resorted to the arts to help us understand where we came from at a time when they weren’t confident that we would get that through our conventional education. My mom made sure that anytime there was something to do with Mexican culture, we were going to be there. And with my dad, it was Black History Month all year. He had us reading Black authors at a young age and making sure we understood the cultural references in African American music, blues and jazz.
And it wasn’t insular; they also wanted us to be curious about other people.
Q: How will your background in urban planning and creative placemaking serve you in this new role?
A: That background creates a range of on-ramps for the arts to be impactful. There’s a conventional way of thinking about the arts sector that is often limited to the presentation of an art product to audiences or consumers.
A cluster of work is growing around the intersection of the arts and health that straddles many artistic disciplines, including music and visual arts. So that’s something we want to build from.
Q: The pandemic has been tough on the arts. What challenges and opportunities do you see in this moment?
A: Getting people back to work is really important, and the focus of American Rescue Plan monies has been precisely that. So I’m really happy the arts endowment was able to contribute in that way.
Another way it can contribute is to harvest the lessons from the past two years.
Q: What’s an example?
A: The reliance on the internet and technology for some kinds of connection, outreach and delivering services. Everything can’t be done and probably shouldn’t be done that way. But I do think some organizations have many more options to reach populations that perhaps they couldn’t reach in other ways. It has to do with access.
Q: I’m interested in how you think the arts can contribute to more just and equitable systems. And how can arts funding itself be more just and equitable?
A: In terms of how the arts contribute, I use the rubric of reframe, retool and repair. By “reframe,” I mean seeing things differently, having different perspectives, considering something in a different way. That often leads to working differently, finding different ways of addressing the issue that has been crystallized. Then there’s the work of repair. I think of all of that as helping us to get unstuck.
Funding is certainly an important part of it. It’s not the only part of it. There are other nonmonetary resources that are necessarily for a healthy arts ecosystem. I think that’s an important question that warrants civic discourse, right? What does a healthy arts ecosystem look like?
Q: What do you hope folks say about the National Endowment for the Arts under your leadership?
A: I hope that the endowment is understood as a national resource and partner that helps in the development of healthy arts ecosystems that are inclusive and support artful lives. And I would love it to be more expected or normal to recognize that the arts have a critical role to play in health.
I’d also like to be able to push a bit on the role of the arts in creating opportunity-rich communities that are equitable. If I can help advance that, I’ll be really happy.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Jackson’s history-making appointment. She is the first African American and Mexican American woman to lead the National Endowment for the Arts.