NEA Chair champions Colorado, and arts therapies for veterans

 NEA Chairman Jane Chu. Photo by John Moore.

NEA Chairman Jane Chu at the Colorado Creative Industries’ Town Hall meeting at the Denver Performing Arts Complex. Photo by John Moore. 

National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Jane Chu came to Denver last week with a rallying cry worthy of a campaign stop: “Colorado, when it comes to participating in the arts … you are hitting it out of the park!”
she told local arts and business leaders at a Town Hall meeting at the Studio Loft in the Denver Performing Arts Complex.

Her message, she said, was to celebrate “the ability of art to not only change but repair lives.” And increasingly, those broken lives now include thousands of returning military service members.

Chu’s presentation included statistics that made plain the arts continue to play a significant role in the vitality of Colorado. Among the data she cited: 

  • While 37.4 percent of all Americans said they attended a live performing arts event in 2012, that percentage was a whopping 51.9 in Colorado.
  • 16.1 percent of all Americans attended a musical or opera, compared to 20.9 percent in Colorado.
  • And Coloradans attended non-musical plays at nearly twice the national rate – 15.3 percent to 8.3.

NEA study on Colorado arts participation.
A 2012 NEA study on arts participation shows Colorado is above average in every category. Source: NEA. 

“Colorado is one of the states that is consistently above the national average when it comes to participating in the arts,” Chu said. And her findings regarding Colorado were consistently above average when also measuring participation in dance, live music, outdoor performing arts, reading, photography, pottery, textiles, metalwork, and even historic preservation and design.

“The arts are thriving in Colorado in so many ways,” Chu said, “and it’s great to see such a wide variety of arts. There’s something for everyone.”

Chu was brought to Denver at the invitation of the state’s arts council, called Colorado Creative Industries, and she used the opportunity to reinforce the notion that arts are not a subsidy: They are an economic engine.

“We see through hard evidence that the nonprofit arts sector alone – that’s the sector that both the National Endowment for the Arts and Colorado Creative Industries support – contributed $12.1 billion to the nation’s economy in one single year,” she said.

The following day, Chu participated in a song-sharing workshop with  Northfield High School students led by members of the popular local advocacy band Flobots. She then toured the Loveland Arts Campus, and visited Denver’s singular Phamaly Theatre Company, which has made performance opportunities available to artists with disabilities for more than 25 years. She quietly watched about 30 minutes of rehearsal for the company’s upcoming production of the Alzheimer’s drama Taking Leave, to be presented at the Jones Theatre, then took questions from about 18 actors and staff.

Phamaly actor Harper Liles was impressed that Chu chose Phamaly to visit first-hand from among the hundreds of Colorado arts organizations.

“I am sure that what she saw here is such a break from what she ordinarily sees,” Liles said. “It seems that adaptability in the arts is having a big moment right now.”

The National Endowment for the Arts, which celebrated its 50th year last Sept. 29, has awarded 147,000 grants and awarded $5 billion in its history. Chu cited Phamaly, Youth on Record, Su Teatro, the Denver Indigenous Film & Arts Festival and Museum Day Live! as local NEA grant recipients.

“At Su Teatro, productions that speak to the Chicano experience have become a cultural attraction for Denver’s Hispanic community, which makes up nearly a fifth of the entire Denver metro area population,” Chu said. 

NEA Chairman Jane Chu stopped by a Phamaly Theatre Company rehearsal during her visit to Denver. Photo provided by Phamaly Theatre Company.  NEA Chairman Jane Chu stopped by a Phamaly Theatre Company rehearsal during her visit to Denver. Photo provided by Phamaly Theatre Company. 

The NEA operates on a $146 million annual budget, which represents about 0.012 percent of federal discretionary spending. At this polarizing and partisan political time, Chu made a point to thank President Barack Obama and both houses of Congress for the NEA’s recent budget increase of nearly $2 million, specifically targeted at creative arts therapies programs for returning military veterans.

“This is the first funding increase approved by Congress since cuts were made to the NEA budget four years ago,” Chu said. The budget increase will begin to allow the NEA to expand the program to more military sites in states like Colorado, where there are more than 37,000 active duty service members and 413,000 living veterans alone.

“Having creative arts therapies programs in Colorado, closer to where these service members and veterans reside, and where they can participate, is a valuable vision to have,” she said.

“At first thought, the arts and the military might seem to operate in totally different orbits. But when we bring them together, the results can be powerful. That’s why, in 2011, we launched a creative arts therapies program for our military service members, many of whom have been affected by the invisible wounds of Iraq and Afghanistan, traumatic brain injury and associated psychological health conditions.

Phamaly NEA Quote “Our military service members who have been affected by post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury say that because they get to create through this arts program, they can now manage their stress, their memory is more enhanced, they can communicate more clearly, and they can manage their physical pain better. We believe that the arts have allowed them to tap into the meaning and value of their own lives, which were always there, but may have been buried during times of combat.”

Despite calling out many specific Colorado achievements in the arts, several in attendance for Chu’s address later expressed surprise that she did not mention the metro area’s signature taxing district, which is considered a national model. The Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD) is a penny-per-$10 sales tax that raises about $55 million annually for Colorado arts organizations. That is the equivalent of nearly one-third of the NEA’s entire budget for the nation. It goes before voters in November for a crucial reauthorization vote.

But she praised Denver in many other ways. Before she was appointed by Obama to lead the NEA, Chu was with the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City. ”Right after we broke ground, a board member and I flew over to meet with the Bonfils Stanton Foundation, and we took a tour of the Denver Performing Arts Complex so that we could learn from you,” she said.

Chu said the NEA is making strides in making the arts more accessible to women and people of color, and those who speak English as a second language.

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

“We’re really making progress as a nation in moving away from the old stereotype that the arts are removed from the rest of society, or that they’re only for some people but not for others, when we know that isn’t true,” she said. 

“We’re moving in the right direction. There is still progress to be made, and at the same time, we applaud those organizations throughout Colorado and across the nation that are working to foster an environment where all people will be made to feel that yes, the arts have a place for them.”

After her prepared remarks, Chu took questions and comments from a variety of local arts leaders in attendance, including Lucy Walker, the 90-year-old founder of EDEN Theatrical Workshop, Cleo Parker Robinson (Cleo Parker Robinson Dance) and Jami Duffy (Youth on Record).

Jane Chu NEA Lucy Walker Eden Thetrical WorkshopWalker specifically questioned Chu on the NEA’s commitment to minority arts organizations.

“The Expansion Arts Program was established to level the field,” Walker said, “and it did for a very short time. And then it was put out of existence. That meant that most of us throughout this nation who were minorities were out arts funding sources. Eden Theatrical Workshop has been in existence for 51 years and yet we are not allowed to participate in the arts. We are not funded.”

(Photo above right: Eden Theatrical Workshop founder Lucy Walker addresses NEA Chairman Jane Chu. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.)

Chu, who was born in Shawnee, Okla., the daughter of Chinese immigrants, responded by noting rapidly shifting demographics across America. “By the year 2020, the population ages 18 and under will be minority majority,” she said. “By 2040, the population of 35 and under will be minority majority, and by 2060, there will be no minorities. And with shifts in demographics come different perspectives, and so this is an opportunity to honor that through the arts.”   

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

NEA Chairman Jane Chu at a Town Hall meeting at the Denver Performing Arts Complex. Photo by John Moore.  NEA Chairman Jane Chu at the Colorado Creative Industries’ Town Hall meeting at the Denver Performing Arts Complex. Photo by John Moore. 

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