On October 5, 2021, President Joe Biden nominated Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson as Chair for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). If confirmed by Congress, Dr. Jackson will be the first African American and Mexican American to hold the chair position for the NEA. Dr. Jackson is no stranger to the agency or to leadership positions. She was appointed to the NEA council by President Obama in 2014. She has worked with philanthropic foundations, such as the Kresge Foundation, and other government agencies, like the Urban Institute, and she currently teaches at Arizona State University.
To understand the significance of her nomination, it’s important to look at the history of the NEA. It was established in 1965 to promote and fund the arts in the United States. Chairs and members of the council are appointed by the sitting president and confirmed by the senate. The chair of the NEA, with recommendations from the council, is responsible for allocating funds to various programs and individuals.
Many local nonprofits and artists depend on the NEA to fund projects that would not be possible without the agency’s help. What makes Dr. Jackson’s nomination for the role important is not only her race but also her focus on art as part of urban planning.
Dr. Jackson began her studies in journalism but wanted to find a way to make an impact on society beyond writing about it. She soon discovered urban planning. However, she found a missing piece in the urban planning program: the role of the arts. Most urban planners have focused on the economic, physical, and current cultural developments of a city or town based on data. When it comes to the arts, they are often regulated to beautifying an area or creating artist spaces.
Most urban planners ignore the impact that the arts can have on a community beyond economic development. Dr. Jackson has worked to change that view to one where the arts are seen as integral to creating thriving communities—both planning for their future and preserving their past.
In interviews, Dr. Jackson has expressed concern with a data-centric view of urban planning. Although the data are important, the history of the land and the people who occupy neighborhoods need to be added to this equation. Most of the communities urban planning effects are like the communities in which she grew up, where the arts were used to express and understand culture.
For Dr. Jackson, her Mexican mother exposed her to artists of Mexican heritage, while her African father exposed her to Southern blues artists to understand African American history. Her exposure to her cultural heritage helped develop who she was and helped her understand the communities to which she belonged. In her research, Dr. Jackson promotes the importance of preserving the history of the land that urban planners enter and being sensitive to the cultures that occupy the neighborhoods that their decisions affect.
Most artists who create public works of art, establish art programs, or aim to use the arts in other fields of study are also seeking ways to impact their communities in the ways Dr. Jackson is promoting. Many find it important to invest time into interacting with the neighborhoods they occupy. However, there continues to be a lack of financial support and support systems to help the arts integrate into urban planning beyond aesthetics.
If Dr. Jackson is confirmed as the Chair for the National Endowment of the Arts, there is hope that this will bring more attention to the need for establishing the support systems and financial grants that will promote the arts in communities as an important part of a society and how that society expresses itself.
Questions for Discussion
- Check the website for your community or a larger community within your state for the city planner, urban planner, or a planning/development department. What is this department responsible for in the community? Do they have committees or information on how they use the arts in planning?
- How can we use art in society beyond an artist making a work of art for public view? Explain how this would benefit the community culturally, economically, and personally.
- What other institutions could benefit from including the arts in their planning, and why?
Hill, Allison. “Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson Nominated to Be Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts.” Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson Nominated to Be Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Arts, 5 Oct. 2021, https://www.arts.gov/about/news/2021/dr-maria-rosario-jackson-nominated-be-chair-national-endowment-arts.
Iyengar, Sunil. “But What about the Artists?” But What About the Artists?, National Endowment for the Arts, 2 Sept. 2021, https://www.arts.gov/stories/blog/2021/what-about-artists.
Rosario Jackson, Maria. Interview with Josephine Reed. “Maria Rosario Jackson.” National Endowment for the Arts Podcast, National Endowment for the Arts, 22 Jan. 2015, https://www.arts.gov/stories/podcast/maria-rosario-jackson.
“What Is a Landmark? Cultural Equity in the Remembrance of Places.” 18th Street Arts Center, 18th Street Arts Center, 27 Aug. 2021, https://18thstreet.org/event/what-is-a-landmark-cultural-equity-in-the-remembrance-of-places/.
“What Is Planning?” American Planning Association, 2021, www.planning.org/aboutplanning/.