Joan of Art

Every year, when the final figure for the NEA budget is announced, (this year $146 million) the nation’s arts community breathes a collective sigh of relief.  It’s certainly not because the agency’s funds are hardy enough to trickle down to all the various localities in the country. It’s more because although its budget is modest, the agency is a symbol of our most precious commodity, our culture.

No one understood this more than Joan Mondale, wife of Vice President Walter Mondale during the Carter Administration, who passed away this month at the age of 83. I remember meeting Mrs. Mondale, known as “Joan of Art,” not at an opera or museum, but touring some run down buildings on 42nd Street, which would be transformed into Theater Row. It struck me at the time that her interest was in the broadest spectrum of the arts. During her time in Washington, the NEA budget rose to $158.8 million, only to be slashed at the onset of the Reagan Administration.  In truth, however, the agency has had its ups and downs since its creation in 1965.

Now a new NEA leader has been nominated by the Obama Administration. Dr. Jane Chu has an impressive record in fundraising and administration as president and chief executive of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, MO. She will no doubt have her challenges. Let’s hope she can succeed as the new “Jane of Art.”

Photo of Joan Mondale by Brian Peterson/Associated Press

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