Jane Chu, former chairperson of the National Endowment of the Arts, delivered the Bienen School of Music’s 2018 convocation address on Saturday, June 23, 2018, at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall. 

During her four-year tenure at the NEA, Chu led the agency through increases in the arts endowment budget for three consecutive fiscal years. She launched the Creativity Connects program to provide grants for art programs that linked with science, technology, health, agriculture, aging, and other non-arts sectors, and she also cultivated two international performing arts exchange programs with Cuba and China. The NEA’s Creative Forces initiative, which began in 2012 and supports creative arts therapies for military service members, expanded from two sites to 12 under Chu’s leadership. During her tenure at the NEA, the agency received a 2016 Special Tony Award, a 2018 Drama League Award, as well as two Emmy nominations.

The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Chu was born in Oklahoma and raised in Arkansas. She holds a bachelor’s degrees in piano performance and music education from Ouachita Baptist University, a master’s degree in piano pedagogy from Southern Methodist University, an MBA from Rockhurst University, a Ph.D. in philanthropic studies from Indiana University, as well as multiple honorary doctorate degrees.

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Thank you, Northwestern Bienen School of Music, for giving me the opportunity to join in this convocation with you, and celebrate your graduation. Dean Toni-Marie Montgomery, thank you for your dedicated work to empower your students, as well as your very able faculty and your administration; for cultivating a place where people feel like they belong, and for caring about the educational environment where they can thrive.

By all accounts, the Northwestern Bienen School of Music is regarded as an impressive and highly revered school, nationally and internationally. And for me personally, I have always believed the same thing. As I was completing my undergraduate music degrees in Arkansas, decades ago, and I wanted to pursue my master’s degree, it was my own music school dean, who was also my counterpoint professor, and a Northwestern graduate, who knew of my interests in both piano pedagogy and musicology. 

“Well, if you’re looking for a great school in musicology,” he said, “your very best choice is hands down, decisively Northwestern.” I actually did apply, and was accepted to the musicology program at Northwestern, and even though I ultimately went elsewhere for a master’s degree in piano pedagogy, I have always believed that Northwestern is a very special place. I also realized that even though I was not directly enrolled at Northwestern, I had received excellent education in my own school, passed forward to me from my Northwestern professor. 

I want to extend a hearty congratulations to you, the graduates, for reaching this milestone. After years of going through an intense process that demands such a high level of discipline – mastering your technique on your instrument; analyzing compositional form; sitting in your room, moving your baton in front of a mirror; figuring out how to teach others, so they can learn; creating your own score; sitting in the library archives amongst historical manuscripts; and trying to figure out how to get around the cleaning personnel’s schedule for those early hours after midnight in the practice rooms… not because you wanted to sneak out and do something impish or destructive; but because you have been so dedicated to getting in a few more hours of practice – after all of that, you have arrived.

This is a great day to celebrate your accomplishments, and if I had only one wish for you today it would be that, at the end of today, as you reflect on this wonderful occasion of events, it is really going to sink in that you are ready to go after your dreams because of your excellent education from the Northwestern Bienen School of Music, and because of the creativity that is already within you. 

“There is no single arts program or art form that everyone universally likes. That’s what is so great about the arts: there is something for everyone. The arts give us an opportunity to honor different styles, different approaches, different perspectives.” 

There has never been a better time to understand the power that the arts have in terms of how you can be an effective leader: how you lead your own lives, how you lead and work with others as a musician, within the realm of music, and also beyond the music domain.

When I was at the National Endowment for the Arts and we were doing our own surveys on individual artists – and that means musicians, visual artists, dancers, writers, filmmakers, arts educators, arts administrators – we saw that across the nation, people in the arts now have a far greater variety of working opportunities than earlier generations. Some of this is tied to the presence of the internet which has highly influenced the ways in which many artists work.

Now, possibly more than ever before, the arts are being recognized as an important contribution to helping a workplace be more creative. Certainly there are musicians whose sole focus is to perform on stage, or in recordings, but in addition to the wonderful traditional jobs that artists have held, now we’re also seeing that employers in non-arts organizations are also looking for those in the arts who can help them solve old and tired problems in new ways. 

Communities are looking for arts programs that can draw together, like a giant magnet, that vigorous spirit that brings people together, and sparks economic rejuvenation as well. There are folk and traditional artists who create for the cultural and spiritual life of their communities. 

In the past, we have seen more of a division between artists who create within their sector, but now we’re seeing a blurred line. Musicians are also working in hybrid ways, to mix up artistic formats and work across silos. They’re becoming proficient in multiple disciplines at the same time: the same musician now toggles between performing in a concert hall and working with say, a painter on a museum exhibition. There are musicians who are inspired to work on social issues, or folk and traditional music for the cultural heritage of a community.

There are also new approaches to blending the arts with other non-arts sectors. Across the nation, growing numbers of artists are working as artists in non-arts areas: science labs, tech companies, senior center, businesses, hospitals, mayors’ offices. Why is this giant mashup happening? Because other sectors recognize that in order to advance knowledge that can improve our understanding of the world, it is creativity that pushes us to search for new solutions to old and tired problems, just as it pushes us to express ourselves through the arts. 

Now, creativity, innovation, and the mindset of the entrepreneur are increasingly valued as essential skills to have in the workplace. You are at the heart of these working conditions. Artists are also a very educated segment of our labor force. You’re demonstrating that here today. 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, artists are twice-as-likely to have a college degree as other workers in the United States. And talk about having entrepreneurial characteristics: approximately one third – 34% - of artists are self-employed. That’s three-and-a-half times more than the total United States workforce. 

But we also know that findings like these do not fully capture the true benefits of being in the arts. The arts are about something much deeper, because they incorporate meaning into our lives. We used to look for the types of leaders who were experts in one specific subject, and they knew that subject very well. There’s nothing wrong with being a master of a specific subject; but today, we need leaders who can sort through and bring together these disparate pieces. 

Your studies here at the Northwestern Bienen School of Music have helped you to hone your creative process, express yourselves, and connect with others in ways that give you a wider range of options that others may not have. You already know how to stand in the middle of many different conditions, and make the most quality decisions as a leader, because you have such an in-depth understanding of the different characteristics of style and nuance. You don’t perform Mozart the same way you perform Debussy; you don’t analyze Bartok the same way you analyze Schoenberg; and you don’t approach a co-worker who is focused upon facts and linear analysis the same way you approach a co-worker who is focused upon whether a situation feels good. Most people can tell the difference between a fortissimo and a pianissimo, but you can tell the difference between a forte and a mezzo forte. You know how to move at an andante tempo instead of allegretto. Your ability to understand the nuances lets you listen intently to others; and your ability to convey information to others at the right tempo can distinguish your leadership from other leaders who just dump information on others in a manner that actually throws up extra emotional roadblocks that restrict them from receiving the information. This ability to understand styles and nuances differentiates really good leaders from those leaders who pay no attention to those whom they are leading. 

Really great leadership is also highly dependent upon being able to bring people together. When do you give a group of people free rein to express themselves in a manner that is different from you; and when do you rein in everyone in the group at the same time, so that together you can accomplish a single objective? Composers ask those same questions about the music they write. Should the fugal theme be prominent in the French horns or the flutes? Jazz musicians look for the times in a piece of music when a single musician might take a riff on her own; and other times when all of the performers need to come back together for the sake of the composition. Really effective leaders know when to step forward, and also when to hold themselves back, so that others can lead. And most of all, they know that no single approach is right, all of the time. 

There is no single arts program or art form that everyone universally likes. That’s what is so great about the arts: there is something for everyone. The arts give us an opportunity to honor different styles, different approaches, different perspectives.

I experienced this myself when I was a child. My parents were both born in the beautiful country of China. I was born in Oklahoma, and grew up in Arkansas. My daily activities as I was growing up were about juggling two ways of living; two perspectives and two cultures. My parent spoke Chinese to each other at home, but I spoke English at school. They liked to eat bok choy and mung bean noodles; I liked to eat corn dogs and fried chicken. And although I felt as if I had one foot in each of my cultures, it was the arts that gave me a world that was fully my own. 

Those piano lessons that I was taking as an eight-year-old opened the door to music. I could now express more fully concepts and thoughts that transcended my lesser-skilled linear use of words in everyday conversations, because I had another vocabulary set that incorporated my heart. My own experience in the arts helped me to be very comfortable with embracing multiple perspectives at the same time. I didn’t have to choose whether I was going to be Chinese or Arkansan. I didn’t have to give up one perspective at the expense of the other perspective, because my world did not shrink to one perspective versus the other. Instead, my bok choy/corn dog world expanded to include both perspectives. Because the arts are not about either this or that; they are about both this and that. When it comes to the arts, there’s a place at the same table for multiple points of view.

So you, my friends, are equipped to pursue your dreams. As you share your creative expressions, you will figure out how to honor yourselves and each other at the same time. You will see the patterns, the connections, the possibilities, the nuances and the styles when others don’t see them. When the problems arise – and they will – and others are stuck, and they don’t know what to do next, because it has never been done before, those in the arts can lead us right out of the problem. When others put a fence around a situation, or restrict resources, or perceive that if someone over here has the resources, that must mean someone over there does not have the resources, the arts say, “we are not permanently restricted in a way that keeps us stuck, fearful, or territorial. We can create!” 

The world of creativity does not have to shrink to what others see as the only resources available. The world of creativity expands to find fresh new ways to acquire meaning and value. To build something out of nothing. To be comfortable enough in ambiguous settings without shrinking back. To transcend situations which may only appear to have one solution, or possibly none, because you are creative and educated, and you will figure it out. 

Congratulations on your graduation, and may all you do in the future bring meaning to your lives and the lives of others, in a creative way. Go get ‘em! 

Thank you.


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