When Jane Chu started playing the piano at eight years old, her music soon became a deep healing balm when her father died of cancer a year later.
“There really weren’t enough words for me on a linear, conversational level to express my own grief,” says Chu.
Today, as chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Chu says music and art are essential forms of expression at any age, but offer unique new opportunities for older adults: to celebrate life, express grief or — for those like her mother suffering from dementia — communicate non-verbally in powerful ways.
“Sometimes it’s the only avenue of expression when everyday linear words can’t be used,” says Chu. “The arts are a great way of being an equalizer.”
As the nation’s leading arts administrator, Chu last month toured the west coast to explore arts programs, visiting one exemplary California program that blends aging and the arts: EngAGE.
EngAGE offers writing, theater, film, music, performance and other arts classes at three senior living “arts colonies” in the Los Angeles area along with dozens of other senior living sites.
“I love that program,” says Chu. “They go into such deep experiences in so many areas when it comes to the arts… a deep immersion experience.”
She reserved special praise for Tim Carpenter, who heads EngAGE, for his dedication not just to the program, but its participants.
“He cares about the quality of every individual he engages with,” says Chu. “He was constantly thinking ‘How can I bring out the best in this resident?’”
Born in Oklahoma and raised in Nebraska, Chu was raised by Chinese parents who left China under the communist regime, and brings to the NEA a singularly Asian appreciation for elders.
“In China as you age, the better you get,” says Chu. “The more you’re lauded as having wisdom and celebrated as the person (others) turn to.”
Chu references the many Chinese poems celebrating the aging process that revere the “beautiful white hair of aging people.”
Today, Chu says her heritage will inform decisions about elders and arts funding.
The NEA currently partners with gerontologists and neurologists to explore reductions in stress and improvements in health provided by the arts. It also has a task force guiding its decisions on arts funding and human development.
The NEA will fund hundreds of arts programs around the country totaling over $146 million this year, including its “Our Town” grants which spark community vitality and often target older adults and multigenerational patrons.
What’s most exciting, says Chu, is watching disparate groups like hospitals and faith-based communities — even utility companies — come together to support arts programming.
“I think we’re also on the tip of the iceberg,” she says. “We’re seeing across the nation that these programs are going to blossom.”
Chu joined the NEA last year after a successful tenure in Kansas City where she oversaw construction of the $400 million Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, home of the Kansas City Symphony and the city’s ballet and opera companies.
She has a graduate degree in music and piano studies, a second graduate degree in business, and a Ph.D. in philanthropic studies.
Blending her vast experience in art, business, philanthropy and Asian culture, Chu sees the aging process as a fresh gateway to the arts.
“It really is an opportunity to embrace a new way of being,” says Chu. “You can come alive and create in so many ways.”