When President Biden nominated Maria Rosario Jackson to head the National Endowment for the Arts in October 2021, the appointment was groundbreaking but inevitable.

Groundbreaking because Jackson is the nation’s first NEA chair to be an African American and Mexican American woman. And inevitable because her background is the ideal blend of arts experience, administrative knowledge, urban planning, public service and a deep understanding of the impact of culture on diverse communities. She’s the right person at the right time for the job. Under Jackson, the NEA’s budget has grown significantly this year to $207 million, a $27 million increase over last year. 

Maria Rosario Jackson, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts. Credit: Photo courtesy of the National Endowment for the Arts

NEA chairs traditionally don’t pay much attention to Orange County; we haven’t hosted one since 1988. But Jackson is a Southern California native with deep roots here and in Mexico – she grew up in South Los Angeles, spending summers in her mother’s hometown of Mexico City, and she lives much of the time in this part of the country – so perhaps it should be no surprise that barely a year into her tenure, she visited O.C. Jackson delivered a lecture at Irvine Barclay Theatre on Tuesday, Feb. 7. It’s part of the Creative Edge Lecture series, which features thought leaders on creativity and innovation.

We talked recently to Jackson about the importance of art to the national fabric and how it positively impacts lives and communities.

Voice of OC: You talk about the importance of living an artful life. What do you mean by that exactly?

Chair Maria Rosario Jackson: It’s an inclusive concept (that refers to) the everyday aesthetic and creative choices that we make as part of our daily lived experiences. So food, fashion, how we choose to express ourselves, in a day-to-day way. And it includes different ways of engaging. So it’s audience participation, of course, and it’s the buying … of artistic products and experiences. I think it’s also making, doing, teaching, learning. It invites a really broad range of opportunities to be creative, to use imagination, to learn about your own story and the story of others.

VOC: You’ve said that storytelling is critical to our American ethos. In what ways is storytelling important to who we are and how we define ourselves?

Jackson: I think so much of our American identity is based on having some control over who we are and who we say we are. And (storytelling allows) people to make sense of the world … on our own terms. I think that that’s a really important part of a healthy and just existence. 

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VOC: So one of the main purposes of a conscientious artist is to help us tell stories about ourselves – to figure out what stories are important, and present them in a way that resonates with us.

Jackson: Help us make sense of the world. Yes. Help us ask questions. Help us consider multiple perspectives on something. Consider (things) intellectually, emotionally, physically, which is something that the arts allow us to do in ways that other outlets don’t.

VOC: Why do you think arts at the community level is vitally important?

Jackson: I think it’s part of what builds our social fabric, our ability to see each other’s humanity, our ability to connect and understand our … interdependence or similarities or sometimes meaningful differences. My roots are in urban planning. And when I think about … the qualities of places that lead to all people being able to thrive, the arts are a critical element of that. And not just … participation as an audience (but) these other ways of participating that have to do with active engagement in the creative process, and inquiry and curiosity.

VOC: You’ve said the arts are a crucial part of a community’s social infrastructure. 

Jackson: Yes, I often talk about an arts-infused civic infrastructure. As we think about tending to the physical needs of our communities, it’s also important to tend to the social fabric at the same time.

VOC: You’ve remarked that with community art, process is as important as product. 

Jackson: One of the things that engagement and (the) creative process delivers is a sense of agency and a discovery that you can create. And that’s powerful individually; it’s also really powerful collectively. When people are involved in collective art making, the precedent of having made something together is incredibly powerful,  and often a precondition for other things that (get accomplished).

VOC: You’ve mentioned that artists can have many kinds of relationships with the public. What do you think are some of the most important ones that an artist can develop?

Jackson: I think artists are also sometimes teachers; they’re sometimes guides – people that help us take responsibility for our own creative lives. They can inspire us to be generative. They can inspire us to pursue a very significant part of the human experience that needs tending to, and that is our creativity and imagination. 

VOC: In what other ways do the arts positively impact communities and people’s lives?

Jackson: The cultural sector is an important part of our local and national economies, the global economy. I think that there are a lot of positive impacts at the intersection of arts and health – mental health in particular, especially as we emerge from the pandemic.  I think (the arts can help) the mending of our nation – you know, how polarized we are right now. The arts can contribute there in terms of helping us again see important commonalities and ways in which the state of one person or one community actually impacts another. I’m a sincere believer that investments in the arts are critically important, not just in the cultural sector, but in all of the ways that the arts touch our lives.

Paul Hodgins is the founding editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at phodgins@voiceofoc.org.

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