NEA boss ‘heartened in all my visits to Detroit’

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Jane Chu visited both the Cranbrook Art Museum and Detroit’s Mosaic Youth Theatre when she blew through the city Monday, her third trip in just six months.

In the morning, Chu addressed the annual convention of the Association of Art Museum Directors at Cranbrook, and after lunch dropped by the theater program famous for the performance and academic success it gets from Detroit junior and senior high-schoolers.

“We hear good things about Mosaic,” Chu said. “That’s why we’re here. We can’t wait to take the tour.”

Asked why Detroit’s figured so often on her itinerary, Chu said that it often just boils down to invitations — for example, to speak this morning at Cranbrook. But whenever she travels, she added, she tries to look in on at least one or two local arts organizations, and has made a point of visiting communities across the U.S.

Chu spoke at the SphinxCon arts conference in late January, and flew in during April’s Art X Detroit for a panel with Kresge Foundation President Rip Rapson.

“I’ve been heartened in all my visits to Detroit,” said Chu, who’s been NEA chairman just under a year. “It’s filled with passionate and committed people, and the arts are at the heart of building vitality and economic development. You’re already seeing spillover effects. That’s my take on it, nationally.”

In showing Chu around Mosaic’s wing in Detroit’s old Sidney D. Miller High School, which the theater program now shares with University Prep Math & Science, Mosaic founder and Artistic Director Rick Sperling rattles off some of the stars the high school graduated. They include two Olympic gold medalists and musical greats Yusef Lateef, Kenny Burrell and Milt Jackson.

And during an earlier incarnation as a middle school, Sperling notes, boxer Joe Louis exercised in the little gymnasium that’s now Mosaic’s black box theater.

Sperling explains that in collaboration with New York’s famed Public Theater, Mosaic just completed a series of performances of “The Tempest,” which elicits a grin and a thumbs-up from Chu.

Mosaic is just one of dozens of Michigan cultural organizations that receive money directly or indirectly from the NEA.

In May, NEA announced $1.1 million in new Michigan grants, including $743,000 to the Michigan Council for Arts & Cultural Affairs, which then distributes grants to individual applicants. In this cycle, the council awarded $40,000 to Mosaic, which it’s long supported.