Chairman, National Endowment of the Arts
How did you get here?
My parents both emigrated from China. My mother came as a teenager in 1949 during the change of government. Her parents snuck her out by herself. She didn’t carry any luggage to avoid suspicion, and instead wore eight pairs of underwear one on top of the other. She also didn’t have any papers permitting her to travel; if caught without these, she would have been arrested. But somehow, over her eight-day trip from Qingdao to Hong Kong, she made it through 141 inspections without ever being questioned, although she never saw, or talked to her parents again.
She met my father in the United States. As it turns out, they grew up 30 miles from each other in China, the beautiful country they loved so much. And yet they had traveled 11,000 miles to find each other and build their life together.
Meanwhile, I was born in Oklahoma and raised in Arkansas—a state that didn’t have a large Asian population when I was growing up. So I had a very stark division between my two everyday worlds. My parents ate bok choy, but I liked corn dogs and mashed potatoes. They spoke Mandarin at home, but I spoke English at school. So because of this distance—not just between my peers but within my own family—I became very comfortable at straddling different worlds, and embracing multiple perspectives. I think, more than anything, this accounts for where I am today. I’m able to be in ambiguous situations and embrace opposing attitudes without force-fitting people to be something they're not. Rallying diverse people and perspectives around a common cause has always defined my leadership style.
Of course, as the child of immigrants, there is also that subliminal message to succeed. Even though my parents never said it outright, there is always the sense of, “After all we went through, you’ve got to make your mark. Go for the top.” And I did.
Who or what has been the greatest influence on your career?
Many years ago, I heard author Jim Collins talk about how he envisioned a personal board of directors for himself. I thought this was such a great idea, and it’s a practice I’ve made my own. I pulled together, in my mind, a board of directors of people who had various qualities that I wanted to emulate. There was no one superstar model, so everyone was off the hook for having to be perfect. But they each had particular qualities that I admired and inspired me. Once in a while, I would tell one or two of them, "You're on my personal board of directors," which I think they always got a kick out of. But this group of people morphed as I grew, and will probably morph for the rest of my life.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment during the Obama Administration?
We’ve accomplished a great deal at the National Endowment for the Arts. We celebrated our 50th anniversary this year, launched a new initiative called Creativity Connects, and established a new songwriting competition. Plus, Congress recently approved a budget increase which will allow us to expand our healing arts programs for military service members.
But I consider how you do something is as important as what you do. So in addition to these tangible accomplishments, I’m just as proud of the relationships we’ve built along the way. Since my tenure began, I’ve visited 38 states so far, which has allowed us to have in-person, face-to-face conversations with our state and regional partners, local community leaders and artists, schools, museums, grantees—you name it. This has emphasized our message that the strength of our cultural ecosystem requires strong and healthy partnerships. Again, it’s about bringing together different organizations and perspectives, and working together to shape the arts in America. So I do think our lasting legacy will be the connections and conversations that we’ve set into motion.
Can you describe your time working for the Obama administration in 10 words?
President Obama’s integrity is inspiring, and has set the tone for my time at the NEA.
Complete the sentence: “When I’m not working, I…”
If I'm in a job that's fun and energizing—which I am —then work and play are one and the same. But I do spend a lot of time drawing when I’m on the road. I was trained in piano, but it's hard to bring a piano on the plane. With drawing, all l I need to bring is a pen and some paper. It's a great way to connect with people and remember what I’ve seen and done. Drawing creates a different sort of keepsake from these wonderful times getting to meet amazing people across America.