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By Maria Recio, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The new offices of the National Endowment for the Arts are ultra-modern: A glass-enclosed, transparent, updated look that is exactly what the new chairman wants the once-controversial agency to be.

R. Jane Chu, well-regarded in arts circles though barely known by the general public, since June has been the top cultural official of the U.S. government, overseeing nearly $150 million in grants, encouraging artists and artistic activity, and promoting arts in a more welcoming climate than during the culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s.

She does not preside from the classic “corner office,” but rather from a sparse glass office, off a conference room, decorated with a single white orchid. But the conference room showcases something telling about the new chairman: one of her paintings, a colorful closeup of a rumpled quilt with an Amish double wedding band pattern.

It is a modern interpretation of a classic, which is very much what Chu is bringing to the job.

“There’s something symbolic about it,” she said of her painting.

Chu, whose first name is Rose but she goes by Jane, is a cultural powerhouse of her own. Slender, elegantly turned out in a subdued gray suit, the new face of American arts rocks a short, spiky salt-and-pepper hairstyle that at 56 she effortlessly pulls off.

Chu made her professional name in Kansas City, Missouri, where she was involved in the arts for 20 years. From 2006 until being confirmed by the Senate as the NEA chief in June, she was the president and chief executive of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

Her resume covers the breadth of the arts. She is an artist, a pianist, and an educator with multiple degrees, including an associate of arts degree, two bachelor degrees, two master’s — one in business — and a doctorate in philanthropic studies.

Chu, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, was born in Oklahoma and raised in Arkansas with parents who spoke Mandarin. “I grew up navigating cultures,” said Chu, who speaks with a faint Southern accent.

And for the high-achieving Chu, it was the arts that were her “beautiful channel.” She loved drawing and painting — she still draws constantly — as well as playing the piano.

The NEA has needed diplomatic skills in the past, when it drew conservative fire for supporting controversial exhibits, such as one showcasing Robert Mapplethorpe, whose homoerotic photographs sparked cries to eliminate federal arts funding altogether.

After a period of relative calm in the 2000s, the NEA has had stable funding for a number of years, now at $146 million for fiscal 2014. The high point in the past 10 years was $167.5 million in fiscal 2010.

Chu is determined to debunk the persistent impression that the NEA promotes cultural elitism. The charge, and an alleged bias toward New York City, has dogged the agency. The NEA has a variety of programs, including a rural initiative and “Our Town” grants that are arts projects connected to community development.

In August, Chu toured Pawtucket, Rhode Island, where a $75,000 NEA grant will fund public art to decorate unsightly highway overpasses.

Some critics still maintain the federal government should not be in the arts business at all.

“Even Kickstarter raises more money for the arts than is available from NEA’s budget,” said Romina Boccia, a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution, referring to the crowd-funding site. “Federal funding for the arts is neither necessary nor within the proper scope of the federal government. … The NEA should be eliminated.”

Photo: Abaca Press/MCT/Olivier Douliery

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