Jane Chu

Jane Chu, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, stands in front of a mural of The Black 14, located in an alley between Grand Avenue and Ivinson Street. Chu took a tour Thursday of the downtown murals.

SHANNON BRODERICK

Jane Chu, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, praised downtown Laramie’s character during a visit to Gem City on Thursday.

Chu, making her first official visit to Wyoming and the first NEA visit to Laramie in 20 years, spent the day meeting with local artists and touring arts organizations. She said the arts are a good way for a community to distinguish itself, pointing to Laramie’s murals and downtown district as an example.

“It’s so unique,” she said. “It wasn’t a template. It was more like an expression of the characteristics.”

In 2013, Laramie received an NEA Our Town grant to support the creation of public art.

In addition to a tour of downtown Laramie’s murals, Chu toured the University of Wyoming Art Museum, met with members of the UW Department of Theatre and Dance to learn about vertical dance, met with artists from elsewhere in the state and hosted a town hall meeting. As the NEA celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, Chu is traveling to different states to learn about how the arts are practiced across the country. She said she’ll make it to 47 states by the end of the year.

“We think the arts are one of the best ways for people to express themselves in different communities, and as individuals, and in different states, because they celebrate our characteristics,” she said.

Chu also praised the way local arts organizations are creating opportunities for people from all backgrounds to express themselves artistically.

“We’re very appreciative of the mindset here to want to spread the arts,” she said. “The transformational power of the arts has been demonstrated here.”

Another mission of her national travels is to see how and where the NEA can direct funding to reach more people, such as those who live in rural communities, Chu said. The NEA sends 40 percent of its budget to the states for distribution through organizations such as the Wyoming Arts Council.

Fifty years into its tenure, the NEA’s mission hasn’t changed even as it strives to maintain relevance in a changing world, Chu said. The endowment was established by Congress in 1965 to support participation in the arts and celebrate the country’s cultural heritage. These days, most Americans first access the arts through some sort of electronic medium, which has encouraged the NEA to increase grant funding for digital projects.

“We want to make sure our ear is to the ground and make sure we’re paying attention as best we can to what we can spark out there,” Chu said.

During her travels, Chu said she’s learned that the arts are healthy across the United States.

The arts are thriving, but they’re thriving in so many different ways that we need to make sure that we’re aware of how the arts are thriving,” she said.

Chu is the 11th chair of the NEA. Born in Shawnee, Oklahoma, to Chinese immigrant parents, she has a background in arts administration and philanthropy.

She previously served as president and CEO of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Missouri.

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