Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson

Chair,  National Endowment for the Arts

Philanthropy and the Arts: A Conversation with NEA Chair, Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson


 April 2023

By Susan Wampler

National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Chair Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson addressed how the arts can unleash more impactful policymaking and community problem solving across a wide spectrum of issues during the most recent conversation in the Distinguished Speaker Series convened by the USC Price School’s Center on Philanthropy & Public Policy.

Jackson — who earned her master of public administration from USC Price — made history in January 2022, when she became the first African American and Mexican American woman to lead the NEA. But her pioneering status goes much deeper, due to her 25 years of experience elevating the arts as a critical element of community building: “The arts are intrinsically important. Full stop. At the same time, they’re important because they contribute to other community dynamics that can help address community needs and aspirations. These things are not necessarily at odds with each other.”

Rip Rapson, president and CEO of The Kresge Foundation, engaged Dr. Jackson in the conversation, bringing his considerable experience in harnessing philanthropy to aid communities through grantmaking and social investing. During her dialogue with Rapson on March 22, 2023, Jackson shared insights and lessons on reshaping how we think about the arts’ relationship with other sectors.

“People don’t live in sectors or siloes,” Jackson said, emphasizing how health issues might impact your ability to work or how your ability to work is connected to the education you were able to receive. “All of these things are connected.” She expressed enthusiasm for advancing the notion of the arts at the intersection of other sectors, including partnerships with other federal agencies. She noted as examples her discussions with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg about how public art can help reconnect communities implementing the recent infrastructure act, and with Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy on the role of the arts in addressing mental health.

“The NEA is evolving and we can’t do our best work without our partners, not just other government entities, but with philanthropy and others with common or synergistic aims,” Jackson explained. To achieve creative and impactful solutions, she said, “Now’s the time to dream big and not stay in our lanes.”

Rapson added: “There’s a huge opportunity for local philanthropy to figure out where its intervention point is in these conversations. The real answer may be that foundations need to get into the mix, underwrite technical support, underwrite community engagement processes” and work with agency leaders to achieve shared goals.

Among the challenges both Jackson and Rapson noted were the legal and administrative barriers that perpetuate or replicate the status quo. Jackson explained the vital role philanthropy can play in pushing the envelope toward greater impact and more equitable decision making. Because philanthropy and cross-sector partnerships can outlast a presidential administration, they can work more nimbly and effectively than the federal government alone, she said.

Jackson also elaborated her strategies for making the NEA known as more than just a grant funder. She aims to expand the agency’s role as a “national resource” that can help build healthy communities through the arts. “It’s a resource that creates and helps booster healthy arts ecosystems. It contributes to building communities where all people can thrive, where people can live artful lives.”

In addition, she shared her more expansive definition of the arts and their role in society, noting that “the ability for people to be expressive and tell their own stories on their own terms is a critical dimension” of social justice.

“Dr. Jackson’s expansive view of the intersection of the arts and community and her thought-provoking discussion with Rip Rapson underscore the potential for the arts and philanthropy can play in creating change,” said James Ferris, PhD, Center director and the Emery Evans Olson Chair in Nonprofit Entrepreneurship and Public Policy at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy.

The Distinguished Speakers Series provides a venue for leaders from different vantage points — policymakers, foundation executives, and philanthropists — to share their views on philanthropy and public policy, stimulating a conversation about the changes occurring in philanthropy and the implications for public problem solving.

Video from the conversation with Maria Rosario Jackson can be found at here.


The Center on Philanthropy & Public Policy promotes more effective philanthropy and strengthens the nonprofit sector through research that informs philanthropic decision-making and public policy to advance community problem solving. The Center is a part of the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, which works to improve the quality of life for people and their communities, here and abroad.

For more information: Please contact Bhanu Anton Cruz, Senior Associate Director, The Center on Philanthropy & Public Policy at [email protected] or 213-740-1776.