Q&A: Jason Schupbach, National Endowment for the Arts

This story was originally published by AIGA DC.

Days before taking the stage as a keynote speaker at the Dot.Gov design conference, Jason Schupbach, director of design at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), spoke with AIGA DC Communications Chair, Scott Kirkwood. From 2004 to 2008, Schupbach was director of ArtistLink, where he helped create more than 60 projects in 20 communities generating more than 500,000 square feet of artist space. Now, Schupbach manages the NEA’s grantmaking efforts and oversees the agency’s design initiatives, including Our Town, which funds the role of arts in the economic revitalization of cities, helping to create livable, sustainable communities.

What prompted you to make the move to NEA in May 2010?

I’ve always been really interested in helping creative people succeed—I’ve sort of dedicated my life to it. I believe that creativity has a vital role in making our economy better and making life better, and, although I don’t have that creative gene that many designers possess, I’m really interested in improving the infrastructure and support for creative people—that’s what gets me out of bed. Every day I get to ask myself: How I can make life better for designers, and how can I make American design better?

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Clockwise from top left: Jason Schupbach, Tacoma Art Museum, Burlington City Hall

What are some common misconceptions about NEA?

I don’t think people know that we fund design and that we’ve been doing it for 50 years. Most people associate NEA with museums, visual arts, and performing arts, and those are important parts of our work, but we’ve also been supporting some of the most important design movements, and putting serious money behind some of field’s most important people for a long time. We’ve had our hands in everything from city planning to some of the first magazines focused on design thinking, and we’ve been behind some of the nation’s key architectural movements.

For example, the river in Providence, Rhode Island, had been paved over, until the NEA funded a study exploring what it would mean to uncover the river, and it’s totally transformed downtown Providence. We funded the classroom trip that led Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown to create the book “Learning from Las Vegas.” And in the ’90s we published a magazine called The Business of Design, which is all about industrial design thinking and the ways design can benefit the business community—an approach that’s standard practice now.

One of the themes of your career, which continues at NEA, is creating community through design. Can you talk about that?

We call that “creative placemaking.” It’s a relatively new name for a very long practice of supporting the role of arts in making great cities—and it’s nothing new; Michelangelo, was a great city builder, right? This country has a long history of supporting all different kinds of things that make places more livable through the arts: from creating artists’ spaces in empty store fronts to museums, theaters, festivals, and performances—all those things that make cities great. We recently supported a big project in Boston called Design Museum Boston, which is a virtual museum promoting design displays all over the city.

Our latest project is Our Town, a $5 million grant program, that funds projects from $25,000 to $200,000, with matching grants from local sources. That program supports collaborations between local governments, tribes, cities, counties, and arts and design organizations, to produce projects that benefit local communities. If you’re looking to build a good city, it takes 100 different tools at once: an environmental strategy, a transit strategy, housing, and so on—we’ve been focusing on the ten to twelve artistic tools that are needed in concert with all those other tools. We’re working closely with other federal agencies, like Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Transportation, and others that are focused on place, to try to make arts and design part of that picture.

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Marfa drive-through in Texas

The federal government has a long history of design competitions, one of which led to Maya Lin’s creation of the Vietnam Memorial. Are design competitions still common?

Yes, competitions remain common today, and NEA supports nonprofits and government agencies that want to create design competitions. We helped with HUD’s recent “Rebuild by Design,” launched shortly after Hurricane Sandy, and the currently open competition for a Peace Corps memorial in D.C.

I think the most common challenge with competitions is the time that design firms spend up front, only to find that they haven’t won and aren’t getting any money. So we always recommend having a very quick, inexpensive first round then move to a second round where people actually get some money to develop their ideas, because one of my top priorities is to see that designers get paid for their work.

I’ve heard you say that you never know what ideas are going to be important, so NEA needs to fund ideas. That sounds like something you’d hear in Silicon Valley more than Washington, D.C.

Right, let’s take the Scott Brown and Venturi trip: Who knew that a student trip to Las Vegas was going to lead to a book that would change so many people’s thinking about design in America? We believe strongly in funding the creative process, with experiments; people need to understand that we’re never going to get anywhere unless we take risks with new ideas, so there are a lots of things we fund that may never end up being the greatest art of all time, but a lot of things just might. The beautiful thing about this job is that 20 years from now, something we fund might turn out to be incredibly important, and we never could have guessed the impact at the time—that’s just part of funding the creative process.

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Writers Theater in Philadelphia

All images courtesy of NEA.

About the Author:

Scott Kirkwood is a freelance copywriter and creative director in Denver, CO, with a focus on the outdoors, nonprofits and "do-gooder" companies. He is also a frequent contributor to HOW Magazine and AIGA design blogs.