Jason Schupbach, the National Endowment for the Arts’ longtime director of design and creative placemaking programs, will leave the NEA on June 9.
During his seven-year tenure, Schupbach was instrumental in making design part of the federal agenda. In 2010, he launched the Our Town creative placemaking grant program, which has provided funding to cities and towns in all 50 states and in two territories. For example, Our Town funding contributed a $250,000 placemaking grant to a park and train station revitalization project centered around sculptor Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers in Los Angeles, a project that also involved the city’s public works, planning, and transportation departments. “Getting a grant is validation [for a project], but we say just the process of starting a new conversation in applying the grant–even if they didn’t get it–helps,” Schupbach says. “A little money brings people together.”
He also oversaw the Mayors’ Institute on City Design–an initiative the NEA and United States Conference of Mayors founded in 1986 to help mayors think of themselves as urban designers–and the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design, an NEA initiative founded in 1991 that focuses on creative work in communities with populations of 50,000 or less. “The NEA is in year 10 of building out cultural policy in the community development field and having a broader conversation about using art as tools for community development,” Schupbach says. “I’m proud of how that work has grown and it’s been fun to build out.” In 2013, Schupbach also commissioned the NEA’s first-ever report on the role of industrial design as an economic driver; the agency is releasing the second report this May.
The NEA and its sister organization, the National Endowment for the Humanities, have become political flashpoints in the Trump administration. Their endowments–about $149 million each–comprise just 0.02% of the federal budget, yet Trump’s 2018 proposal, which is currently in the negotiation process, eliminates funding to both agencies, essentially shutting them down. It’s an incredibly shortsighted and flat-out stupid idea; the NEA grants are used for Veterans’ health care, for urban development, for education programs, and much more. By slashing its funding, Trump is attempting to annihilate America’s creative soul.
“I’m not running out the front door,” Schupbach tells Co.Design. “It’s a personal decision. Seven years, for me, is a long time to stay somewhere. I stayed because the work was interesting and I had the opportunity to be entrepreneurial.”
Schupbach declined to comment on whether or not the uncertainty surrounding Trump’s plan to defund the NEA influenced his decision to leave his post. While purely speculative, it’s hard not to interpret the departure of a high-profile design advocate as a harbinger for rougher days ahead at the NEA. I asked an NEA spokesperson if they have plans to fill Schupbach’s empty position and was told that the “agency is not commenting on personnel issues at this time.”
Losing a veteran advocate who has developed an extensive network and knows how to navigate bureaucracy without a replacement doesn’t bode well. Schupbach also declined to comment on whether or not there have been other NEA staff departures, but says his “current staff will still be [at the NEA]” and said the NEA is “preceding as normal” in day-to-day business.
“I want to honor the quality of the professionals at the NEA and how
mission-driven the organization is,” he says. “It’s such an honor to work here. It’s the most dedicated workforce. People here work hard to keep the creative life of the country going.”
In July, Schupbach will begin his next role: director of the design school at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, at Arizona State University. He says his new position entails “redesigning the design school,” and that he was attracted to the university for its interest in reinventing higher education and developing an interdisciplinary design program, and its focus on social-impact design.
“During my interview, I said I wanted [the new program] to be collaborative, equitable, and relevant,” Schupbach says. “We have seen over and over again design solutions that don’t work because designers aren’t talking to the people they’re designing for. Design works when you come humbly to a community and don’t assume you have the right solution. That’s known, but not necessarily being taught. For all designers in the country, it’s an important lesson to learn.”