The minuscule budget of the National Endowment for the Arts belies the independent agency’s role in shaping the next generation of American artists. Since its inception in 1965, the congressionally chartered NEA has awarded more than $4 billion in grants to performances, exhibitions, festivals, and other artistic endeavors. Without its support, the Sundance Film Festival and the American Film Institute might never have gotten off the ground.
As acting chairwoman, Shigekawa has revised the agency’s funding guidelines to mirror the advent of digital art. “The arts themselves are changing, and they’re changing very rapidly,” she says. Upon arriving at the agency in 2009, she helped create a new funding category that encompasses video games and interactive artwork. “The arts in that area are platform-agnostic. A priority for me is staying abreast of the rapid changes that we are all experiencing. We want you to have the arts on your iPhone or Android.”
Under Shigekawa’s leadership, the agency is continuing to redefine the arts as a balm for the sick and wounded. Through a partnership with the Defense Department, the NEA has set up a creative-writing program to treat active-duty military personnel afflicted with posttraumatic stress disorder. “Basically, Western medicine is stymied,” she says. “[Doctors] reach a certain point where they do not know the best way to help them…. We’re going to be looking at what happens to your brain when you’re in a creating state.”
Shigekawa, 76, was recruited to the agency as senior deputy chairwoman by then-Chairman Rocco Landesman and was named acting chairwoman in December 2012. Before that, she was associate director for foundation initiatives at the Rockefeller Foundation in New York, where she managed the NYC Cultural Innovation Fund.
Shigekawa, a native of California, holds a bachelor’s degree from Bryn Mawr College, near Philadelphia. She is a former staff member at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she collaborated with the J. Paul Getty Trust on the Production Laboratory of the Program for Art on Film, and served as the inaugural director of the arts program at the Nathan Cummings Foundation in New York.