Behind the Kauffman

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Jane Chu has captained the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts from idea to completion, overseeing all elements of the $413 million project from fundraising to drywall installation. She also got it done in record time, “four and a half years from ground breaking to completion.”

You might expect the President and CEO of an organization that’s “as complicated as a research hospital” to have an ostentatious office, but it’s small and plainly furnished. Chu’s home base is located at the dark end of a maze of hallways; the center is organized around performance spaces rather than administration, so offices are tucked into extraneous spaces.

Spare as it is, her office is graced by a surprise decorative note — one of her own paintings. Chu doesn’t claim to be a painter, but credits flexibility and creativity as hallmarks of her success. “I think everyone is creative,” she says in a voice subtly inflected with her southern origins. “It may just be a way of being or a way of seeing things differently, but it’s that creative mindset that we want to encourage.”

The only child of Chinese immigrants, Chu was raised in Arkansas but always wanted to live in Kansas City, liking the proximity to home and “that heartland feel.” She came to town with degrees in piano performance, music education and piano pedagogy and has since earned an MBA. She is currently is a PhD candidate in philanthropic studies at Indiana University.

Chu utilizes this unique combination of arts, business and philanthropy daily at the Kauffman Center. “Being raised straddling two cultures and expressing myself — not just through words but other artistic modes — has made me very comfortable standing in the middle of a project with so many moving parts,” she says. “Though I never dreamed that a music major would learn so much about concrete and steel.”

The arts played an early and pivotal role in Jane Chu’s life. She learned to play piano at the age of eight, when her father fell ill with cancer. “He died when I was nine, and I didn’t have siblings. The fact that I could play the piano was satisfying for me.” With parents who spoke Chinese in the home and the prospect of assimilating into small town Arkansas, Chu turned to music to bridge the two worlds. “Music really touched me and was healing — it allowed me to express enough emotions and grief in a way that was somehow very soothing. It was a language and form of self-expression that I didn’t have before.”

She’s still finding those bridges in building and operating all of the facets of the Kauffman Center. “I can pull the disparate pieces together because I actually see a theme. Even though it may look like everyone is speaking a different language, they’re really working for the same project.” Chu sees the arts as central to Kansas City’s development as a city. “The question nowadays is how will we make ourselves distinctive from another community. Creativity is not about doing everything exactly the same, it’s about breaking out and making yourself distinctive. The arts are helping to make Kansas City distinctive.”

Chu envisions the Kauffman Center as “the heartbeat for the metropolitan area,” and is quick to discredit ideas that it isn’t accessible to people of all tastes. “We don’t want anybody to think there is any kind of elitist perspective at the Kauffman Center. Our job is to try and make it approachable. It’s at the top of our minds – we said the center would provide excellence for everyone and that it would offer diverse experiences for people, and that’s our assignment.”

As if all that were not a tall enough order, Chu also plans to return to her dissertation as soon as the hullabaloo around the Kauffman Center opening settles down a bit. “If I just didn’t have to sleep, I think I could do it all,” she says with a wry smile, “but once in a while, I just have to sleep.”

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