October 26, 2012
by Paulette Beete
“Communities need artists and artists need communities to mutually inspire and create spaces for true discourse that can lead to positive change.” — Deepa Gupta
New National Council on the Arts member Deepa Gupta lives in Chicago where she works for The Boeing Company as director of Education Initiatives and Strategy in the global corporate citizenship group. Prior to Boeing she served as a program officer for the MacArthur Foundation where she managed its institutional building program called the MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions, the arts and culture grant program, and internal efforts to define a framework for MacArthur’s programmatic strategy development and impact assessment. Gupta holds an MBA from the Kellogg School at Northwestern University, a master’s degree in public administration from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and a bachelor’s degree in public policy and biology from the University of Chicago. We spoke with her about getting her kids involved in the arts, her favorite arts events to do at home, and the perils of stage fright.
NEA: What’s your earliest memory of being engaged with or participating in the arts?
DEEPA GUPTA: My father loves classical Indian music and both of my parents love Indian Bollywood films and music, so there was always something playing in the house or car on the weekends or evenings. I remember learning kathak (a North Indian dance) at a fairly young age and my mother teaching me dances to old Bollywood movie songs for cultural nights. At age five or six, I had such horrible stage fright that I refused to perform a great little number my mom had so painstakingly taught me. Soon after that, I saw a production of Annie and remember wanting to be on stage performing like all of those little girls in the production and regretting that I had not been brave enough to get on stage and dance.
NEA: I know you have young kids at home. How are you helping them to become engaged with the arts?
GUPTA: It has always felt very natural to play music and sing to my children. Both my son (3) and daughter (15 months) respond to music when they are grumpy or fussy—a song always seems to provide the right level of distraction or engagement to change the mood. My husband plays a little guitar and we’ll often pluck out our kids’ favorite songs for a little sing-a-long. My son attends a great little playschool three times a week that is focused on using arts and movement to engage kids in understanding what it means to be “solo” versus working in “duet” or “trio” or “ensemble” with other children while moving from one space to another. The other major thing are books. Reading and looking at beautiful illustrations with the kids never gets boring—they always seem to find something new after thousands of readings. Finally, no house would be complete without a regular dance party in the kitchen/living area every now and again. My daughter especially can’t seem to help but move to a great beat.
NEA: I know that you are not a practicing artist, but are there any artists whose inspiration you draw from for the work that you do in education?
GUPTA: My involvement in public education as a philanthropist is fairly new. I don’t know that any individual artist has inspired my work in education. That said, I do know that my own experiences with artists and the arts informs my vantage point on the importance of arts appreciation and the practice of arts in giving our children the skills they need to communicate, express themselves and feel what they are learning bodily in equal measure to how much their minds are exercised. So, in the back of my mind are memories of great teaching artists in Chicago whom I have had the privilege of watching at work, alongside memories of friends and colleagues from my days in theater who are so skilled in storytelling and drawing out great performances from actors and designers to support that telling to artists and musicians who are by profession engineers, doctors, and lawyers, but who do their work from a place of creativity and generativeness and practice their art as a hobby and passion. These are the folks whose education (formal and informal) I try to deconstruct to understand what went right and how to preserve and advance their experiences for students we hope to touch through the educational programs we choose to support.
NEA: You’re also a music aficionado. Who are some of your favorite artists, and why?
GUPTA: I have to admit first that “favorite” questions are always difficult for me because I love such a range of music. And I think I like a range of music because music is a memory keeper—so I associate music to experiences or times of my life. That said, I love the harmonies of bluegrass musicians Gillian Welch and David Rawlings and the stories they tell with their beautifully constructed songs. I love Aretha Franklin and Al Green—their voices move me. I like Rufus Wainwright and Sufjan Stevens perhaps because of the choral influences. I like bands like Arcade Fire and Of Montreal and Death Cab for Cutie and Dismemberment Plan because there was a time when we’d listen to live music regularly. My brother, who is ten years older than me, also influenced me in the eighties so I love David Bowie and New Order and Echo and the Bunnymen. I also love old school Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, and Whitney Houston. I also love the poetry of good rap—so Public Enemy and Salt n Pepa and the Beastie Boys are also on my list. I could go on….
NEA: At one point in your career, you were at the MacArthur Foundation? Which genius is/was your favorite, or did you find most inspiring?
GUPTA: Ugh—another favorite question. Well, my work in the social sector began with a passion for public health domestically and globally and the intersection of health with economic empowerment. So, folks like Paul Farmer and Rebecca Onie and Regina Benjamin and Victoria Hale inspired me but also Will Allen and Majora Carter and Martin Eakes.
NEA: There’s doesn’t seem to be a shortage of art and arts events in Chicago where you live. What are some of your favorite art-full things to do there?
GUPTA: I love going to theater and am looking forward to a time when the kids are old enough to appreciate it. We love going to shows my small and midsized companies like the Hypocrites but also seeing things at Victory Gardens or Steppenwolf I also love listening to live music so going to hear concerts outdoors in Millennium Park in the summer and listening to bands in one of Chicago’s great rock clubs like the Metro or the Empty Bottle.
NEA:What do you hope to accomplish while you’re on the National Council of the Arts?
GUPTA: I simply hope to contribute some value to the thinking and approach of an exceptional NEA staff—exceptional in their experience and knowledge of their respective fields as well as their thoughtful deliberation and consideration of the work to support. There are many new Council members joining now or in the near future, so I am excited to have been given this opportunity to work with such a range of accomplished professionals, discuss the importance of cultural policy in our lives and how that can be shaped or nurtured by the work of the NEA.
NEA: What do you think is the role of the artist in the community? And the responsibility of the community to the artist?
GUPTA: Artists often offer a different way of thinking about intractable problems or identifying value where others might see despair. Artists are citizens and participants in community equal to any other citizen. We have a responsibility to our communities and our artists to ensure that artists’ participation is supported and advanced in ways that allow them to reflect our best and worst behaviors back to us through forms of expression like music, dance, literature, visual arts, spoken word, and mixed media, so that we can be self-aware and conscious and honest about what we are doing well and what we need to work on as a society. Communities need artists and artists need communities to mutually inspire and create spaces for true discourse that can lead to positive change.
NEA: What does the phrase “Art Works” mean to you?
GUPTA: For me, Art Works represents a movement and a framing about the relevance of culture in our society that cannot be understated or marginalized. Art Works recognizes arts’ and culture’s nuances and often-times uncredited influence and power over our opinions and decision-making that shape our world.