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The NEA’s urban design advocate is leaving

Design and placemaking director Jason Schupbach led the agency’s work in cities

NEA-funded public artwork The Bridge in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania helped to revitalize an industrial neighborhood.
Paul Warchol/NEA

Less than a month after President Donald Trump’s budget proposed eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts, the agency’s influential design and placemaking director, Jason Schupbach, has announced that he’s leaving the NEA.

As director of the NEA’s Design and Creative Placemaking Programs, which have been responsible for urban revitalization projects in all 50 states, Schupbach led the development of the NEA’s Our Town grants, which in its most recent grant cycle awarded $5 million to community-focused projects in 70 cities across the country. He also oversaw the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, which brought together designers and city leaders to solve civic challenges.

Schupbach has been design director of the NEA since 2010. Under the leadership of former NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman, Schupbach’s role expanded to include the field of creative placemaking, which Schupbach describes to Curbed as “really putting a framework around what it means for designers and artists to support communities.”

Some of the notable projects that Schupbach helped to incubate went beyond the traditional role of the NEA, including ones that merged design and civic technology, like a mapping tool for New Orleans to take stock of cultural resources and an innovation district in Boston.

Schupbach leading a community design charrette on playgrounds in 2016.

Schupbach is headed to Arizona State University to become the director of its design school. “It was unexpected, but the more I learned about what the school is trying to do, I wanted to be a part of it,” he tells Curbed. Schupbach believes that many of the NEA projects he spearheaded, including a two-year report on the country’s creative industries, will prove especially valuable for educating the next generation of designers. “I want to help create the design school of the future.”

In a statement to NEA grantees, Schupbach reflected on the agency’s dedication to equity and accessibility, two issues that were important to his role. “Thank you to all of you for your commitment and hard work supporting creative minds across the country and for doing amazing projects—all the while building a more equitable, just, and beautiful America,” Schupbach said.

Schupbach will oversee the next round of Our Town grants before he departs on June 9. Although a federal hiring freeze will prevent the NEA from hiring his replacement in the near future, he confirmed to Curbed that the rest of his team remains in place. “The American people are doing the great work,” he said. “We’re just the servants.”

In a March 16 statement, NEA Chairman Jane Chu said that she was “disappointed” with Trump’s budget but affirmed the agency’s commitment to continue serving the country’s communities. “We see our funding actively making a difference with individuals of all ages in thousands of communities, large, small, urban and rural, and in every Congressional District in the nation,” she said. A bipartisan letter from 150 members of Congress suggests increasing NEA funding instead.

Schupbach echoed that commitment to the country’s artists. “I know we will all continue to work together to make America a better place for all of its residents,” he said. “I'm not giving up and neither should you.”