Q+A – Jeff Speck

Tell us about the NEA Design program you inherited.

I didn’t know what to expect. The chairman, Dana Gioia, wanted a professional designer, not a grants expert. I actually had never worked with the NEA before. I didn’t even know that the marvelous Mayors’ Institute on City Design [inaugurated during Adele Chatfield-Taylor’s tenure as design director 18 years ago] was an NEA program. To the agency’s credit, I did not inherit neglect or mayhem.

What have you accomplished so far?

My first job was to remind the design community that we are still here and ready to help. We are accepting grant applications as we speak. We’ve had some success already: Applications in design are up 75 percent since my arrival.

My second job has been to reinvigorate the Mayors’ Institute, working with the American Architectural Foundation and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Every two months, somewhere in America, eight city mayors and eight top designers are brought together by the institute to spend three days hashing out urban design problems. I have been interviewing alumni of this program—including four current governors—and they all tell me how it has made them huge advocates for design. Four years from now, I want every mayor of an American city to have guaranteed access to a Mayors’ Institute session.

Finally, my first leadership initiative is now approved and out to bid. It’s an institute on regional design for governors. Mayors, limited by boundaries, can rarely control suburban sprawl—the fundamental aesthetic crisis of our time, not to mention a social, economic, and environmental disaster. Many decisions that either cause or reduce sprawl are made in state government, and governors need to know what they can do about it.

When the NEA could no longer throw around the money it once did, it started throwing around ideas, some of them very good. What’s happening, for example, with the New Public Works initiative, in which the NEA implemented design competitions for nonprofits that wanted to build major buildings?

If New Public Works was just an ideas program, I would have restarted it by now. It cost the NEA almost a million dollars a year! Once the Governors’ Institute is up and running, I would like to introduce a similar program, but one focused on green design. That is an area where national leadership can really make a difference at the architectural scale. In the meantime, I am learning as much as I can on the topic—I just took my LEED [Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design] exam last week.

Did you pass?

I knew you’d ask. Do you think I would have brought it up if I failed?

Are there any other intriguing competitions on the horizon being shepherded by the NEA?

Shepherded, no; funded, many. Every year, quite a few of the grants we fund are for design competitions. In my limited experience, our grant panelists have been quite fond of this type of application, and I would encourage more people who are planning competitions to apply for NEA funding.

Your background and current activities might lead some folks to believe that disciplines such as industrial design, graphic design, and interior design might get lost beneath architecture and urban design. Will they?

Every director comes from some discipline, and we share an obligation to support design at every scale, from graphic and product design to regional planning. In terms of introducing new leadership initiatives, I am not shy about sharing my opinion that a well-designed neighborhood does more good than a well-designed font. But in terms of making grants in response to applications, the diverse panels I put together represent the breadth of the design professions and do not play favorites.

What good is the NEA to an established designer? To a young designer?

One of the unique things about the NEA is that it serves the two equally. Any individual with a great idea about how the federal government should support design can apply for a grant. The only requirement is that they team up with a nonprofit organization as their sponsor.

Have you seen anything entirely new lately that could change the world?

There is nothing entirely new, and the most valuable change we could make to the world would be to help people cherish it as it is. But that’s a different discussion.

Bradford McKee is a Washington, D.C.–based writer. His feature on Speedo’s new goggles appeared in the June I.D.

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