Nancy Hanks (1927-1983) was called the "mother of a million artists" for her work in building federal financial support for the arts and artists. Her years as chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts and of the National Council on the Arts saw great expansion of their programs and budgets.
Nancy Hanks, named for her distant cousin, the mother of Abraham Lincoln, was born on December 31, 1927, in Miami Beach, Florida. Her parents Bryan Cayce Hanks, a corporation lawyer, and Virginia (Wooding) Hanks moved to Montclair, New Jersey, when Nancy was in high school. She attended Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, where she majored in political science and served as president of the student body. During the summer of 1948 she studied at Oxford University in England. Elected to Phi Beta Kappa, she received her B.A. magna cum laude from Duke in 1949.
In 1951 she went to Washington, D.C., where she began as a receptionist in the Office of Defense Mobilization set up during the Korean War. She moved from that position to secretary for the President's Advisory Committee on Government Operations, chaired by Nelson A. Rockefeller. Later she continued to serve as Rockefeller's assistant, first at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and later at the Special Projects Office of the White House.
In 1956 Hanks left Washington and moved to New York, where she worked for 13 years as executive secretary of the Special Studies Project set up by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. There she directed a pioneering study project on the economic and social problems of the performing arts in America that laid much of the groundwork for federal funding of the arts. The study, The Performing Arts: Problems and Prospects (1965), recommended the development of state and community art councils throughout the country. Hanks became a member of the board of directors of the Associated Councils on the Arts (ACA), a private, nonprofit organization to promote the activities of the newly established arts councils. Elected president of the ACA in June 1968, Hanks coordinated conferences and supervised the publication of the journal Cultural Affairs.
In 1964, largely as a result of the work of the Rockefellers, the government created the National Endowment for the Arts as part of the National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities. For the first time since the Great Depression, the federal government committed funds to subsidize theater companies, symphony orchestras, museums, and other cultural institutions. The endowment agency worked closely with the National Council of the Arts, which set policy and determined projects worthy of aid.
When President Richard Nixon failed to reappoint Roger L. Stevens as head of the government art agencies in 1969, Hanks was selected to search for a successor. Several celebrated figures in the arts were approached and turned the position down. Six months after the search had begun, Hanks herself was nominated for the post. After her confirmation by the Senate in October, Hanks immediately confronted the task of creating a budget for 1970-1971. Within six weeks she submitted a detailed proposal not only to double the budgets for both the arts and the humanities endowments, but to plan for future increases and program strategies in anticipation of the nation's bicentennial celebration, at that time more than six years away. To lobby for her budget Hanks spoke personally to over 200 members of the Congress. What followed was a personal triumph of bureaucratic and political performance. Thanks to the administration's backing and Hanks' power of persuasion, the national endowment received $16 million of the $20 million she had requested.
Once in control, and with expanding budgets to work with, Hanks moved to make art accessible to all Americans. She allocated funds to send opera, theater, dance, and music groups on tour throughout the country. An Arttrain carried travelling exhibits to communities outside the big cities. Money was also made available to help small towns buy art works for local exhibition. Hanks made a special effort to reach the poor and the culturally disadvantaged. African American poets and authors went to teach in inner-city schools. The Artist-in-the-School program, begun under her auspices, gave students the opportunity to work with sculptors, painters, and writers.
Hanks began a systematic effort to increase the support for dance, for symphony, and for the development and improvement of museums. Believing that the United States had become the dance capital of the world, she liberally funded choreographers and dance companies. The American Ballet Theatre, the New York City Ballet, and the Jeffrey received funds, as did Merce Cunningham, Elliot Feld, Anna Sokolow, and many others. In 1970 the endowment began a sizable program of aid to orchestras, and in 1971 funds were set aside for museums.
As chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Council on the Arts from 1969 to 1977, Hanks proved an indefatigable champion of the visual and performing arts. Her goal was to transform and uplift society through art. Practical as well as visionary, she forged a coalition that included Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives, business organizations, and artists of all types, from prima ballerinas to street artists. She was, according to one capital observer, "smart, tireless, funny, impassioned, shrewd, and tough." She could charm with a Southern magnolia manner one moment and be tough and businesslike the next.
Under Hanks' skillful leadership the agency saw its annual budget grow from $16 million to $100 million over her two terms as chairwoman. At the same time she remained committed to a policy of encouraging private contributions to the arts. Many of the endowment's grants were made on a matching funds basis, so Hanks estimated that in actual practice each dollar contributed by the agency generated about $3 of private money.
When she announced her resignation from the national endowment in 1977, she left as her legacy a much expanded network for the funding of the arts. Called "the mother of a million artists, " Hanks died of cancer in 1983 at the age of 55. In 1986 the Old Post Office in Washington, D.C., renovated into a community center, was renamed the Nancy Hanks Center.
Further Reading on Nancy Hanks
The Rockefeller Brothers Fund study Nancy Hanks helped to author provides a good starting place for understanding Hanks' later work: see The Performing Arts: Problems and Prospects (1965). Leonard Garment, special counsel to President Richard Nixon from 1969 to 1974, wrote an informative tribute to Hanks in Art News, April 1983. See also The Annual Obituary 1983 (1984).
Additional Biography Sources
Straight, Michael Whitney, Nancy Hanks: an intimate portrait: the creation of a national commitment to the arts, Durham N.C.: Duke University Press, 1988.