As a performing artist, Nancy Hanks has never been any great shakes. “I used to take piano lessons and I was very, very bad,” confesses the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. “I took singing lessons and I was even worse. I never took art lessons, because our kindergarten teacher had us paint a map of the United States, and it was my job to paint the blue of the ocean. I loved that blue, and I just kept painting it all over Canada. That ended my art career.”
Whatever her shortcomings as a cultural triple-threat, the 46-year-old Miss Hanks is a virtuoso at wheedling money from Congress. Appointed by President Nixon in 1969 to head the anemically funded Endowment, she began with a budget of only $8 million. Today, after five years of dealing with balky, economy-minded legislators who have traditionally snapped shut the public purse whenever the arts were mentioned, she presides over a burgeoning $75 million federal program designed to propagate the arts in America. Nancy is not just a money-raiser. Most grants, to painters, ballet companies, repertory theaters and the like, are approved by an advisory council. But Nancy herself has veto power over all recommendations—and on her own can make grants of up to $17,000.
A Nixon appointee, Nancy has an ally in the artistically inclined First Lady, Betty Ford. It was Nancy Hanks who arranged for the then Vice-President’s wife to inaugurate the national art train on its first swing through the South last spring. And when Mrs. Ford announced that her major projects as First Lady would be in the arts, she tactfully added, “with Nancy Hanks’ help.”
That help, as President Ford himself knows, can be considerable. Several years ago, when the efficient Miss Hanks was rounding up congressional support for her budget, Congressman Ford was a skeptic. He smiled when she told him she’d already lined up the votes for the funding she wanted. “Come on, Nancy,” he chided. “You’ve gone in to see these people and they just think you’re a nice person and they nod their heads and say, ‘Oh yes.’ ” In the end, it was Ford himself who was confounded. Nancy’s nose count had actually underestimated her strength by five votes.
A namesake of Abraham Lincoln’s mother, to whom she is distantly related, Nancy is a diligent administrator who frequently puts in a grueling seven-day, 70-hour week. After winning a Phi Beta Kappa key at Duke University, she entered government modestly enough, in 1951, as a receptionist in the Office of Defense Mobilization. Later she went to work for Nelson Rockefeller, then Under Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, and was later recruited by him for the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Although her own experience in the arts is limited to needlepoint typewriter covers she designs, she is a true believer. Curiously, she finds, it is America’s affluent suburbanites who are most likely to shun the arts as a frill. “Their children may want arts in school,” she observes, “but the parents want reading, writing and engineering. People in deprived areas seem to have a greater appreciation of beauty.”