(b. 31 December 1927 in Miami Beach, Florida; d. 7 January 1983 in New York City), head of the National Endowment for the Arts from 1969 to 1977.
Bryan Cayce and Virginia Wooding Hanks named their first child after a distant relative, Nancy Hanks, the mother of Abraham Lincoln. As a lawyer and businessman, Bryan Hanks earned a comfortable living for his wife, a home-maker, and their two children. Hanks’s early years were spent in Miami Beach. Although the family moved several times after that, from the time she was six years old Nancy had a consistent attachment to Cashiers, North Carolina, a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She spent her childhood summers there and returned often as an adult.
At Duke University, which she entered in 1945, Hanks became a leader of campus life. As a senior, she was president of the student government. Her friendly personality was enhanced by her good looks. Of medium build with dark hair, she was among those elected May queen, a designation honoring Duke’s most beautiful undergraduates. She received an A.B. degree magna cum laude, with a major in political science, in 1949.
In 1951 she secured a job in Washington, D.C., at the Office of Defense Mobilization. Early in 1953 she transferred to the President’s Advisory Committee on Government Organization, headed by Nelson A. Rockefeller. Only months later, she became Rockefeller’s assistant at the new Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, where he served as undersecretary until 1955. She continued as Rockefeller’s assistant when he became President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s special assistant for cold war strategy. As she picked up a workaholic lifestyle from Rockefeller, their relationship took on a romantic dimension.
Early in 1956, Rockefeller returned to New York City to enter electoral politics, and he took Hanks along. Although their intimate relationship soon deteriorated, Hanks worked for the Rockefeller family for the next thirteen years. Shortly after his return to New York, Rockefeller initiated a project that brought together experts and leaders from all areas of American life to write a series of reports on national problems and opportunities. Henry Kissinger came from Harvard University to direct the effort, and Hanks served as executive secretary of the staff and as a member of the planning committee.
When Rockefeller was elected governor of New York in 1958, Hanks went for a brief period to Albany, where she
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played a part in drawing up a proposal for one of Rockefeller’s pet projects—a state arts council. In 1961, at the request of Nelson’s brother Laurance, she returned to Washington as an adviser to a congressional commission he headed, the Outdoor Recreation Resources Commission. Early in 1962, Hanks had a mastectomy, signaling the onset of her eventually terminal cancer. In mid-1963 she went to work for yet another of the Rockefeller brothers, John D., 3d, who had commissioned an investigation of American arts policy and funding. Published in 1965, the resulting document was a first step in developing programs to meet the nation’s arts needs. Working on it brought Hanks into contact with the country’s leaders in arts administration.
In the fall of 1969, Hanks was named chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which had been created in 1965. She came to the job through her administrative, political, and personal skills rather than through profound knowledge of the arts. Hanks set her style early by almost immediately proposing to double the budget for the following fiscal year. By the time she left eight years later, the budget was more than twelve times what it had been in 1969.
Hanks relentlessly advocated and realized expanded access to the arts across the country. Part of her success may be attributed to luck: She was in the right place when the country was ready to sponsor an arts agenda. But part of it was also because of her understanding of political realities. She knew it was important for arts support to be advantageous to Congress and the president, and she made sure that every legislator could point with pride to some NEA program in his or her home district. She also fostered the concept of public-private partnership in support of the arts, a position that was palatable to those who opposed new government programs on principle.
At the NEA, Hanks oversaw innovation as well as growth in existing programs. For example, she initiated support for symphony orchestras, opera companies, museums, folk art, design, and programs for minorities and schoolchildren. She also devised a system of challenge grants to aid major arts institutions in raising the funds they needed to achieve long-term stability.
At the end of her second four-year term, Hanks was not reappointed by the recently elected president Jimmy Carter, who wanted to put his own stamp on the NEA. In addition, and surprisingly for one who understood Washington politics so well, Hanks had lost the support of many leaders among state and local arts groups. They were irritated that she had neglected the working relationships between federal and state agencies and had, they thought, arrogated too much power to herself.
After she left the NEA on 30 November 1977, Hanks returned to her position at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in New York City and remained active in other charitable and corporate organizations. A bone scan revealed that the cancer that had recurred in 1974 was again spreading. Her health slowly failed, and on 12 November 1982 she entered the hospital where she died two months later.
Perhaps no single individual in U.S. history has done more than Hanks for the arts. Critics have pointed to weaknesses in her administrative procedures, and it is true that she relied on enthusiasm, instinct, and the spontaneous combustion of ideas. The NEA she left behind was unwieldy, and she never provided a systematic rationale for its multifarious activities, but under her leadership the NEA fueled an explosion of activity and artistic growth around the United States and institutionalized mechanisms for channeling public money to the arts. No other NEA chairman has been so effective.
Nancy Hanks’s personal and professional papers are in the special collections of the Duke University Library. Michael Whitney Straight, Nancy Hanks, An Intimate Portrait: The Creation of a National Commitment to the Arts (1988) is the only book-length study of Hanks, Gaylen Moore, ed., with photographs by Lynn Gilbert, Particular Passions: Talks with Women Who Have Shaped Our Times (1981), includes Hanks’s reflections on her career. Mary Devine, ed., Annual Obituary (1983) provides a useful profile. Obituaries are in the New York Times (8 Jan. 1983) and Washington Post (9 Jan. 1983).
ANN LEE MORGAN
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2874400200