Nancy Hanks, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) from 1969 to 1977, turned this fledgling organization into a major instrument for government support of the arts—accomplishing thereby a virtual revolution in the public arts policy of the United States. She died of cancer on January 7, 1983; later that year, at the request of Congress, President Ronald Reagan designated the building complex at Pennsylvania Avenue and 11th Street (the "Old Post Office") in Washington, D.C., as the Nancy Hanks Center.
This biography captures the spirit and the flavor of Ms. Hanks's remarkable life, above all during the eight years in which she led the Endowment. Tracing her childhood in Florida and North Carolina through her achievements as a student leader at Duke University, Straight makes clear her conscious effort to find a path with more scope than the usual marriage-and-a-family when expected of Southern women. Nancy Hanks went to Washington and found a job with the Office of War Mobilization. She later worked with Nelson Rockefeller, who became governor of New York, a Republican party luminary, and vice president under Gerald Ford, in addition to being an heir to one of America's greatest fortunes. Her relationship with Rockefeller was crucial to her personal life, and his conception of government and its role and a lasting influence on her career.
Straight examines Nancy Hanks's leadership of the NEA and takes particular note of the intense debate over the role of government in fostering American artistic expression, an issue with roots running back through the New Deal to the early history of the United States. Nancy Hanks took a strong and activist role in the formulation and administration of a national arts policy, and her accomplishments have left an indelible mark on public support for arts in the United States. Straight, who worked closely with Ms. Hanks and admired her despite frequent policy disagreements, deals honestly with both the successes and failures of her efforts. His biography imparts a sense of the reasons why her many friends felt such loyalty to this complex and gifted woman.