The health and vitality of a city can often be measured by its arts landscape. No one understands that quite as well as Bao-Long Chu, a senior program officer with the Houston Endowment, which has been involved in nurturing Houston’s arts scene for over eight decades.
“The arts are critical to a city’s identity and existence. On a personal level, that’s why I do the work. Houston Endowment supports arts and culture because we believe that for Houston to have its world-recognized level of vibrancy, the arts ecosystem has to be strong,” Chu says.
This belief in how the arts connect to all aspects of a city’s vitality is part of what drew him to work for the Endowment. Founded by Houston business icon Jesse H. Jones, the Endowment nurtures philanthropic and cultural organizations throughout the region. Chu specifically oversees the arts and culture portfolio of the foundation, which means he works with organizations of all sizes to support the artists and events that make the city’s arts landscape so lush.
With Houston’s performing-arts scene pummeled by Hurricane Harvey and then crippled by the pandemic restrictions for over a year now, institutions like Houston Endowment have become that much more vital.
“We recognize that we’re one of many resources. What we learned from post-Harvey and again in 2020 is that disruptions often highlight or exacerbate existing gaps. What we try to do is make systemic changes to fix those gaps. For example, after Harvey, artists and small organizations were left quite vulnerable. Oftentimes, artists and small entities just don’t have access to the local and federal resources that become available after disasters. After Harvey, we provided structural support [and funding] to arts workers through the Harvey Arts Recovery Fund. That fund was established by the community and operated through the Houston Arts Alliance,” Chu explains.
Providing that support isn’t something Houston Endowment can achieve alone. It takes a proverbial village. “When the pandemic came, we followed the Harvey model and initiated support for the Greater Houston Arts Relief Fund, and with our initial support, other funders also joined in. Houston Endowment can’t do the work alone—we need to work in partnership with not only nonprofit organizations, but also with public and private entities to ensure the resiliency of the arts sector,” he says.
Chu’s appreciation and love for the creative fields began during his childhood as a refugee from Vietnam. He understood early on how storytelling can help both individuals and groups.
“Learning from my family’s moving from loss to loss, I understand that stories can help us negotiate, find, and navigate our way to the shore. Our stories as Vietnamese refugees are not unique. More than 1.5 million people took to the seas as boat people to escape to various places across the globe. My role in telling my family’s story allows us to process and understand our place in the world,” Chu emphasizes.
His passion for writing followed him through college, where he double-majored in English and psychology at Houston Baptist University. Chu went on to enroll in the MFA creative-writing program at University of Houston, one of the most widely respected programs in the nation.
“I am captivated by the personal storytelling that we can do as writers. Stories are powerful tools, and my work at the Endowment is a continued thread [that furthers] my love of poetry and writing. Stories can help a community explain who they are, what they want, and why it matters,” he says.
After graduating from UH, Chu was associate director of the literacy-education nonprofit Writers in the Schools, where he developed his passion for literacy training, arts education, and community engagement. He collaborated with a wide variety of Houston-area institutions and organizations, including Art League Houston, Houston Grand Opera, Texas Children’s Hospital, and University of Houston’s Moores School of Music.
Chu’s poems and essays have been published in several anthologies, including The New Anthology of American Poetry: Postmodernisms 1950–Present and From Both Sides Now: The Poetry of the Vietnam War and Its Aftermath.
His libretto for the opera Bound, set to the music of Huang Ruo, premiered in Houston in 2014 and in New York in 2019.
“That project was through Houston Grand Opera, and focused on stories from the Asian diaspora. They asked if I would work and write with Huang to create a chamber piece about the Vietnamese American experience. It’s a story that doesn’t define the narrative of the Vietnamese American experience, but instead shows a very small aspect of it,” he explains.
Additionally, Chu serves on the board of directors of Grantmakers in the Arts. Having the ability to flex his muscles in the grantmaking sector is a reflection of his love for the city.
“Houston is an amazing city, and it has given sustenance to my family. I feel very much like I belong to the city, and I’m grateful for the work I get to do, especially with such a storied foundation as the Houston Endowment,” he adds. “I truly enjoy being in the landscape and supporting a sector that I love.”
For more information about the Houston Endowment, visit houstonendowment.org.
This article appears in the May 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.