“Who?” That was my initial reaction, upon learning the name of the new director of design at the National Endowment for the Arts. It’s one of the top government design posts, up there with chief architect of the GSA, and I’ve been accustomed to the job being held by a known commodity, a high-profile academic, museum curator, or firm principal—in brief, by a design insider. It’s my responsibility, as the editor of an architecture magazine, to know (or at least know of) the big cheeses in the field. How did the NEA gig go to someone I’d never heard of?

Then I read the new guy’s bio.

My second reaction was, “Wow!”

Jason Schupbach, the new NEA design director, is a wonk. He comes to the NEA from Boston, where he was the creative economy industry director at the Massachusetts Office of Business Development—the first such position at a state development agency. I think it’s safe to say that Schupbach will be the first creative economist to hold his new post, as well.

The hire exemplifies a big strategy shift at the NEA. Rocco Landesman, the new chairman, is rebranding the arts endowment and reorienting its mission around a new tagline: “art works.” That’s a lovely expression, but what does it mean? Here’s the explanation Landesman gave at a recent grantmakers’ conference in Brooklyn:

“Art works” is a triple entendre … a noun, which encompasses the very stuff of what we do, the achievements of artists. Great artworks is the objective of every grant we make.

Secondly, “art works” … describes [how] art works on and within people to change … and inspire them. …

And finally, and maybe most importantly, art works because arts jobs are real jobs. The 5.7 million people who have full-time arts-related jobs in this country are a part of the real economy. They pay taxes and spend money. Obviously. But we’re going to be making a point beyond that. Any discussion of policy for coming out of this recession, any plan that addresses economic growth and urban and neighborhood revitalization has to include the arts. We know, and we can prove, that when you bring art and artists into the center of town, that town changes.

Landesman has clearly bought into the concept of the creative economy—the burgeoning discipline championed most famously by Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class—and he is using it to promote cultural policy in a penny-pinching, risk-averse political climate. The idea, at its most basic, is that art and culture (including the design fields) can boost local business, and that they have a positive impact at even the largest economic scale. For architects, the most obvious example would be the much-touted Bilbao Effect, in which investment in blockbuster arts facilities promotes tourism, builds a more positive brand identity for the city, and, further down the line, encourages smart people and competitive businesses to set down roots there. It worked for Bilbao, it’s working for Pittsburgh, and now even cities like Detroit are beginning to think creative.

Schupbach has more than drunk the “art works” Kool-Aid. Apparently, he helps mix it. His credentials are impressive, albeit unprecedented for the NEA design post. In addition to his groundbreaking Massachusetts gig, Schupbach has worked for the mayor’s office and Department of Cultural Affairs in Chicago, and he was the staff urban planner and capital projects manager for the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. He has a bachelor’s in public health from UNC Chapel Hill and a master’s in city planning from MIT, with a certificate in urban design.

With economic growth in the near future tied so explicitly to government stimulus (“Show Us the Money”), especially in the design and construction industry, it’s hard to argue with a cultural economist as the right man for the NEA design directorship at this moment in time. Schupbach certainly will have his work cut out for him.

One major challenge headed Schupbach’s way is suggested by a major report from the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago, which argues that U.S. arts organizations have taken on more than they can handle by building so many echo-Bilbaos. Some institutions have delayed or cancelled expansion projects, while many of those that opened their doors during the recession are struggling to pay for the upkeep on the new facilities. The report hasn’t even been released yet, but The New York Times has already covered it. I’m surprised that the conservative media hasn’t added the story to its propaganda arsenal.

In these politically divided times, and with NEA funding yet again under siege, what Schupbach must bring to the job, beyond his impressive résumé, is a bottomless well of enthusiasm and the capacity to impart hope. I haven’t had a chance to meet him yet, but I’m already rooting for him. When asked to describe himself in five words or less, in a recent NEA blog post, Schupbach replied, “Innovative, Dedicated, Gregarious, Creative, and Nerd-tastic.” That nerd-tastic bit won me over, big-time. Schupbach may be a wonk, but he’s a wonk with a sense of humor. He’ll need it.