National Endowment for the Arts Is Established Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The creation of the National Endowment for the Arts marked the first time U.S. federal grant support for the development of the arts was offered to artists and art institutions.

Summary of Event

Arts patronage Arts patronage in the United States developed intermittently and at a slow pace. Colonial Americans’ support of the secular arts was limited; however, by the second half of the nineteenth century, such wealthy Americans as Thomas Corcoran, Solomon Guggenheim, Henry Lee Higginson, Andrew Mellon, J. P. Morgan, William C. Ralston, and John Rockefeller offered significant support to individual artists and institutions. National Endowment for the Arts National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act (1965) Arts, government subsidies for [kw]National Endowment for the Arts Is Established (Sept. 29, 1965) [kw]Arts Is Established, National Endowment for the (Sept. 29, 1965) National Endowment for the Arts National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act (1965) Arts, government subsidies for [g]North America;Sept. 29, 1965: National Endowment for the Arts Is Established[08560] [g]United States;Sept. 29, 1965: National Endowment for the Arts Is Established[08560] [c]Organizations and institutions;Sept. 29, 1965: National Endowment for the Arts Is Established[08560] [c]Arts;Sept. 29, 1965: National Endowment for the Arts Is Established[08560] [c]Government and politics;Sept. 29, 1965: National Endowment for the Arts Is Established[08560] Hanks, Nancy Johnson, Lyndon B. [p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;and the arts[arts] Stevens, Roger L.

In the 1930’s, during the Great Depression, private philanthropy could no longer fund many artists and cultural organizations. In November, 1933, the first form of federal support for the arts was established: As part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Roosevelt, Franklin D. [p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;New Deal New Deal, New Deal unemployed artists received financial assistance. This subsidized art program, the Public Works Arts Project Public Works Arts Project (PWAP), lasted seven months. During that period, nearly four thousand painters and sculptors provided more than 15,600 works of art as decoration for federal buildings throughout the country. Early in 1934, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) established another program, administered by the states, which employed approximately one thousand artists.

In May of 1935, Congress created the Federal Arts Project Federal Arts Project (FAP), a branch of the Works Progress Administration Works Progress Administration (WPA). The primary emphasis of the program was to provide temporary economic relief, with a secondary focus on controlled artistic competence. Muralists, playwrights, architects, photographers, and novelists were employed to popularize New Deal programs and to memorialize administrative achievements. WPA projects included theater, literature, visual arts, and music projects and a historical survey. During World War II, however, federal subsidies for the arts plummeted. By mid-1943, only private philanthropy was left to sustain the arts.

Although early American political leaders recognized the importance of the arts to the strength of the nation, federal efforts to support art for art’s sake were unsuccessful until the twentieth century. A formal study of the proper role of the federal government in advancing the arts—initiated in 1951 by President Harry S. Truman and submitted to President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953—renewed interest in the arts. Various program proposals were made to Congress, but Congress failed to sustain them. Subsequently, presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson appointed special assistants on the arts for their own counsel.

Roger L. Stevens, a special assistant to President Johnson, observed that congressional support for public funding of the humanities was strong. Stevens suggested to the White House that the arts and humanities endowment be linked as a single legal entity. In 1964, to investigate this idea, President Johnson signed a bill creating a twenty-six-member National Council on the Arts; National Council on the Arts Stevens was appointed the group’s chairman. This advisory body formally proposed a federal humanities and arts bill. The bill, which reflected the nature of Johnson’s Great Society as a postwar monied, middle-class society seeking the amenities appropriate to its status, had its share of critics. During hearings on the bill, the wisdom of injecting federal bureaucracy into an area that traditionally had been left to the private sector was debated. Despite the criticism, on September 29, 1965, Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act.

The enactment of this federal arts bill provided for the creation of a single national foundation that included both the National Endowment for the Humanities National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act subsequently directed the NEA to distribute federal subsidies specifically for the development and support of the arts in the United States. The bill’s proponents hoped the prevailing cultural spirit of the legislators, the public, and the arts community would promote rapid advancement in artistic excellence and an enhanced national unity. Questions regarding how to develop a workable institutional system for making decisions and dispensing funds, however, slowed progress. Thorny issues about what type of art and which artists the government should subsidize were only the beginning of the conflicts. Many arguments ensued, including debates over what art was, what it should become, and what purposes and which publics it should serve.

The hoped-for national unity was not enhanced. Elitists believed firmly that, because of the public’s atrophied taste, only professionals in art or other fields should direct funding decisions. Populists saw the boundaries between the amateur and professional as inconsequentially arbitrary and therefore believed that equal grant support should be awarded to both traditional and nontraditional art forms. The artists who were potential recipients of federal funds feared that federal involvement in the arts would infringe on their artistic independence, and some predicted that government participation in the arts would lead to the establishment of an official national art form. Some projected that private donors would no longer be predisposed to support the arts, while others were confident that any void created by the withdrawal of private philanthropy would be filled by continual increases in federal subsidies.

The nature of the controversy between the proponents and opponents of the NEA subsidy program and the history of arts patronage in the United States illustrate the two conflicting themes that framed the funding legislation. The primary goal of the NEA, however, was to strengthen the role of arts in American life by promoting cultural and artistic excellence while preserving both artistic freedom and the private sector’s role in the program.

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At the NEA’s inception, there were relatively few professional nonprofit performing arts organizations in the United States. Most such groups were located on the East and West Coast corridors, from Boston to Washington, D.C., and from Los Angeles to San Francisco, with a few organizations in Chicago and Texas. As a result of NEA patronage, professional performing arts organizations spread throughout the United States. The number of dance companies, opera companies, orchestras, and professional theaters in the United States grew dramatically. NEA grants have helped bring the arts to Americans in small as well as larger communities that might not have enjoyed them otherwise.

The endowment began with ten programs, in architecture, arts and education, creative writing, dance, drama, music, public media, miscellaneous art forms, visual arts, and the state. Later, seven more programs were added to cover museums, folk arts, expansion arts, opera and musical theater, interdisciplinary arts, local artists, and “challenge and advancement.” Program grants were awarded to nonprofit organizations, state and local public agencies, and exceptionally talented individuals.

Congress specified at the outset of the endowment program that federal support for the arts was intended primarily to complement that received from local, state, regional, and private arts organizations. The first NEA budget covered only a skeletal endowment staff, a few artists’ fellowships, and some grants to states to launch their own art agencies. In the NEA’s first few years, chairman Stevens’s attention was directed toward rescuing elite institutions that were in dire financial straits. Nancy Hanks, the NEA’s second chairperson, concentrated on awarding grants to grass-roots organizations throughout the country and to opera, theater, dance, and music groups that could then provide free performances. Her goal was to reach the culturally disadvantaged in economically deprived areas of the United States. During Hanks’s tenure, the NEA budget increased significantly, and by the 1990’s, the NEA was processing thousands of grant applications annually in 115 categories and awarding several thousand grants.

By 2004, the federal funds for the NEA had dropped slightly to about $105 million in that fiscal year. Most of the budget continued to go to nonprofit arts organizations such as symphonies; theater, dance, and opera companies; museums, arts festivals, arts centers, and arts colonies; literary magazines and small presses; film, video, and radio production; archival facilities; and service organizations. Between 1990 and 2006, thirty-nine of the fifty-eight recipients of National Book Awards, National Book Critics Circle Awards, and Pulitzer Prizes in fiction and poetry had been recipients of NEA literature fellowships. NEA also sponsored the design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and provided early funding for such esteemed institutions as the American Film Institute, the Sundance Film Festival, the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Minnesota Public Radio’s A Prairie Home Companion, the Spoleto Festival U.S.A., and the Public Broadcasting Service’s Great Performances series.

Today, NEA grants awards to nonprofit organizations under the umbrellas “Access to Artistic Excellence,” “Learning in the Arts,” “Challenge America,” and “Partnership Agreements.” Almost half the funds are awarded to state and jurisdictional arts agencies and six regional arts organizations. NEA is also responsible for soliciting nominations from the public for the National Medal of Arts and forwards them to the president for a final decision.

Despite the NEA’s accomplishments, the grant-making procedures and the administration of the endowment have always been sensitive political issues. Occasionally it was charged that the endowment’s policy of cultural populism constituted an effort to democratize culture and to abolish aesthetic standards and artistic excellence. Over time, a small number of grants that were alleged to lack artistic import, to be political in content, or to be offensive, pornographic, or obscene provoked significant controversy, bearing out initial criticisms of public funding for what is essentially subjective expression. Nevertheless, NEA’s mere existence, despite ups and downs in political support and funding, attests to the societal and public value of the arts in the United States. National Endowment for the Arts National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act (1965) Arts, government subsidies for

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Henderson, Jerry. The State and the Politics of Culture: A Critical Analysis of the National Endowment for the Arts. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2005. Examines the arts in relationship to politics and government, offering a critical examination of the National Endowment for the Arts and its evolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Netzer, Dick. The Subsidized Muse: Public Support for the Arts. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978. An economic analysis of public culture by a public-finance expert. Netzer’s provocative evaluation includes case studies of symphony orchestras, theater groups, and ballet companies, yet omits museums. After examining the social and economic decisions made in the case studies, Netzer proposes what he considers to be wiser and more accountable ways to use government arts funding. Preface, appendixes, index, and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robins, Corinne. The Pluralist Era: American Art, 1968-1981. New York: Harper & Row, 1984. A survey of the arts from the commencement of the NEA to 1981. Robins discusses political, cultural, and social trends and their role in shaping the art of the period. She does not, however, conclude that the NEA supported pluralist art thinking or helped revolutionize the arts. Index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Russell, John. The Meanings of Modern Art. Rev. ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1981. A one-volume introduction to art from the 1870’s to the end of the 1970’s. No direct references to the cultural impact of the NEA, although some of the work discussed was publicly funded. Preface, photographs, index, and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Straight, Michael. Nancy Hanks, an Intimate Portrait: The Creation of a National Commitment to the Arts. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1988. Little of this portrait of Nancy Hanks is intimate. Most of the text traces the NEA’s public-funding increases for dance, theater, and education under Hanks’s direction. Preface, photographs, sources, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Twigs for an Eagle’s Nest: Government and the Arts, 1965-1978. New York: Devon Press, 1979. Personal anecdotes about formative years of the NEA. Straight, the former second-in-command to Nancy Hanks, provides an insider’s perspective on the issues of public cultural policy-making from 1969 to 1978.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zeigler, Joseph Wesley. Arts in Crisis: The National Endowment for the Arts Versus America. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1994. Begins with a history of public support for the arts in the United States and goes on to trace NEA’s history from the 1969-1980 “golden age” through the “crisis” and expression battles that ensued, ending with “Some Ideas for the Future.”

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