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National Endowment for the Arts


The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is an independent federal agency that supports and funds the arts in the United States. The endowment was established by the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965, which defines the arts to include music, dance, drama, folk art, graphic art, creative writing, architecture, painting, sculpture, photography, crafts, industrial design, costume and fashion design, motion pictures, television, radio, and sound recordings. The NEA is the country's largest single source of funding for nonprofit arts.

The endowment was established on the principle that the arts are as vital to the spirit, stability, and success of a democratic country as science and technology. Accordingly, the government and citizens of the United States must preserve the country's artistic heritage and cultivate new artistic expression. Through the NEA, the federal government fosters the preservation and development of the arts by financing new and classic artistic works and their presentation, making the arts accessible to people in all parts of the country, promoting art education at all levels, preserving the country's artistic heritage, and recognizing and honoring the country's national leaders in the arts.


The NEA supports the arts through leadership initiatives; through partnerships with other federal agencies and with local, state, and regional arts organizations; and, primarily, through the making of grants to nonprofit arts organizations and, in some cases, to individual artists. It is not the intention of the federal government to fully subsidize the arts in the United States; rather the NEA aims at alleviating the financial stress prevalent in the arts by providing "seed" money to stimulate the private sector to provide support for the cultural growth of the country.

The NEA funds the work of individual artists through Literature Fellowships, American Jazz Masters Fellowships, and National Heritage Fellowships. Literature Fellowships of $20,000 are awarded to writers of poetry, fiction, and drama; fellowships of $10,000 to $20,000 are awarded for translation projects. Since the establishment of the Literature Fellowship in 1967, many National Book Awards, National Book Critics Circle Awards, and Pulitzer Prizes in poetry and fiction have been awarded for works funded in part by the NEA. American Jazz Masters Fellowships of $20,000 are awarded to distinguished jazz musicians. National Heritage Fellowships of $10,000 are annually awarded to up to thirteen master folk and traditional artists who hope to teach their skills and techniques to another generation of artists. All recipients of NEA fellowships must be citizens or permanent residents of the United States.

Grants that are awarded to nonprofit organizations support a variety of projects, such as developing new works, bringing the arts to new audiences, developing new and stronger arts organizations, and preserving America's cultural heritage. The NEA's heritage and preservation grants support such projects as the restoration of historic buildings and artworks, the preservation of historic sound recordings, the documentation of dance projects, and the publication of anthologies of American literature. In 2000 the NEA formed a partnership with Heritage Preservation to sponsor Save Outdoor Sculpture!, a program to repair and maintain damaged outdoor sculptures in the United States. Another NEA program, Save America's Treasures, offers grants in cooperation with the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service for the preservation and conservation of historically or culturally significant buildings, sites, artifacts, collections, and monuments.

The NEA's grants for arts education aim to strengthen the role of the arts in America's public educational system and encourage lifelong learning in the arts. The NEA recognizes that stimulation of young audiences is essential to its goal of developing a broad base of public appreciation and support for the arts. In partnership with state arts agencies and regional arts organizations, the NEA has provided millions of dollars to support K12 arts education projects in communities across the country. In a program conducted in cooperation with local school boards and the U.S. Department of Education, professional theater companies have received financial assistance to give free performances for student audiences. Similarly, the endowment provided support for a program aimed at sending poets into secondary schools to read and discuss their works. Other grants in support of art education have funded master classes, artist-in-residence programs, and training for elementary and high school art teachers.

To further achieve the expansion of audiences the NEA has initiated programs that bring the performing and visual arts to small towns, rural areas, and other regions of the United States where the arts would otherwise be unavailable. In 1996 the NEA helped finance the New England Foundation for the Arts, which sends contemporary dance companies on tours that include cities where few dance companies reside. The endowment has also provided funds for an experimental rural arts program to explore methods of increasing public receptivity to cultural programs. In many states, grants have been made to develop new audiences for opera by providing funds for additional performances for neighborhood and community organizations, labor groups, and students.

The endowment has provided new opportunities for arts programming on television through grants to public television stations for the production of arts programs and their free distribution to other public television stations throughout the country. The NEA helped fund the popular series Live from Lincoln Center, American Masters, and Great Performances, which are broadcast around the country and seen by millions of people each year. These grants have served as an incentive to the further development of educational programming on the arts and have helped many smaller stations get access to local cultural resources.

The American Film Institute was established with funding from the NEA in order to focus national attention on motion pictures as a contemporary art. One of the institute's central responsibilities is that of promoting and guiding the burgeoning interest in this art in secondary schools and higher education. The institute is providing assistance to the entire academic community.

Organizational Structure

The endowment's advisory body is the National Council on the Arts, which includes fourteen private citizens appointed by the president of the United States for six-year terms and six members of Congress who are appointed by congressional leaders and serve in a nonvoting capacity for two-year terms. The private members of the council are persons who have distinguished themselves through their training, experience, and interest in the arts. Past council members have included singer Marian Anderson, composer Leonard Bernstein, dancer and choreographer Agnes de Mille, artist Richard Diebenkorn, composer Duke Ellington, author Harper Lee, actor Gregory Peck, actor Sidney Poitier, author John Steinbeck, and violinist Isaac Stern. The council, which meets three times each year, advises the chairman on NEA policies, programs, and procedures and makes recommendations on applications for financial assistance.

History and Development

The National Council on the Arts was created by the National Arts and Cultural Development Act of 1964 (Pub. L. 88-579). The National Endowment for the Arts began its work in 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation (Pub. L. 89-209) creating the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities, consisting of both the NEA and its sister agency the National Endowment for the Humanities. The 1965 act transferred the functions of the council from the executive office of the president of the United States to the NEA.

The NEA came under attack during the 1980s and 1990s as some citizens and public officials questioned the value, quality, and appropriateness of certain NEA-supported projects. President Ronald Reagan established a Presidential Task Force on the Arts and Humanities in 1981 to develop "ideas to stimulate increased private giving for cultural activities." The task force, however, recommended that the NEA continue public funding of humanities and art projects. Between 1965 and 2000 the NEA awarded more than 115,000 grants to artists and art organizations in all fifty states, Puerto Rico, and Guam. In the 2001 fiscal year the endowment's budget was approximately $105 million.


Dowley, Jennifer, and Princenthal, Nancy. 2001. A Creative Legacy: A History of the National Endowment for the Arts Visual Artists Fellowship Program. New York: Abrams.

National Endowment for the Arts. 2000. A Legacy of Leadership: Investing in America's Living Cultural Heritage since 1965. Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts.

National Endowment for the Arts. 2000. The National Endowment for the Arts 19652000: A Brief Chronology of Federal Support for the Arts, revised edition. Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts.

Zeigler, Joseph Wesley. 1994. Arts in Crisis: The National Endowment for the Arts Versus America. Pennington, NJ: A Cappella Books.

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National Endowment for the Arts. 2002. <>.

Karen Szurek

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Judith J. Culligan

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National Endowment for the Arts


NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE ARTS (NEA). An independent agency of the federal government, the NEA was first envisioned by President John F. Kennedy, and created in 1965 along with the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

The NEA funds an array of works and activities in music, theater, and the visual and performance arts. The National Council on the Arts, a panel of artists and cultural leaders headed by the NEA's chairman, serves as the endowment's advisory board, reviewing grant applications and making policy recommendations. NEA grants range from $5,000 to $100,000, but all grant recipients must obtain matching private funding. Most grants fall into one of five main categories: creativity, organizational capacity, access, arts learning, and heritage/preservation. At its inception in 1965, the NEA had a budget of $2.5 million; the endowment's highest level of federal funding was its $175 million budget in 1991. But controversy over grant recipients led to major budget reductions in the final five years of the twentieth century, when annual funding dipped below $100 million. The budget eventually began to rebound, reaching $115.2 million in 2002.

The NEA's support for the arts has had a marked impact on American culture. For example, between 1990 and 2002, the NEA provided support to thirty-five recipients of National Book Awards, National Book Critics Circle Awards, and Pulitzer Prizes in fiction and poetry. It also funded the regional theatrical production of A Chorus Line that went on to become a Broadway smash in 1975 and Maya Lin's design of the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial, dedicated in Washington, D.C., in 1982. The NEA has also made a special effort to recognize American jazz masters through a series of fellowships.

Controversial Artistry

Yet the NEA has always had its critics, especially among those who questioned the artistic merit and morality of some of the grant recipients. These issues came to a head in 1989, when opponents shined the spotlight on a handful of NEA-funded exhibitions featuring artworks they termed obscene and immoral. Among the works they found objectionable were photographer Andres Serrano's Piss Christ, which depicted a plastic crucifix immersed in a jar of the artist's urine; art student Scott Tyler's What Is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?, which allowed people to comment on the title question while walking over an American flag on the gallery floor; and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe's sadomasochistic and homoerotic images and pictures of nude children.

Some members of Congress, most notably Sen. Jesse Helms and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, attacked NEA funding head-on, while other conservative legislators and right-wing groups endorsed funding cuts and grant restrictions. These measures were vigorously opposed by artists, arts organizations, free-speech advocates, and gay and lesbian alliances. Over the protests of these groups, the NEA began requiring grant recipients to sign an "obscenity pledge," promising that their work would be free of obscenities. In addition, John Frohnmayer, the NEA chairman appointed by President George H. W. Bush in 1989, drew fire from artists and arts organizations for denying certain grants recommended by NEA panels. Critics accused Frohnmayer of using political criteria in denying the funding.

Taking It to the Courts

Soon, the battles over funding and the arts moved to the courts. In 1990, in the first of several high-profile cases related to the NEA, Dennis Barrie, director of Cincinnati's Contemporary Art Center, was arrested and tried on obscenity charges for exhibiting Mapplethorpe's work—an exhibition that had been partially supported by an NEA grant. Barrie was subsequently acquitted, but the NEA's grant-making process remained in the spotlight on Capitol Hill as Sen. Helms continued to introduce bills and amendments to limit funding for artworks of a sexual or sacrilegious nature.

In 1990, after a heated debate, Congress passed a three-year reauthorization of the NEA that eliminated restrictions on the kinds of art the endowment might fund. But a new provision required the NEA to use as its grant-making guidelines the "general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public." While the NEA eliminated its obscenity pledge, a few organizations, artists, and panel members continued to protest by declining endowment funding.

In 1994 Congress renewed its attack after conservative hackles were raised by an appearance at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis by HIV-positive performance artist Ron Athey, who incorporated bloodletting into his act. Although only $150 of NEA money (out of a $100,000 grant to the Walker Art Center) had gone to support the performance, outraged lawmakers sliced deeply into the endowment's budget; the areas of visual arts, theater, performance art, and photography were particularly hard hit as a result of the cuts.

In 1992, the NEA was sued for a violation of First Amendment rights by four performance artists—Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes, and Tim Miller—whose grants were initially recommended for approval but then subsequently denied after the NEA's congressionally mandated "standards of decency" provision were implemented. Although the suit was rejected by lower courts, the case was appealed to the Supreme Court in 1997, where the "NEA Four" were joined in their suit by the National Association of Artists' Organizations. The amended suit included a constitutional challenge to the decency provision on the grounds that it was vague and viewpoint-based. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision to reject the lawsuit.

Changing with the Times

During the Clinton Administration actress Jane Alexander led the NEA. The most activist chairman the NEA had ever known, Alexander traveled the country, visiting arts centers and attending performances and exhibitions, spreading the word about the positive impact of the NEA. In 1995, to emphasize the NEA's value to the nation, Alexander testified before the U.S. Senate that the per capita contribution to the endowment was a mere sixty-four cents, but that without such federal matching funds, arts organizations would be far less able to raise private money. Still, opponents argued that the endowment needed to better monitor its funding policies, and some also argued for privatization of the endowment, or for funding its mandate through copyright fees.

As a result of the controversy that dogged the NEA during the 1990s, at the beginning of the twenty-first century the endowment no longer funded individual visual or performance artists (although writers still received fellowships). Its mission was refocused to include a heavier emphasis on arts education and cultural heritage, including the promotion of cultural tourism.


Alexander, Jane. Command Performance: An Actress in the Theater of Politics. New York: Public Affairs Press, 2000.

Biddle, Livingston. Our Government and the Arts: A Perspective from the Inside. New York: Americans for the Arts, 1988.

Bolton, Richard, ed., Culture Wars: Documents from the Recent Controversies in the Arts. New York: New Press, 1992.

Brenson, Michael. Visionaries and Outcasts: The NEA, Congress, and the Place of the Visual Arts in America. New York: New Press, 2001.

Dowley, Jennifer, and Nancy Princenthal. A Creative Legacy: A History of the National Endowment for the Arts Visual Artists' Fellowship Program. New York: Abrams, 2001.

Dubin, Steven C. Arresting Images: Impolitic Art and Uncivil Actions. New York: Routledge, 1992.

The National Endowment for the Art. Home page at

Wallis, Brian, Marianne Weems, and Philip Yenawine, eds. Art Matters: How the Culture Wars Changed America. New York: New York University Press, 1999.

Zeigler, Joseph Wesley. Arts in Crisis: The National Endowment for the Arts Versus America. Pennington, N.J.: A Cappella Books, 1994.

Laura A.Bergheim

Kathleen B.Culver

See alsoNational Endowment for the Humanities .

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NEA • abbr. ∎  National Education Association. ∎  National Endowment for the Arts. ∎  Nuclear Energy Agency.

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NEA (USA) National Education Association
• (USA) National Endowment for the Arts

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