11 things you didn't know about the Endowment for the Arts

11 Things You Didn’t Know about the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities

(And Why Both Liberals and Conservatives Should Continue to Support the NEA)

Anthony Gordon Entertainment, News

On January 19, 2017, The Hill reported that the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities would be “eliminated entirely” under plans from incoming President Donald Trump. For many, this report was both shocking and heartbreaking. Because while the agency has faced attacks in the past, historically it has enjoyed full-throated support from Republicans and Democrats alike.

The new administration’s stated goal is to “make America great again,” so it seems counterproductive to destroy an institution that contributes so much to our greatness. Why is it being threatened now? I suspect it’s because both the administration and the American public don’t fully understand what the endowments contribute to our country.

Signed into law by Lyndon Johnson in 1965, The National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities are actually two organizations that fall under the same budget. The National Endowment for the Arts provides grants to support dance, music, theater, and visual arts, among other disciplines. The National Endowment for the Humanities focuses its support on disciplines such as literature and historical preservation.

While supporting the arts comes at a price, the United States actually spends less money supporting the endowments than any EU country spends on their arts and culture programs. If this surprises you to learn, then I hope you enjoy a few more surprises while you read more about the hidden history of the NEA. It’s one of our great institutions and it needs your help.

1. It Was Created by a Bipartisan Act of Congress

The NEA was the dream of John F. Kennedy, but its creation owes a debt to Jacob Javits, the Republican Senator from New York who co-authored the law that gave birth to the agency. “Almost every civilized country in the world provides some assistance to the development of its art and culture,” said Javits. “Congress is lagging far behind the people in its failure to recognize the national importance of developing our cultural resources through support of the arts…it is high time that Congress took a real interest in this very essential part of our national life.”

President Johnson signs the law creating the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities in the White House Rose Garden.

President Johnson signs the law creating the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities

Photo courtesy of the NEH

2. Its Founders Were the Greatest Creative Minds of the 20th Century

Prior to funding the new agency, Congress created the National Council on the Arts to oversee the endowment. Among the inaugural council’s distinguished members were novelists John SteinbeckRalph Ellison and Harper Lee. Composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein and violinist Isaac Stern were also among its founders, as were choreographer Agnes de Mille, journalist David Brinkley, actor Gregory Peck and painter Richard Diebenkorn.

3. The NEA Helped Create the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

The National Council on the Arts also acts as our federal steering committee for making crucial decisions regarding public arts projects. The council’s guidance (and funding) lead to the selection of the design team of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Its iconic design—a long, granite slab bearing the names of 58,249 service men and women who gave their lives in service of our country—is considered by many to be our nation’s most poignant monument.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Brought to you by the NEA.

NEA part of the design selection process for the Vietnam War Memorial

4. It’s One of Our Least Expensive Federal Programs

The 2014 National Endowment for the Arts budget was just $146 million. This represents 0.012% of federal discretionary spending—about one one-hundredth of one percent. This is also the amount the government spent in 2013 for federal employees to upgrade their flights to business class. Both of these costs are a drop in the bucket compared to the estimated $357 million$500 million spent annually on military marching bands. Ultimately, the endowment costs each American a paltry .47 cents a year. When placed in an international context, consider that Germany spends roughly $20 per citizen a year on arts programs, Northern Ireland spends $37 and Australia spends $311.

5. Without the NEA, There Would be no “Prairie Home Companion”

A grant from the NEA enabled us to start “A Prairie Home Companion,” says Garrison Keillor, creator of the beloved radio program. “Help which was crucial, because the show was not that great to start with, we had 12 people in the audience for our first broadcast, and we made the mistake of having an intermission and lost half of them.” Keillor’s statement illustrates the crucial need the NEA fulfills in supporting important works that might not be commercially viable, especially at their inception.

Garrison Keillor brings Lake Wobegon to the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, MN.

Garrison Keillor at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, MN

Photo courtesy of A Prairie Home Companion.

6. The NEA Funds Arts Education in Public Schools

When the No Child Left Behind act passed in 2002, it had the unintended effect of forcing more than 80% of public schools to drastically cut, or entirely eliminate, their arts education programs. This hit “inner city” schools the hardest, where 8-12th grade students are three times less likely to earn a college degree than students who receive an arts education. The NEA attempts to make up for some of this shortfall by providing grants of $5.4 million dollars a year for K-12 arts education in public schools.

7. Ronald Reagan (and Other Conservatives) Supported the NEA

It’s a myth that defunding the NEA is a conservative principle and that Republicans shouldn’t value this vital institution. In fact, the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush spent more on the NEA than the administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama did.

NEA Chairman Frank Hodsoll presents the Academy Award received by the NEA to President Ronald Reagan.

President Ronald Reagan was committed to funding the arts

Photo courtesy of Frank Hodsoll/National Endowment for the Arts

When members of his administration proposed gutting the agency, Ronald Reagan created a presidential task force to study the question. The task force was led by another conservative icon, Charlton Heston (himself once a member of the National Council on the Arts). Reagan enthusiastically accepted the recommendation of the task force to keep the endowments well funded. In a statement of support, the President said the NEA “served an important role in catalyzing additional private support, assisting excellence in arts and letters, and helping to assure the availability of arts and scholarship.”

8. Great Works of Literature Wouldn’t Exist Without Its Support

In 1974, the NEA gave a $5,000 fellowship to author Erica Jong—money she used to finish her novel “Fear of Flying“, now considered a classic of American literature. John Kennedy Toole’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “A Confederacy of Dunces“, was published with a modest $3500 grant. In total, 16 Pulitzer Prize-winning novels were funded by NEA grants. Dozens of other American novelists were able to hone their craft thanks to NEA grants, among them Charles Bukowski, T. C. Boyle, Paul Auster, Alice Walker and Tobias Wolff.

9. It Saved the Historic Old Post Office Building in Washington, D.C.

In 1970, the Old Post Office Building was on the chopping block, with plans in place to demolish the historic structure. NEA chairman Nancy Hanks persuaded Congress to preserve the building as a national historic landmark. Congress went a step further, making it the “permanent” home for the NEA. It served as NEA headquarters until 2012, when Donald Trump began negotiations with the government to turn this national landmark into a hotel. His plans were ultimately approved, forcing the agency to move to a new location. In 2016, Mr. Trump opened his new hotel in the very same historic building the NEA had saved from destruction.

The Old Post Office Building in Washington, D.C. served as headquarters for the NEA from 1983-2012. Today, it’s the Trump International Hotel.

The NEA was instrumental in preserving the Old Post Office building

Daniel Rosenbaum. Courtesy of The New York Times

10. It Broadcasts Culture to the Masses

While performing arts are best enjoyed in the theater, many Americans simply can’t afford to attend great performances. Thankfully, for the 74% of Americans who are exposed to the arts primarily on TV, we have the enduring PBS series “Great Performances.” The show has been broadcasting high culture over the public airwaves since 1972, thanks in large part to grants from the NEA. Grants from the organization also funded Ken Burn’s documentary, “The Civil War.” Its legacy of preserving the history of film is immeasurable—the American Film Institute itself was founded by the NEA.

“What the Iliad was for the Greeks, ‘The Civil War’ is for Americans.” – Lynne Cheney, NEH Chairman 1986-1993 (and Second Lady of the United States 2001-2009)

11. Its Small Investment Provides Massive Support to a $704B Industry

The arts industry isn’t just for entertainment and cultural enrichment. It’s a driving force in our economy, employing 4.7 million people and accounting for 4.2 percent of the nation’s annual GDP. To put it in perspective, coal (and all other mining) activities account for just 1.7 percent of our GDP. The coal industry has received more than $1 billion a year in federal subsidies since 2008—six times the amount the NEA receives. While the government debates how to manage trade deficits on manufactured goods, the arts industry actually generates a massive $24 billion annual trade surplus.

The Numbers Don’t Lie—the Arts Drive Our Economy.

Value added by the arts to the GDP

Infographic Courtesy of Fortune Magazine

One of the NEA’s most successful programs were its Challenge Grants. Beginning in 1976, they required at least a three-to-one match in new or increased non-federal financial support. This created a public/private partnership that effectively tripled the revenue for hundreds of performing arts organizations. Among them, the Joffrey Ballet in New York, WGBH Educational Foundation in Boston, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.

When the program was ended due to budget cuts in 1996, it had bequeathed $203 million in grants, but generated nearly $700 million in private investments. In 2001, Senator Slade Gorton (R-WA) led a successful effort to secure funds for new version of the program. The Challenge America Arts Fund was created to support arts education projects in remote and previously neglected communities, and continues to do so today. His leadership proved once again that supporting the arts is not a partisan issue. It’s a basic responsibility of our government.

The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, MN has enjoyed support from the NEA since 1971.

NEA has been supporting the Walker Arts Center since 1976

Photo courtesy of Meet Minneapolis


I hope you’ve gained a deeper appreciation for this great American institution. If you feel it is deserving of our continued support, please sign this petition encouraging our government to preserve the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities.

SIGN THE PETITION
  • Alexander Calder’s La Grande Vitesse was the very first public art work funded by the NEA. 1500 people attended the dedication of the sculpture in Grand Rapids, MI, when it was presented to the public by Vice President Gerald Ford in 1969.
  • Alexander Calder’s La Grande Vitesse was the very first public art work funded by the NEA. 1500 people attended the dedication of the sculpture in Grand Rapids, MI, when it was presented to the public by Vice President Gerald Ford in 1969.
  • President Johnson signs the law creating the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities in the White House Rose Garden. Among those attending the the ceremony were actor Gregory Peck, historian Dumas Malone, photographer Ansel Adams, writer Ralph Ellison, architect Walter Gropius, and philanthropist Paul Mellon.

    Photo courtesy of the National Endowment for the Humanities

  • In November of 1980, the Council for the Arts helped select the design team for the National Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington, DC. Maya Lin, then an undergraduate student at Yale University, ultimately won the commission to design the landmark. The iconic memorial receives more than three million visitors a year.
  • Garrison Keillor is one of America’s finest humorists and storytellers. “A grant from the NEA enabled us to start A Prairie Home Companion in Minnesota,” he says.

    Photo courtesy of A Prairie Home Companion

  • Conservative icon Ronald Reagan was committed to funding the arts. Here, NEA Chairman Frank Hodsoll hands the special Academy Award presented to the National Endowment for the Arts to the President.

    Photo courtesy of Frank Hodsoll/National Endowment for the Arts

  • Eleven years after the death of author John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces was first published—thanks to a $3500 grant from the NEA. The book went on to the win the Pulitzer Prize and is considered a canonical work of Southern American literature.

    Photo courtesy of Frank Hodsoll/National Endowment for the Arts

  • The Old Post Office Building in Washington DC served as headquarters of the NEA from 1983-2012. Now, it’s the Trump International Hotel.

    Photo credit: Daniel Rosenbaum. Courtesy of The New York Times

  • The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, MN has enjoyed support from the NEA since 1971. More than 400,000 people visit its sculpture garden every year. Among their many great works is “Spoonbridge and Cherry”, a masterpiece by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen.

    Photo courtesy of Meet Minneapolis