National Endowment for the Arts

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is an independent agency of the United States federal government that offers support and funding for projects exhibiting artistic excellence. It was created by an act of the U.S. Congress in 1965 as an independent agency of the federal government. The NEA has its offices in Washington, D.C. It was awarded Tony Honors for Excellence in Theatre in 1995, as well as the Special Tony Award in 2016.


President Lyndon Johnson promoted the arts in terms of the Great Society--he sought social betterment, not artistic creativity. He typically emphasized qualitative and quantitative goals, especially the power of the arts to improve the quality of life of ordinary Americans and to reduce the inequalities between the haves and the have-nots. Karen Patricia Heath observes that, "Johnson personally was not much interested in the acquisition of knowledge, cultural or otherwise, for its own sake, nor did he have time for art appreciation or meeting with artists."

The NEA is "dedicated to supporting excellence in the arts, both new and established; bringing the arts to all Americans; and providing leadership in arts education".

Nancy Hanks (1969-1977)

Nancy Hanks served as the second Chairman of the NEA (1969-1977) She was appointed by President Richard M. Nixon, continuing her service under President Gerald R. Ford. Her political skills enabled her to increase NEA’s funding from US$8 million to US$114 million over her eight-year tenure.

Nancy Hanks was the most effective and most successful of all of the Arts Endowment chairmen because she understood politics as well as how to be a diplomat. Hanks was astute at flattering members of Congress and fearlessly took control of the National Council of the Arts: Hanks' relationship to the National Council on the Arts was very different from Roger Stevens', the former chair. Stevens and his first Council members were peers, equals—and their actions and decisions were a true collaboration. Hanks was not from the arts community; she was much more a political than an artistic force. She controlled the Council as Stevens had never tried to do. The Council, in Hanks's years, did little more than ratify the chair, who was very strong in her management of them. Michael Straight describes Hanks's "imposing her will on the issues that mattered most to her.

According to Elaine A. King: :Nancy Hanks perhaps was able to accomplish her mission because she functioned as a type of benevolent art dictator rather than mucking with multiple agendas and political red-tape. From 1969 through 1977, under Hanks' administration, the Arts Endowment functioned like a fine piece of oiled machinery. Hanks continuously obtained the requested essential appropriations from Congress because of her genius in implementing the power of the lobby system. Although she had not had direct administrative experience in the federal government, some people were skeptical at the beginning of her term. Those in doubt underestimated her bureaucratic astuteness and her ability to direct this complex cultural office. Richard Nixon's early endorsement of the arts benefited the Arts Endowment in several ways. The budget for the Arts Endowment not only increased but also more federal funding became available and numerous programs within the agency."


Between 1965 and 2008, the agency has made in excess of 128,000 grants, totaling more than $5 billion. From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, Congress granted the NEA an annual funding of between $160 and $180 million. In 1996, Congress cut the NEA funding to $99.5 million as a result of pressure from conservative groups, including the American Family Association, who criticized the agency for using tax dollars to fund highly controversial artists such as Barbara DeGenevieve, Andres Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe, and the performance artists known as the "NEA Four". Since 1996, the NEA has partially rebounded with a 2015 budget of $146.21 million. For FY 2010, the budget reached the level it was at during the mid-1990s at $167.5 million but fell again in FY 2011 with a budget of $154 million.


The NEA is governed by a Chairman appointed by the President to a four-year term and confirmed by Congress. The NEA's advisory committee, the National Council on the Arts, advises the Chairman on policies and programs, as well as reviewing grant applications, fundraising guidelines, and leadership initiative. This body consists of 14 individuals appointed by the President for their expertise and knowledge in the arts, in addition to six ex officio members of Congress who serve in a non-voting capacity. On August 1, 2019, Mary Anne Carter was confirmed by the Senate as the 12th chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. She had been nominated by President Donald Trump in November 2018.


The NEA offers grants in the categories of: 1) Grants for Arts Projects, 2) National Initiatives, and 3) Partnership Agreements. Grants for Arts Projects support exemplary projects in the discipline categories of artist communities, arts education, dance, design, folk and traditional arts, literature, local arts agencies, media arts, museums, music, musical theater, opera, presenting (including multidisciplinary art forms), theater, and visual arts. The NEA also grants individual fellowships in literature to creative writers and translators of exceptional talent in the areas of prose and poetry.

The NEA has partnerships in the areas of state and regional, federal, international activities, and design. The state arts agencies and regional arts organizations are the NEA's primary partners in serving the American people through the arts. Forty percent of all NEA funding goes to the state arts agencies and regional arts organizations. Additionally, the NEA awards three Lifetime Honors: NEA National Heritage Fellowships to master folk and traditional artists, NEA Jazz Masters Fellowships to jazz musicians and advocates, and NEA Opera Honors to individuals who have made extraordinary contributions to opera in the United States. The NEA also manages the National Medal of Arts, awarded annually by the President.

Relative scope of funding

Artist William Powhida has noted that "in one single auction, wealthy collectors bought almost a billion dollars in contemporary art at Christie's in New York." He further commented: "If you had a 2 percent tax just on the auctions in New York you could probably double the NEA budget in two nights."

Lifetime Honors

The NEA is the federal agency responsible for recognizing outstanding achievement in the arts. It does this by awarding three lifetime achievement awards. The NEA Jazz Masters Fellowships are awarded to individuals who have made significant contributions to the art of jazz. The NEA National Heritage Fellowships are awarded for artistic excellence and accomplishments for American's folk and traditional arts. The National Medal of Arts is awarded by the President of the United States and NEA for outstanding contributions to the excellence, growth, support, and availability of the arts in the United States.


1981 attempts to abolish

Upon entering office in 1981, the incoming Ronald Reagan administration intended to push Congress to abolish the NEA completely over a three-year period. Reagan's first director of the Office of Management and Budget, David A. Stockman, thought the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities were "good [departments] to simply bring to a halt because they went too far, and they would be easy to defeat." Another proposal would have halved the arts endowment budget. However, these plans were abandoned when the President's special task force on the arts and humanities, which included close Reagan allies such as conservatives Charlton Heston and Joseph Coors, discovered "the needs involved and benefits of past assistance," concluding that continued federal support was important. Frank Hodsoll became the chairman of the NEA in 1981, and while the department's budget decreased from $158.8 million in 1981 to $143.5 million, by 1989 it was $169.1 million, the highest it had ever been.

1989 objections

In 1989, Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association held a press conference attacking what he called "anti-Christian bigotry," in an exhibition by photographer Andres Serrano. The work at the center of the controversy was Piss Christ, a photo of a plastic crucifix submerged in a vial of an amber fluid described by the artist as his own urine. Republican Senators Jesse Helms and Al D'Amato began to rally against the NEA, and expanded the attack to include other artists. Prominent conservative Christian figures including Pat Robertson of the 700 Club and Pat Buchanan joined the attacks. Republican representative Dick Armey, an opponent of federal arts funding, began to attack a planned exhibition of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe at the Corcoran Museum of Art that was to receive NEA support.

On June 12, 1989, The Corcoran cancelled the Mapplethorpe exhibition, saying that it did not want to "adversely affect the NEA's congressional appropriations." The Washington Project for the Arts later hosted the Mapplethorpe show. The cancellation was highly criticized and in September, 1989, the Director of the Corcoran gallery, Christina Orr-Cahill, issued a formal statement of apology saying, "The Corcoran Gallery of Art in attempting to defuse the NEA funding controversy by removing itself from the political spotlight, has instead found itself in the center of controversy. By withdrawing from the Mapplethorpe exhibition, we, the board of trustees and the director, have inadvertently offended many members of the arts community which we deeply regret. Our course in the future will be to support art, artists and freedom of expression."

Though this controversy inspired congressional debate about appropriations to the NEA, including proposed restrictions on the content of NEA-supported work and their grantmaking guidelines, efforts to defund the NEA failed.

1990 performance artists vetoed

Conservative media continued to attack individual artists whose NEA-supported work was deemed controversial. The "NEA Four", Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck, and Holly Hughes, were performance artists whose proposed grants from the United States government's National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) were vetoed by John Frohnmayer in June 1990. Grants were overtly vetoed on the basis of subject matter after the artists had successfully passed through a peer review process. The artists won their case in court in 1993 and were awarded amounts equal to the grant money in question, though the case would make its way to the United States Supreme Court in National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley. The case centered on subsection (d)(1) of which provides that the NEA Chairperson shall ensure that artistic excellence and artistic merit are the criteria by which applications are judged. The court ruled in , that Section 954(d)(1) is facially valid, as it neither inherently interferes with First Amendment rights nor violates constitutional vagueness principles.

1995–1997 congressional attacks

The 1994 midterm elections cleared the way for House Speaker Newt Gingrich to lead a renewed attack on the NEA. Gingrich had called for the NEA to be eliminated completely along with the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. While some in Congress attacked the funding of controversial artists, others argued the endowment was wasteful and elitist. However, despite massive budget cutbacks and the end of grants to individual artists, Gingrich ultimately failed in his push to eliminate the endowment.

Proposed defunding

The budget outline submitted by President Trump on March 16, 2017, to Congress would eliminate all funding for the program. Congress approved a budget that retained NEA funding. The White House budget proposed for fiscal year 2018 again called for elimination of funding, but Congress retained the funding for another year.


  • 1965–1969 Roger L. Stevens, appointed by Lyndon B. Johnson
  • 1969–1977 Nancy Hanks, appointed by Richard M. Nixon
  • 1977–1981 Livingston L. Biddle, Jr., appointed by Jimmy Carter
  • 1981–1989 Frank Hodsoll, appointed by Ronald Reagan
  • 1989–1992 John Frohnmayer, appointed by George H. W. Bush
  • 1993–1997 Jane Alexander, appointed by Bill Clinton
  • 1998–2001 Bill Ivey, appointed by Bill Clinton
  • 2002 Michael P. Hammond, appointed by George W. Bush
  • 2002–2003 Eileen Beth Mason, Acting Chairman, appointed by George W. Bush
  • 2003–2009 Dana Gioia, appointed by George W. Bush
  • 2009 Patrice Walker Powell, Acting Chairman, appointed by Barack Obama
  • 2009–2012 Rocco Landesman, appointed by Barack Obama
  • 2012–2014 Joan Shigekawa, Acting Chairman
  • 2014–2018 R. Jane Chu, appointed by Barack Obama
  • 2019 Mary Anne Carter, appointed by Donald Trump