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National Endowment for the Arts (NEA)

By Asheley B. Smith

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is the largest annual national funder for the arts in the United States. The Arts Endowment was established by Congress in 1965 and strives to benefit individuals and communities through supporting artistic excellence, creativity, and innovation. In addition to partnering with state and regional arts councils, the NEA collaborates with other federal agencies and leaders in the philanthropic sector in order to improve cultural life and heritage in the United States. The President appoints a Chairman of the NEA to a four-year term; the Chairman is advised by the National Council on the Arts, which is comprised of six ex-officio, non-voting members of Congress and 14 experts in the field who are also appointed by the President.

There is a public mandate that the NEA support all of the arts in addition to arts education in all 50 states along with six U.S. territories. Upon the Endowment’s founding, there were five states with arts councils, but soon other states established arts councils, with 20 percent of the NEA’s budget going directly to state and regional arts councils for disbursement. Today, approximately 40 percent of the NEA’s budget goes to state and regional arts councils. This emphasis on regions ensures that federal dollars are not just going to cities and regions already known for their cultural output, and it allows artists who might not be recognized on a national scale, but are well known in and representative of their region, to receive funding. Through the granting of a significant portion of the NEA’s budget to state and regional arts councils, the Arts Endowment ensures that the multitude of artistic voices present in the United States is heard.

Grants available from the NEA are situated within disciplines such as “Dance,” “Folk & Traditional Arts,” “Opera,” and “Artist Communities.” Within each discipline there are a number of different grant categories to which one can apply. Due to the nature of the arts, a dance company might find that its work could benefit from more than one grant within the dance discipline, but also might be eligible for funding from, and perhaps more competitive in, the “Folk & Traditional Arts” or the “Media Arts” discipline. A panel of peers within each discipline reviews grant applications; individuals within the dance discipline review grant applications from dance artists.

The Arts Endowment does not operate like a ministry of culture, a centralized government agency that oversees arts and cultural policy, products, and activities; therefore, the NEA does not impose its will on arts and artists in the United States. At the same time, a grant from the NEA legitimizes a new organization and validates an existing one, attracting additional support. Every dollar granted by the NEA typically generates “seven to eight times more money in terms of matching grants, further donations, and earned revenue. A $100,000 grant, therefore, deliver[s] $800,000 in eventual funds to an organization.”1 Thus, a grant from the NEA to a dance company or presenting organization has a powerful multiplying effect.


In 1965, the National Foundation in the Arts and Humanities Act was signed by President Lyndon Johnson establishing the NEA. This legislation put into practice President John F. Kennedy’s belief that the arts comprised an important piece of national heritage. The passage of this legislation finally deemed support of the arts— and dance—an appropriate matter of concern for the federal government.

The first funding ever given by the Arts Endowment was a $100,000 matching grant for emergency support of American Ballet Theatre (ABT). As proudly reported in the 1966 annual report of the NEA, “[o]n December 20, 1965, Vice President Hubert Humphrey presented the first check issued by the Federal Government in direct support of the arts to the President of a ballet theatre foundation, assuring the continued operation of one of the country’s best existing full-scale dance companies.”2 The same year, the NEA also committed an additional $250,000 to ABT for the company to go on a national tour. Along with the $350,000 given to ABT in the first year of operation, the NEA gave a $142,250 grant to the Martha Graham Company to go on a national tour, and individual choreographer grants to Alvin Ailey, Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham, José Limón, Alwin Nikolais, Anna Sokolow, Paul Taylor, and Antony Tudor, totaling $103,000 all together. In addition, during the first year, grants of $5,000 each were given to the Capitol Ballet Guild and a National Dance Conference at which the Association of American Dance Companies was established, a predecessor of Dance/USA.

During the 1970s, the NEA’s budget grew exponentially. President Richard Nixon greatly supported the NEA and the Endowment increased “1400 percent, from $8,250,000 in 1970 to $123,850,000 in 1978.”3 Applications for grants also increased at a tremendous rate during this time, as more artists and arts organizations became aware of the federal money available. In addition to the new federal money for the arts, the establishment of the NEA encouraged other funding agencies to increase their budgets. The 1970s, thus, became a time of incredible expansion for the all the arts, including dance. In 1965, there were thirtyseven professional dance companies in the United States; by 1975, this number had increased to 157.4 One reason for the formation of new companies was the increasing visibility of existing companies. From the late 1960s to early 1980s, the NEA’s Dance Touring Program enabled dance companies to not only perform throughout the country, but also conduct teaching residencies at dance presenters in cities nationwide.

President Reagan appointed a presidential task force at the beginning of his time in office to investigate whether or not to continue supporting the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Though the NEA continued to exist, it also saw the first budget cut of its history in 1982. By the end of Regan’s second term, the NEA’s budget had regained lost ground and rose above 1981 levels. In the last years of the decade the culture wars surrounding federal funding of the arts began heating up along with increased social and political polarization.5 A lasting impact on the NEA following the culture wars was massive budget cuts and a Congressional mandate in 1996 to eliminate grants to individual artists. Indeed, one of the biggest losses to dance in recent history has been the disappearance of the Choreographers Fellowship category as part of these sweeping changes.

In 2004, just prior to the 40th anniversary year of the NEA, First Lady Laura Bush announced the largest increase in funds for the Endowment in two decades—$18 million. All but $3 million of this increase was to go to a new initiative of the NEA, “American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Artistic Genius.” This initiative was subsequently launched in 2005 “to acquaint Americans with the best of their cultural and artistic legacy.” Grants were available to dancemakers through 2010 for the “[r]econstruction or restaging of works that are artistically, historically, and culturally significant,” the touring of these works, and recreation and documentation of significant works by university dance departments.6

In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed Rocco Landesman as the tenth Chairman of the NEA. Landesman immediately set out rebranding the Endowment and came up with the slogan “art works.” This is meant as a triple entendre, referring, as a noun, to the products produced by artists; as a sentence, to the idea that art works to both inspire and change people; and, gesturing towards employment, stating that art jobs are real jobs. With this final meaning, Landesman is working against the assumption that work in the arts is not real work—Landesman often cites a Congressman’s protest against the $50 million of stimulus money granted to the NEA, questioning why the money did not go to build roads, which would create “real jobs.”7 The NEA Chairman, who brings a background as a professor, private investment fund worker, and producer in the for-profit theater world of Broadway, wants to reframe how Americans view the arts and, consequently, the Arts Endowment.


1. Dana Gioia, How the United States Funds the Arts, Second Edition (Washington: National Endowment for the Arts, 2007), vii. http://nea.gov/pub/how.pdf.

2. National Endowment for the Arts, Annual Report 1966 (Washington, D.C.: 1967) 39-40.

3. Joseph Wesley Zeigler, As in Crisis: The National Endowment for the Arts versus America (Chicago: A Cappella Books, 1994), 26.

4. Ibid, 28.

5. Controversy around the Arts Endowment began following a touring exhibition featuring Andres Serrano’s "Piss Christ" and a separate Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition, A Perfect Moment. The NEA appropriation bill in 1990 included an amendment by Senator Jesse Helms stating that the Endowment should not fund anything deemed “obscene or indecent.” Chairman John Frohnmayer vetoed four grants to performance artists Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck and Holly Hughes (the NEA Four) after they had been approved through the peer review process. The artists sued the Arts Endowment, won their case and were awarded funds equal to the grant amounts for which they applied. (The case eventually ended up in the Supreme Court where the Court upheld the Congressional amendment surrounding standards of decency and respect.)

6. National Endowment for the Arts, “National Initiatives: American Masterpieces,” http://www.nea.gov/national/masterpiece s/about.html.

7. Rocco Landesman, “We Know Art Works: Rocco Landesman Addresses Grantmakers in the Arts,” Art Works. The Official Blog of the National Endowment for the Arts, October 21, 2009, http://www.arts.gov/artworks/?p=13.

Asheley B. Smith is a PhD candidate in Critical Dance Studies at the University of California, Riverside. Her research investigates how the U.S. federal government participated in and perpetuated economies of reproduction through the NEA’s American Masterpieces initiative. Asheley works as Development Director of Working in the Schools (WITS), a literacy nonprofit in Chicago serving public school students. She holds a Master’s degree in the Social Sciences from the University of Chicago and a Bachelor’s from Oberlin College, double majoring in Dance and History. Asheley served on the Congress on Research in Dance (CORD) Board of Directors from 2010-2012.


Books & Articles

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

Binkiewicz, Donna M. Federalizing the Muse: United States Arts Policy and the National Endowment for the Arts, 1965-1980. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Van Dyke, Jan. Modern Dance in a Postmodern World: An Analysis of Federal Arts Funding and its Impact on the Field of Dance. Reston: American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, 1992.

Zeigler, Joseph Wesley. Arts in Crisis: The National Endowment for the Arts versus America. Chicago: A Cappella Books, 1994.

Online Resources

Bauerlein, Mark, ed. with Ellen Grantham. National Endowment for the Arts: A History 1965- 2008. Washington: National Endowment for the Arts, 2009. http://nea.gov/pub/nea-history- 1965-2008.pdf.

How the United States Funds the Arts. Second Edition. Washington: National Endowment for the Arts, 2007. http://nea.gov/pub/how.pdf.

Netzer, Dick and Ellen Parker. Dancemakers. Washington: National Endowment for the Arts, 1993. http://www.nea.gov/research/reports/NEA-Research-Report-28.pdf.

Smith, Thomas. Raising the Barre: the Geographic, Financial, and Economic Trends of Nonprofit Dance Companies. Washington: National Endowment for the Arts, 2003. http://www.nea.gov/research/Raisingthebarre.pdf.