|Jurisdiction||Federal government of the United States|
|Headquarters||Constitution Center, Washington, D.C.|
|Annual budget||$152,800,000 USD (2018)|
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. In March 2017, a proposal to eliminate all federal funding for the program was put forward by the Trump administration.
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".
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 June 12, 2014, Dr. Jane Chu was confirmed as the 11th Chair of the NEA by the Senate, after having been nominated by President Barack Obama in February of the same year.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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 20 U.S.C. § 954 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 524 U.S. 569 (1998), that Section 954(d)(1) is facially valid, as it neither inherently interferes with First Amendment rights nor violates constitutional vagueness principles.
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.
In mid-2009, the NEA came under controversy again when it was revealed on a website run by conservative commentator Andrew Breitbart that then-Communications Director Yosi Sergant had participated in an August 10, 2009 conference call that allegedly directed artists to create works of art promoting President Barack Obama's domestic agenda. "I would encourage you to pick something, whether it's health care, education, the environment, you know, there's four key areas that the corporation has identified as the areas of service," Sergant said on the call, making reference to the four areas of focus earlier outlined by Nell Abernathy, Director of Outreach for United We Serve. Suggested areas of focus mentioned in the call included preventative care, child nutrition, community cleanups, trail maintenance, reading tutoring, and homelessness. At another point he said, "This is just the beginning. This is the first telephone call of a brand new conversation. We are just now learning how to really bring this community together to speak with the government. What that looks like legally. We're still trying to figure out the laws of putting government websites of Facebook and the use of Twitter. This is all being sorted out. We are participating in history as it's being made, so bear with us as we learn the language so that we can speak to each other safely. And we can really work together to move the needle to get stuff done."
The NEA countered the allegations by asserting that Sergant had acted unilaterally and without the approval of then-Acting Chairman Patrice Walker Powell, and that the call was not a means to promote any legislative agenda but rather to inform members of the arts community of an opportunity to become involved in volunteerism through the United We Serve program. They also noted that the call had nothing to do with grantmaking.
Statement from Jane Chu on the Conclusion of Her Term as NEA Chair on June 4, 2018