The official arts organization of the U.S. government and the country’s largest funder of the arts, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is an independent agency that strives to make the arts accessible to all Americans, through a wide variety of educational programs, grants, partnerships, and initiatives.
In the late 1980s and 1990s conservative groups aimed to halt the use of tax dollars to support the arts, raising an uproar about an exhibited photograph by Andres Serrano, and a posthumous retrospective of photos by Robert Mapplethorpe. Responding to the pressure, Congress passed an anti-obscenity clause to their NEA appropriations bill, and government funding of NEA programs decreased in the mid-1990s. It grew steadily during the first decade of the 21st century, then—as part of across-the-board federal belt-tightening—was cut in 2011 and further in 2012. The 2013 budget request seeks an $8-million increase from the previous year.
Congress established the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) with the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965, to support arts education, exhibitions, performances, and presentations in a multitude of arts fields, including architecture, arts on film, TV, radio, dance, design, folk and traditional arts, graphic design, literature, music, musical theater, opera, and theater.
NEA operations are overseen by a Chairman, who is appointed by the President. Providing the Chairman with expert advice is the National Council on the Arts, a board consisting of six members of Congress, and 14 people knowledgeable in the arts, also appointed by the President. The Council was established a year before creation of the NEA by order of the National Arts and Cultural Development Act of 1964. Among the Council’s original members, appointed by President Lyndon Johnson, were such notable artists as Leonard Bernstein, Duke Ellington, Charlton Heston, Gregory Peck, Sidney Poitier, Richard Rogers, John Steinbeck, and Isaac Stern. The 1965 Act that established the NEA provided for 26 individuals on the Council to advise the agency, those members serving for six-year staggered terms. Congressional legislation in 1997 reduced the number of board members to 14, with the addition of the six members of Congress, each appointed by a Congressional leader. The Council meets three times a year, with public attendance welcome.
Congressional funding for the NEA stood between $160 million and $180 million during the time period between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s. Funding was cut to $99.5 million in 1996 after the NEA weathered criticism from conservative organizations for agency grants awarded to artists considered controversial by the conservative groups. The NEA’s budget continued to shrink on an annual basis until 2001, when Congress increased its funding to $104.7 million. It has continued on an upswing until 2011, when its budget was cut as part of overall federal cutbacks.
The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) works to provide opportunities for all Americans to benefit from the arts, working in partnership with a network of public, private, and non-profit agencies and organizations. Among NEA’s specific activities:
Recent NEA grants have been awarded to a variety of organizations across the country, including: Atlantic Center for the Arts, Inc., New Smyrna Beach, Florida; Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, Inc., New York, NY; National Public Radio, Washington D.C.; Jazz House Kids, Inc., West Orange, New Jersey; Arts Corps, Seattle, Washington; Reel Stories Teen Filmmaking, Inc., Brooklyn, New York; San Francisco Girls Chorus, Inc., San Francisco, California; PA'I Foundation, Aiea, Hawaii; Terra Moto, Inc. Portland, Maine; Friends of WWOZ, Inc., New Orleans, Louisiana.
Fellowship Awards, providing Americans access to contemporary literature that they would not otherwise have access to.
The NEA also previously sponsored the design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial; created and funded the American Film Institute and the American Masterpieces initiative; and gave early financial aid to Minnesota Public Radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” PBS’s “Great Performances” series, the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, and the Sundance Institute.
In May 2011, the NEA announced that it was expanding its funding guidelines for art to include new forms of media, including video games. Its longstanding Arts on Radio and Television category was changed to The Arts in Media, and will include film, TV and radio, as well as satellite-based, Internet-based, and interactive media.
In the NEA’s 2012-2016 Strategic Plan (pdf), it announced a revised set of criteria for grant proposals, including a requirement that projects demonstrate the potential to bring about “meaningful change,” offer “fresh insights and new value,” and have the potential to be “shared, emulated, or lead to other innovations.” The report also announced a revised evaluation program that will include post-award citizen-expert reviews, grantee-conducted audience surveys, and anonymous grant application surveys to be used to refine the application process.
From the Web Site of the NEA:
The proposed $154.255 million budget for FY 2013 is to be distributed as follows:
Direct Endowment Grants $74,143,000
State/Regional Partnerships $48,762,000
Salaries and Expenses (Operating) $27,100,000
Salaries and Expenses (Relocation) $3,000,000
Program Support Efforts $2,250,000
Total Budget $154,255,000
According to USASpending.gov, during the past decade the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has spent $12,872,787 on nearly 400 transactions for services ranging from office machines ($1,010,778) and telecommunications management ($992,423) to facilities operations ($762,315) and auditing ($678,003).
The top four recipients of NEA contractor expenditures during this period are:
Planned Systems International Inc. $1,628,918
1. Xerox Corporation $1,518,493
2. Logistics Applications Inc. $1,431,293
3. Miracle Systems LLC $704,407
4. Dell Inc. $615,605
NEA Chief Angers Peoria
Around the time he took over the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 2009, Rocco Landesman created a stir with his remarks about arts funding. Landesman, a former Broadway producer, said his strategy as head of the NEA would be to support artistic quality, and not spread the wealth around to ensure every state receives money.
“I don’t know if there’s a theater in Peoria, but I would bet that it’s not as good as Steppenwolf or the Goodman,” Landesman said in an interview with The New York Times.
Theater folks in Peoria didn’t appreciate the slight, and invited Landesman to visit their town to catch some local shows. Landesman agreed. In November 2009, he made Peoria his first stop on his Art Works Tour of the nation and was duly impressed by a rendition of Rent at the Eastlight Theatre.
Arts Chief to See What Plays in Peoria (by Robin Pogrebin, New York Times)
NEA Chairman Provokes Heated Debate: How Much Art Is Too Much? (by Peter Marks, Washington Post)
NEA Report #2 (Slover Slinett Strategies)
Yosi Sergant Angers Conservatives
Conservatives erupted at the NEA in August 2009 following controversial remarks by the agency’s communications director.
During a conference call with potential grant recipients, Yosi Sergant encouraged the artists to participate in an Obama administration project dubbed “United We Serve.” Sergant told participants “to help lay a new foundation for growth, focusing on core areas of the recovery agenda—health care, energy and the environment, safety and security, education, community renewal.”
Fox News Commentator Glenn Beck attacked Sergant and the NEA on his talk show, accusing the agency of propaganda efforts similar to those used by Nazi Germany.
Sergant resigned from the NEA the following month.
His connection with President Barack Obama began during the 2008 presidential campaign, having led the media effort for Shepard Fairey, the artist behind the iconic “Hope” portrait that Obama credited for helping him win.
Yosi Sergant, Administration Aide Demoted: Glenn Beck Strikes Again (Huffington Post)
National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Controversy, 2009 (The Black Vault)
Yosi Sergant Resigns from NEA (Washington Post)
Public Art for Public Schools: A Sneak Peek into Re:Form School (by Margaret Eby, Flavorwire)
Yosi Sergant Taps Able Parris (McKinney)
Are Video Games Worthy of Funding?
Leaders of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) decided in 2011 to extend the definition of arts projects that can qualify for funding by including video games. With the tremendous growth in popularity of video games in American society, it was not surprising the NEA decided to get involved in gaming entertainment. Conservatives, however, used the decision to once again bash the NEA as an example of wasteful government spending.
Video games have long established themselves as legitimate entertainment, not to mention a viable source of artistic creation. From their graphics to complex storylines, video games explore human issues just as other forms of art sanctioned and supported by the NEA. The government decision to fund them will not mean taxpayer dollars going toward violent games. The NEA specifically said it will fund only independent, non-profit video game studios, and not large corporate producers of popular series like Call of Duty.
Funding the development of video games represents an enormous waste of money. They are not art, and to fund them is an insult to true artists. The decision also represents a slap in the face to struggling Americans hit hard by the weak economy. How can the Obama administration support makers of games while factory workers lose their jobs and families go hungry?
Detroit Native Defends Video Games as an Art Form on Fox News (Detroit Underground)
Should the U.S. Government Fund the Arts at All?
Over the years, the NEA has often been a subject of controversy, with criticism coming from people both inside and outside the government, complaining that tax dollars should not be used to fund art…or at least certain types of art. In the early days of the presidency of Ronald Reagan, efforts were made by his administration to greatly slash the NEA budget. What resulted were some cuts, but a lot fewer than opponents had wished for. Then, in the late 1980s and 1990s, an intense national dialogue on the topic began, sparked by an Andres Serrano photo entitled “Piss Christ,” in a 1989 NEA-financed exhibition in North Carolina, which portrayed a plastic crucifix submerged in urine, and a 1988 retrospective of 150 photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, after he died of AIDS, which included, along with formal portraits and images of flowers and children, posed, erotic scenes, some of which were sadomasochistic. The Mapplethorpe show had been organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, which had received funding from the NEA. The retrospective, which originated in Philadelphia, was on its way to five other cities when Texas Republican Congressman Dick Armey sent the NEA a letter signed by more than 100 members of Congress denouncing, on moral grounds, the grants for the Serrano and Mapplethorpe projects. The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, where the Mapplethorpe show was scheduled to open, cancelled the exhibition. This led to censorship claims from the arts community and others, which led to further debate surrounding the appropriateness of the government supporting the arts. Among the questions raised, and still being argued: Is it in the best interest of the nation to have an NEA? Where does freedom of expression begin and end? Who should be given the power to determine what is art and what is obscenity, particularly if tax dollars are funding it?
Against Government Funding of the Arts
Opponents of the NEA, often conservative Republicans and Christian fundamentalist groups, including the Christian Action Network and the American Family Association, accuse some of what the NEA funds of being radical, anti-family, pornographic art, and therefore a threat to civilization, and contend that tax dollars should not be used to pay for art. Mitt Romney made a promise to gut NEA funding during his presidential bid in 2012.
For Government Funding of the Arts
Supporters, on the other hand, believe that the arts significantly enhance a society, that the lives of countless Americans have been greatly enriched since the creation of the NEA, and that the country would be seriously impoverished if the agency were demolished.
The Contest for American Culture: A Leadership Case Study on The NEA and NEH Funding Crisis (by Cynthia Koch, University of Pennsylvania)
The Mapplethorpe Censorship Controversy: Chronology of Events (by Margaret Quigley, Political Research Associates)
Public Funding of Controversial Art (by Bill Kenworthy and Kyonzte Hughes, First Amendment Center)
Indecent Proposal? (NewsHour with Jim Lehrer)
Ten Good Reasons to Eliminate Funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (by Lawrence Jarvik, The Heritage Foundation)
Protesters Destroy Notorious 'Artwork' That Defiled Christ (by Martin Gould, Newsmax.com)
Roger L. Stevens
Livingston L. Biddle, Jr.
Michael P. Hammond
Patrice Walker Powell
Rocco Landesman, the man whom President Barack Obama hopes can revive the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), has had quite an eclectic career. In addition to producing plays and musicals on Broadway, Landesman has owned race horses and several minor league baseball clubs, and he loves country music. He is best known for his energy and intellect, but not for his skills as an administrator or diplomat. He was confirmed by the Senate on August 7, 2009.