Since the founding days of the United States, great leaders have understood the vital role the arts play in bringing people together, making life richer and more enjoyable for everyone, and strengthening common goals. A quote from President George Washington illustrates the idea: He is on record as remarking that the arts are “essential” to both a nation’s prosperity and its happiness. For more than 50 years, the National Endowment for the Arts has worked to bring these ideals to life.
In contrast with previous Works Progress Administration (WPA) arts programs administered during the Great Depression, the NEA’s founders never saw its job as one of simply providing work for artists or helping to stimulate the economy. Rather, its focus from the beginning was on developing the human spirit, individually and collectively.
Here are just a few facts that illustrate the NEA’s role in American public life, in the past and today:
A legacy of presidential support.
The early NEA built on traditions established by President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, who were among the most devoted patrons of the arts ever to serve in high public office. In the early 1960s, the Kennedy White House often featured concerts by renowned performers such as cellist Pablo Casals and violinist Isaac Stern. Influential intellectuals such as the French writer and cultural minister André Malraux were welcomed to the White House as official visitors, and members of the administration worked to secure both public and private support for the arts.
In 1965, during the succeeding Lyndon B. Johnson administration, an act of Congress established the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The goal: to give every American the opportunity to develop his or her imagination and creativity through participation in a wide variety of arts activities.
Independent status and strong partnerships.
An independently run agency at the federal level, the NEA partners with nonprofits and with local and state government organizations with similar missions in order to disseminate arts education and support to as many people as possible. To date, the NEA has forwarded in excess of $5 billion in funding to projects around the country.
The NEA specifically focuses on programs and events that draw on the vibrant and diverse heritage of America’s communities.
A milestone anniversary.
At the time of its 50th anniversary celebrations in 2015, the NEA unveiled its new initiative, called Creativity Connects. This program was designed to demonstrate the important role of the arts as part of the country’s civic culture, and to show how they add value to everyday people’s lives by fostering connections at multiple levels of society. NEA chair Jane Chu told the public at the time that the values the arts represent—the unceasing pursuit of vision, dreams, and innovation—have helped to make the American character what it is today.
Expanding access for all.
Additional commemorative programs during the NEA’s anniversary year included a musical theater-focused songwriting competition for high school students, made possible through a collaboration with the Disney Theatrical Group and the revered stage publication Playbill. A related initiative involved expanding the already well-received Poetry Out Loud program with an extra component that would allow winning poets to get their work before larger audiences.
In 2015, the NEA awarded 2,300 grants from an annual budget approaching $150 million. The group’s leadership aimed to ensure that about half of these awards would reach out to people in under-resourced communities. NEA funding that year focused on supporting thousands of exhibits of visual arts, tens of thousands of musical programs, and numerous literary readings and other events that drew audiences exceeding 30 million. Through broadcast media, NEA programming was able to reach out to well over 300 million additional viewers.
Fostering multicultural connections.
NEA literary projects in 2015 included the award of numerous fellowships to translators of creative works from languages such as Turkish, German, and Yiddish into English. Another $900,000 in literature-related fellowships supported poets from a diverse range of backgrounds: One poet had worked in a factory and the mental health field, and another had served as an Army engineer in a combat region.
Additionally, the NEA’s Our Town grant program provided dozens of grants that helped to build livable and sustainable communities that prioritized arts education. Cities from Florida to California and Alaska to Kentucky have all benefited from this initiative, which targets cities, rural areas, and tribal lands.
Honoring creative leaders.
Through its Arts Endowment, the NEA makes possible two major annual events: NEA Jazz Masters and NEA National Heritage Fellowships. Through live webcasts and broadcasts, as well as through social media, the group works to acquaint a broad cross-section of the public with significant creative efforts from dynamic artists.
Since 1982, the NEA Jazz Masters series has honored musicians in the quintessential American genre. The 2016 concert program took place in Washington, DC, and paid tribute to contemporary talents such as saxophonists and composers Jimmy Heath and Rudresh Mahanthappa, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, pianist Randy Weston, and many others.
In October 2015, the National Heritage Fellowships concert, also held in the nation’s capital, featured artists such as blues master Drink Small; Michael Alpert and the Jewish-themed group Brave Old World; and Rahim AlHaj, a composer and a revered master of the oud, a traditional stringed instrument widely used throughout Central Asia.
Additionally, the US President and the NEA award honors through the National Medal of Arts program. Recent recipients of this highest government-sponsored arts award have included actress Sally Field and popular novelist Stephen King.