Symbols and Seeds: A Historical View of the National Arts and Humanities Endowments

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In a scene from the recent film “Jackie,” Natalie Portman meticulously recreates First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s televised tour of the White House for a new generation of moviegoers, most of whom are too young to have viewed the original tour in 1962. While showcasing historical restoration of furniture and art works in the “peoples’ house,” Jackie declares, “I just think everything in the White House should be the best.” Adding a layer to the original tour footage, the new film adds a behind-the-camera glimpse into Jackie’s conversation with her aide during the filming. The scene reveals Jackie’s motivation to inform the American audience that spending for this project was not merely to fulfill a woman’s home remodeling fantasies on a public dime as critics may have contended, but historical preservation of priceless American artifacts was to honor the American presidential home for all Americans to enjoy—as well as to present the success of American culture to the world. The White House and American art were symbols of American achievement in democracy and culture especially important for the U.S. to display as the leader of the free world.

President John F. Kennedy pursued the same symbolic place for the arts when he advanced arts policy and set the stage for the formation of the National Endowment for Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities. This essay offers a historical perspective on the origins and goals of the NEA and NEH and their operation over the past 50 years. The agencies were meant to serve as potent symbols of American cultural achievements and to act as seeds for arts and humanities growth in the United States. On the whole, they achieved remarkable success. Yet over time, what thrived under bipartisan support began to wither amidst political culture wars. Examining the historical context will illuminate the causes and consequences of opposition to federal cultural funding and reveal how negative rhetoric overshadowed broad success in NEA and NEH objectives to disseminate arts and humanities and uplift American democratic principles.

The sister agencies were born in 1965 when President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act, and Congress authorized its first appropriations. Although 1965 marked their official beginning, support for these agencies had ripened during the previous decade as American leaders sought to build a strong multilateral response to the Soviet Union in an expanding Cold War. The initial front centered on scientific expertise, which included the establishment of the National Science Foundation in 1950 to develop a national policy for the promotion of basic research and education primarily in mathematics, medicine, physics, biology, and engineering. Despite increased scientific research and development, the United States received a shock when the Soviets successfully launched the world’s first orbital satellite, sputnik in 1957. Thereafter, the US pushed harder to accelerate its science and educational activities.

Additionally, Congressional leaders turned their attention to extending educational and cultural funding as well. Part of their objective was to counter the perception—then still quite strong—that the United States did not have as significant cultural sophistication as did Europe. In his 1955 article, “Are The Communists Right in Calling Us Cultural Barbarians?” Congressman Frank Thompson (D-NJ) asserted that the U.S. must present a more powerful international cultural presence. He stated that making Washington a cultural center would “be one of the best and most effective ways to counter Russian lies and defeat their heavily financed effort to have communism take over the world.”[1] Senator Jacob Javits (R-NY) also argued for extending American responsibilities in world leadership to include cultural policy at home and abroad. Both men belonged to a growing number of bipartisan supporters of hawkish internationalism and heightened federal activism domestically. As Javits put it, “we intend to push forward with the responsibilities of free world leadership more vigorously then ever” because isolationism is “as dangerous to our own security as it would be to the whole free world.”[2]

At the White House, President Dwight Eisenhower concurred. He commissioned a report on cultural funding, concluding that “a high civilization must not limit its efforts to science alone.”[3]

Advocates of federal arts funding received another boost when American pianist Harvey Lavan “Van” Cliburn won a stunning victory at the Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow in 1958—virtually on the heels of sputnik and at a competition the Soviets intended to demonstrate their own cultural superiority. Acclaim for Van Cliburn enlarged public support for American artists. That same year, Eisenhower signed a bill to create a National Cultural Center in Washington D.C., which later would be named the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline elevated the arts and humanities to even greater heights with personal attention to the cause. They highlighted the arts from Robert Frost’s inaugural poetry reading, to cellist Pablo Casals performance and other concerts at White House events, to their arrangement for Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa to tour the US. The first lady’s White House tour so painstakingly recreated in the recent film Jackie also won public acclaim.

President Kennedy worked toward a more substantive federal arts policy by appointing August Heckscher his “Special Consultant on the Arts” and signing an executive order establishing the National Council on the Arts in 1963. This body soon became the leadership of the NEA. The Kennedys prevailed upon members of Congress to advance a national cultural program before Kennedy’s untimely death. In one his final speeches, JFK asserted: “I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all its citizens And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well.”[4]

Lyndon Johnson, took up the cause in 1964, encouraged with bipartisan support in Congress and testimony before Congress by not only arts supporters but also the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), Council of Graduate Schools in America, and United Chapters of Phi Betta Kappa who joined in support of the humanities as well. Rep. Frank Horton (R-NY) offered a bill to model a humanities foundation on the NSF, gaining wider attention than arts funding alone. He argued that scientific funding had advanced sufficiently after sputnik “to the point where we may now turn our attention. . . to defense of our beliefs and ideals.”[5] The movement for both arts and humanities drew the ardent support of physicist Glen Seaborg, of the Atomic Energy Commission, and Leland J. Haworth of the NSF, who testified that the United States needed to strengthen its leadership and advance teaching and research in all of these fields.[6]

Notably, both Kennedy and Johnson insisted on freedom for artists and scholars to pursue their work according to their own visions without government interference. They contrasted such American freedom with Soviet control of their state-sponsored culture.

The National Council on the Arts, now became the leadership core of the NEA with theater producer and businessman Roger L. Stevens at its head. Barnaby Keeney, a medieval history professor and president of Brown University, became the NEH chair. The agencies shared guiding principles, born of Cold War aspirations, to promote excellence in the arts and humanities and promote access for all Americans to both the arts and lessons of history. With a starting budget of only five million dollars each, the NEA and NEH had more optimism than cash to begin.

National Endowment for the Arts leaders chose to focus first on a few notable projects, since they lacked ample funding but wished the agency to be noticed. Its first grants went to the American Ballet Theater, to Alexander Calder for a public sculpture in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which became La Grande Vitesse., and to development of the American Film Institute.

As the agencies took shape, they set up programs according to fields—such as visual art, dance, theater, and music for the arts or history, art history, literature/criticism, documentary media in humanities. Each built a staff to manage grants. However, panels of experts were brought in to evaluate applications and recommend awards, subject to final approval by the councils. The use of expert panelist aimed to achieve the mission of excellence defined by artists and scholars recognized by their peers in specific fields. To uphold the ideal of artistic freedom, awards went toward artists for future work rather than to create a specifically proposed work of art.

In addition to advancing excellence in American culture, the NEA and NEA advanced the ideal of access to arts and culture to a wider American audience beyond major cities, where the vast majority of cultural activities took place. To maximize the effect of federal funding, the endowments encourage matching grants from outside sources to augment government funds. Federal funds were sewn as seeds, but additional support would be required to nurture cultural maturity. As Sen. Javits had argued, such practices would encourage “distribution of live performances and exhibits in cities and towns which could not otherwise receive and support them… and make it possible for many more people in more places to see and hear the best in American culture.” He added, “Is that not the role of government in a democracy?”[7] Initially, with limited funds and institutional structure, the endowments struggled to fully achieve access for all Americans. However, over time state art agencies and local arts organizations flourished to the point that the NEA may claim partnerships with local agencies in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, US territories, and military installations around the world. Both the NEA and NEH have distributed awards widely across the nation. President Nixon pushed for exactly this type of “new federalism” and, in fact, substantially increased endowment funding during his administration. My research has shown that he increased allocations for the NEA tenfold.[8]

During the course of its operations, the NEA has awarded over 147,000 grants, totaling more than $5 billion, leveraging up to ten times that amount through private philanthropies and local municipalities.”[9] The NEA has supported a myriad of American museums, dance companies, theaters, operas, school arts programs, folk arts, and individual artists.

One may peruse details of the many grants on the endowments web sites; however, a few highlights are worth noting here. In addition to the Calder sculpture, NEA has funded “Art in Public Places” sculptures by Nancy Holt, Tony Smith, Dan Flavin, Mark di Suvero, Isamu Noguchi, Claes Oldenburg from New York to Honolulu. One individual awardee was sculptor Maya Lynn, best known for her Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall. Another renowned muralist Thomas Hart Benton created his what would be his final work, The Sources of Country Music for Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. An NEA grant helped launch Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” on Minnesota Public Radio in 1974. Jazz masters included Dizzie Gillespie and Tony Bennett. Literature awards furthered the careers of Jane Smiley, T.C. Boyle, Alice Walker, and Tobias Wolfe.

Over its lifetime, the NEH has awarded “more than 63,000 grants totaling $5.3 billion, and leveraged an additional $2.5 billion in matching funds.”[10] Many of these grants have allowed advanced scholars time for research and writing of their studies to enhance their individual fields and collective knowledge via articles, monographs, books, digital materials, archaeological site reports, translations, editions, or other scholarly resources in the humanities as well as teaching activities that disseminate that knowledge to others. Examples of prominent scholarly awardees and the works they produced include: Joseph Ellis, American Cultures 1776-1815, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale, Lynn Hunt Politics, Culture and Class in the French Revolution. Henry Louis Gates and Waldo Martin also directed an institute at Harvard on the African-American struggles for equality and rights from Reconstruction to the 1960s.

NEH Landmarks of American History and Culture Workshops bring college and K-12 educators together at historic sites across the nation to address central themes in American history, government, art, and related humanities in week-long workshops at historic locations. Landmark grants create a multiplier effect when teachers extend their knowledge into lesson plans made available on-line, as well as oral histories available for future study.[11]

The NEH has provided the American public with a rich collection of historical documentary films. Between 1986–1990, it awarded a substantial grant to filmmaker Ken Burns for his highly acclaimed and widely viewed historical documentary The Civil War. This documentary gave us the “Ken Burns effect,” now commonly used as a filming technique of zooming in and out and panning still photography. Burns went on to an illustrious career in filmmaking, producing The West, Prohibition, The Roosevelts, and he received additional NEH grants to advance his projects on Baseball, The Brooklyn Bridge.[12] The NEH has sponsored production of numerous historical documentaries. The series The American Experience includes The Presidents, Walt Disney, Freedom Rides; and other television productions include Shakespeare Uncovered, Broadway: The American Musical, Ansel Adams, and Latino Americans.

The National Medal of the Arts was initiated during Ronald Reagan’s administration. Prominent medal recipients have included folklorist Alan Lomax, choreographer Agnes De Mille, musicians Johnny Cash and Yo Yo Ma, painters Georgia O’Keefe and Willem de Kooning, poets Robert Penn Warren and Maya Angelou, playwright Arthur Miller, dancer Michael Baryshnikov, and film actors and directors Frank Capra, Ron Howard, Clint Eastwood, and George Lucas.

At first, Reagan’s conservative budget director David Stockman proposed eliminating the arts and humanities programs, until President Reagan set up a task force to study the issue and concluded that they should remain. Reagan asserted,

Why do we, as a free people, honor the arts? The arts and the humanities teach us who we are and what we can be… We honor the arts not because we want monuments to our own civilization but because we are a free people.[13]

Reagan reiterated the original goals of the arts program to highlight the best in American culture and uphold the arts as a symbol of American freedom. He also recognized the endowment’s function as catalysts for more private funding of the arts. National Endowment for the Arts statistics show “private sector giving for the arts, humanities, and culture grew from $44 million in 1965 to $7.5 billion in 1989; the NEA’s $119 million in organizational grants generated $1.4 billion in non-federal funds,” and NEA Challenge Grants of $237 million were matched by “more than $2 billion in new non-federal funds.”[14] Both Nixon and Reagan pressed for “new federalism” to move funding and action more to the states and saw the NEA and NEH advance this goal with greater distribution of grants throughout the states.

Of course, the story most Americans now remember more than anything else about the NEA its link to a controversial grant to artist Robert Mapplethorpe and subsequent attempts by conservatives in Congress to abolish it. Neverminding that the NEA granted funds to museums exhibiting the works in question, not to the artists themselves, and therefore, did not deliberately appropriate taxpayer money for “indecent” displays. Republicans Jesse Helms and Newt Gingrich dramatically downsized the agency’s budget by 39%. In the budget battle, President Bill Clinton saved the NEA and NEH from complete elimination with a veto threat. Bipartisanship also contributed in part as Senator Slade Gorton (R-WA) and Representative Ralph Regula (R-OH) brokered a compromise to maintain the NEA budget while altering the agency’s operation. Severe cuts to its staff and programming forced the NEA to restructure from 17 programs down to only 4 and cut individual artists grants and sub-grants to arts organizations. Thus, the agency survived—barely.

The real battle in this culture war was not so much over federal spending—the NEA and NEH appropriations are a mere drop in the bucket of federal monies, estimated today to represent .002% of discretionary funds. The hubbub was symbolic flexing of conservative muscle against the “elite” cultural institutions that they believed to be primarily supported by Democrats and thought should be privately funded. Ironically, this stance against federal funding for the arts overlooked several factors. First, that the arts had always garnered bipartisan support. Second, the endowments had succeeded in disseminating the arts in ways previously unheard of. Arts and humanities funding reached audiences across the country and across congressional districts. Third, the endowments had expanded their programming allocations to include populist forms of folk arts and regional traditions appreciated by their constituents. The NEA and NEH employed their seed monies to advance not only “elite’ arts. They continued to do so even with budget reductions. The ArtsREACH program launched in 1998 funded arts projects in states identified as “under- represented” in the agency’s grant count, responding to Congressional demands that NEA administer to underserved areas. ArtsREACH increased the agency’s grantmaking in 20 targeted states by more than 350 percent.

Shakespeare in American communities programs begun in 2003 also allowed six theater companies to visit 172 communities—mostly small and midsized towns—and 500 schools across all 50 states. The Department of Defense supported the NEA to expand its Shakespeare program to visit military bases and neighboring schools. This program eventually sponsored performances and tours by 77 theater companies, reaching more than 2,300 municipalities in all 50 states. [15]

In September 2004, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), currently nominated as Attorney General under President Trump, who had previously been highly critical of the NEA, wrote to the Montgomery Advertiser to praise the Shakespeare initiative. “In my view,” he said, “these are the kinds of programs the National Endowment for the Arts should be sponsoring—taking the best of American art and culture and making it available, in this case, to our service men and women and their families. . . . I’m proud that the Alabama Shakespeare Festival was chosen to participate in the program.”

By 2005, views of the NEA had changed so much that it was again acceptable for conservatives to support the agency. President Bush upped its budget in 2007, providing its most substantial increase in 29 years and increased it again in 2008. He and First Lady Laura Bush celebrated its 40th anniversary in a White House dinner. The Bush support for the endowments, indeed, mirrored what had previously stood as the most expansive augmentation of the NEA budget in the Nixon era. Conservatives, not only liberals, have historically upheld the agency.

In the current round of challenge to the agencies, President Donald Trump will have to decide whether to heed the advice of the far right who still wish to abolish the endowments. [16] Or whether to follow the examples of previous leaders, who ultimately recognized the important seed-money effect as well as cultural leadership the NEA and NEH provide. Trump’s pick for Attorney General, Jeff Sessions is on record supporting NEA programs in the states. Without the national endowments, it is likely that small states and communities would lose access to arts and humanities benefits because they could no longer on their own attract or afford the kinds of cultural activities that could be maintained by Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. Eliminating the NEA and NEH would hurt rural and traditional arts disproportionately. New Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, supports cultural policy as part of America’s role on the world stage. Tillerson tweeted, “An artless nation is a spiritless nation, which is detrimental to the wisdom required for int’l diplomacy and govt. I encourage @POTUS to continue funding @NEAarts and @NEHgov so we may represent the great American spirit abroad in the years to come.”[17] At least two high level members of the Trump administration understand the symbolic significance of the arts and humanities. Artists and scholars may hope that President Trump will forego the miniscule saving of .002% by cutting the endowments and consider the positive effects and far reaching business concerns connected to the arts. This month Fortune cited cultural production as “contributing more than $704 billion to the US economy—this accounts for 4.2% of the United States GDP. . . more than construction,” transportation and warehousing, or mining in 2015. Educational services, which would include humanities monies, reap an even high percentage.[18] Millions of people are employed in the arts and humanities economy and millions more are touched by its benefits. Hopefully, the president will see keeping the endowments as a win-win situation.

Donna M. Binkiewicz is the author of Federalizing the Muse: United States Arts Policy and the National Endowment for the Arts, 1965-1980. Dr. Binkiewicz teaches in the History Department at California State University, Long Beach.

[1] Frank Thompson, “Are The Communists Right in Calling Us Cultural Barbarians?” Musical Journal (July-August 1955): 5, 20.

[2] Jacob Javits, as quoted in The New York Herald Tribune, June 3, 1958.

[3] “Report of the Commission on the Humanities,” as quoted in Alan Howard Levy, Government and the Arts: Debates over Federal Support of the Arts in America from George Washington to Jesse Helms, (New York: University Press of America, 1997), 99.

[4] John F. Kennedy, “Remarks at Amherst College upon Receiving an Honorary Degree,” Oct. 26, 1963 in Public Papers of the Presidents, Kennedy, 815.

[5] Horton, House Proceedings, Congressional Record, 89th Congress, 1st Session, 36.

[6] Donna M. Binkiewicz, Federalizing the Muse, (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 83.

[7] Javits quoted in Senate Proceedings, Congressional Record, 88th Congress, 1st session, 266.

[8] Binkiewicz, Federalizing the Muse, Chapter 6.

[9] A History, Arts.gov.

[10] William D. Adams, “From the Chairman,” NEH Annual Report, 2015.

[12] National Endowment for the Humanities, neh.gov.

[13] Ronald Reagan, “Statement at the National Medal of the Arts Celebration,” 1987.

[14] Arts in America, National Endowment for the Arts, 1990, arts.gov.

[15] arts.gov

[16] Alexander Bolton, “Trump Team Prepares Dramatic Cuts,” The Hill, 1-19-17.

[17] Rex Tillerson, quoted in “Adam Hetrick, “Trump Pick for Secretary of State Urges Continued Funding for National Endowment for the Arts,” Playbill, Jan. 27, 2017.

[18] Grace Donnelly, “What Trump’s Proposed Spending Cuts Could Mean for the Arts Economy,” Fortune, January 19, 2017. http://fortune.com/2017/01/19/trump-arts-economy-cuts/ (accessed January 27, 2017,)

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