National Endowment for the Arts: History & Controversy

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

Brought into existence by President Johnson as a way of honoring the late President Kennedy's reverence for art of all kinds, the National Endowment for the Arts has given away almost a billion dollars per decade in its fifty-year existence, although not without controversy.

What is the NEA?

President John F. Kennedy was renowned for his love of the arts, especially poet Robert Frost, and soon a similar attitude swept much of America. In this spirit, President Lyndon Johnson created the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 1965 to seek out new artists and make their work possible. The NEA is equally supportive of all genres of art, although it does have special fellowships for Jazz musicians, a style considered particularly American.

National Endowment for the Arts
NEA Logo

While independent from the federal government, the NEA does receive an annual stipend from Congress to fund its activities. Over the almost 50 years since the organization's creation, this has amounted to more than $5 billion, averaging almost $100 million dollars a year in gifts made to American artists. Additionally, the Endowment awards the National Medal for the Arts, the highest artistic recognition given in the United States.

As evidence of the organization's success, past directors point to the increase of appreciation for the arts not only among the elite (whom are more likely to consume the work directly sponsored by the Endowment), but also among more quantifiable lines. In particular, one former director, Bill Ivey, states that the number of local art councils and state arts boards have both increased by factors of ten, while organizations that support the performing arts, such as dance companies, opera troupes, and orchestras, have increased by similar margins.


Given the high profile of the NEA in the artistic world, as well as the fact that it tends to fund more avant-garde creations, it is little surprise that the organization is often swept up in controversy. Famously, Ronald Reagan tried to defund the Endowment as one of his first acts in office, ultimately talked down by conservative appointees to a Task Force ordered to investigate the matter, finding that it did ultimately serve a purpose.

Shortly after Reagan's tenure as President began, the NEA again faced controversy over its choice of design for the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial. Eschewing traditional designs (and designers), the Endowment instead supported the proposal of a Yale architecture student named Maya Lin. Lin's design, which called for a dark wall cut into the National Mall, invoked imagery of a wound that would not completely heal. Eventually, the NEA included a less controversial memorial alongside Lin's design.

Vietnam Memorial
Aerial View of Vietnam Memorial

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