Why We Need the NEA and the NEH

Detail of a handwritten manuscript The NEH has underwritten ten presidential papers projects, which have cumulatively attracted millions in matching nonfederal contributions. Detail of Thomas Jefferson's draft of Declaration of Independence, 1776. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The NEA and NEH serve people who make up the mosaic of our democracy, writes former Executive Vice President Mariët Westermann.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation exists to reinforce, promote, and defend the contributions of the arts and humanities to human flourishing and to the wellbeing of diverse and democratic societies.  We support the arts because poetry, music, and dance, paintings, plays, and movies are astounding products of human creativity that give unique insight into our equality as human beings as well as the fascinating differences among us.  We support the humanities because the study of history, philosophy, and culture gives us the capacity to probe the human condition, develop interest in strangers, deploy the power of story and media, and preserve the history of our forms of social and religious life.

In this mission, we support hundreds of partner institutions of higher education, art, and culture—public and private, urban and rural, large and small. Some are anchor institutions with histories going back to Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, others upstart innovators harnessing the connective potential of our media age.  Some are the world’s most dynamic research universities—one of America’s great accomplishments—and others are the community colleges that create pathways to social mobility for thousands of students.  Some projects we fund develop cutting-edge techniques for preserving the nation’s artistic heritage as a resource for the future, while others make our cultural legacy freely available on digital platforms.

We could not begin to do this work without the abiding partnership, inspiration, and example of the National Endowments for the Humanities and the Arts.  As federal funding for the arts and humanities is once again under discussion, we affirm the fundamental importance of the National Endowments as invaluable resources for a harmonious, prosperous, and democratic society.  In 1965, the scholars and congressional leaders who wrote the founding charter of the NEA and NEH were explicit on these critical points.  The National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965 referenced the “high place accorded by the American people to the nation’s rich cultural heritage and to the fostering of mutual respect for the diverse beliefs and values of persons and groups.”  It proclaimed that a democracy such as ours needs to honor and preserve its multicultural artistic heritage, support new ideas, and therefore provide financial assistance to the nation’s artists and the organizations that support their work. 

These founders also saw the importance of the arts and humanities as safeguards against disruption associated with rapid technological transformation: “Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens.  It must therefore foster and support a form of education, and access to the arts and humanities, designed to make people of all backgrounds and wherever located masters of their technology and not its unthinking servants.”

Ever since, the NEH and NEA have been serving the people of all backgrounds and cultures who make up the mosaic of our democracy, with bipartisan support.  Together, they have distributed more than $10 billion in direct grants to organizations as well as individuals in all states and territories.  Approximately half of this funding has been leveraged with private matching funds that would not otherwise have supported the arts and humanities, often to establish lasting endowments that support programs in universities, colleges, museums, historical societies, arts organizations, libraries, archives, and cultural centers that are anchors for their communities, from Newark to New Orleans. Countless American citizens benefit from the programs supported by the Endowments: parents and children, teachers and students, artists and veterans.

an artist collaborating with glass blowers using a large open fire

The NEA-supported ArtPlace initiative supports many rural and urban communities working to diversify their economies through entrepreneurial arts organizations. Its support for STARworks Center for Creative Enterprises—located in a former hosiery mill in Star, NC—has helped enable workforce training around glass, ceramic, and metal arts; internships, apprenticeships, and artists-in-residency programs; and revenue-generating retail opportunities. Photo courtesy of STARworks.

The Mellon Foundation works in parallel or directly with the Endowments in numerous areas of shared interest.  Together with the NEH we support Humanities Open Book, a project that awards competitive grants to digitize hundreds of books on world cultures and makes them freely available to readers.  Six years ago we participated in the NEA’s drive to create ArtPlace, a brilliant response to the economic crisis of 2008 that brought together federal agencies, private foundations, and financial institutions to support arts projects to help communities strengthen their social, physical, and economic fabric.  To date, ArtPlace has supported 256 initiatives in 187 different communities in almost every state. A total of $77.7 million has been dedicated to projects ranging in size from about $50,000 to $500,000, with an average of $295,000 per project.  The dollar amounts may not seem large, but these projects could not and would not have happened without the funding and the validation of the NEA’s imprimatur.

In a period of uncertainty and mounting challenges for humanity, as well as the great yet also dangerous potential for harnessing technology and big data, the founding mission of the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities remains as important as it was in 1965.  We are proud to work with the National Endowments for the Humanities and the Arts, but we do not have the resources to replace them.  More importantly, we cannot play their fundamental role of serving as impartial national assessors, catalysts, and guarantors of the vibrancy of the arts and humanities in America, and as equitable distributors of support for programs that nurture, inspire, and employ millions of people across every district of our republic.