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In 1965, a piece of legislation known as the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act declared that "the arts and the humanities belong to all the people of the United States" and that support for these pursuits is an "appropriate matter of concern to the Federal Government."

President Johnson signed the bill into law, establishing the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts as two separate independent federal agencies.

Occasionally, these two agencies - and the projects they support - encounter political and popular criticism. But, for the most part, the NEH and NEA quietly fund the work of scholars, artists, authors, and researchers in their efforts to disseminate arts, culture, and history to the greater public. In fact, both agencies provide support to some of the most popular programs (including On Stage) on PBS.

NEA. NEH. The acronyms sound almost the same - so, what's the difference between the two entities? Think of it this way: if you want to create (ie, write a novel, choreograph a ballet, compose a symphony, or direct a play) you should go the the NEA for funding. However, if you want to do a critical, historical, or theoretical study of the aforementioned novel, ballet, symphony or play, the NEH is the agency for you.

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National Endowment for the Arts

The NEA is the single largest funder of the nonprofit arts sector in the United States and has awarded more than 111,000 grants to artists and arts organizations in its 36 year history.

Grants are awarded for exemplary projects in the arts including: dance, design, folk and traditional arts, literature, media arts (film, television, video, radio), music, dramatic and musical theater, opera, and visual arts. Some of its more well-known projects include:

  • the design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial;

  • funding for the original production of the musical A Chorus Line which was first developed in regional theater;

  • supporting the careers of three-quarters of the recipients of the major literary awards for fiction and poetry (National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, and Pulitzer Prize) since 1990.

The President of the United States appoints, and the Senate confirms, the Chairperson of the Endowment (who serves a four-year term) and the National Council on the Arts. The National Council is composed of 14 private citizens and six non-voting members of Congress who advise the chairperson on agency policy and programs, and make final recommendations on grant applications. All appointees work to fulfill the mission of the NEA: "to serve the public good by nurturing human creativity."

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National Endowment for the Humanities

While the organization of the National Endowment for the Humanities is very similar to the NEA's, the projects the NEH funds are quite different. Like the NEA, the NEH is directed by a presidentially-appointed chairperson who, once confirmed by the Senate, serves a four-year term. The chairperson is advised by the National Council on the Humanities which is composed of 26 private citizens appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.

But what are "the humanities"? Basically, any discipline you would find at a liberal arts college: history, philosophy, literature, language (both modern and classical), comparative religion, ethics, jurisprudence, archaeology, the history, criticism and theory of the arts, and certain aspects of the social sciences which have humanistic content and employ humanistic methods.

NEH grants typically go to individual scholars and institutions like museums, archives, libraries, colleges and universities, and, yes, public television and radio stations.

The Endowment's mission is to "enrich American cultural life by promoting knowledge of human history, thought, and culture throughout the nation." To this end, NEH grants seek to:

  • preserve and provide access to cultural and educational resources essential to the American people;

  • strengthen teaching and learning in the humanities in schools and colleges across the nation and provide opportunities for lifelong learning in the humanities for all Americans, and;

  • facilitate research and original scholarship in the humanities.

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Colleges, universities, and nonprofit, tax-exempt U.S. organizations are eligible to apply for NEA and NEH grants. Individual applicants must be citizens or permanent residents of the United States of U.S. territories.


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