NEA Arts Magazine

The Breadth and Depth of It

NEA Support for Museums and the Visual Arts


 Staff member squatting to work on the lower part of a large painting of a young boys carrying a bucket of water down a dirt path

As part of the To Conserve a Legacy project, artwork from historically black colleges and universities, such as Samella Sanders Lewis's Waterboy (1944) in the Hampton University Museum's collection, were restored. Photo courtesy of Williamstown Art Conservation Center.

The United States has a long tradition of federal support for the visual arts, from the 14th Congress's 1817 commission of four murals by John Trumbull for the Capitol Rotunda to FDR's establishment of the Federal Art Project during the 1930s that hired out-of-work artists for art production, research, and instruction. From the very beginning of the agency's history, the NEA has provided strong support for the visual arts, such as painting, drawing, sculpture, and photography.

In its first year, the NEA -- besides giving grants to organizations such as the Philadelphia City Planning Commission "to acquire up to three pieces of sculpture for central Philadelphia" and the Amon Carter Museum of Western Art to "increase public interest in visual arts through expansion of museum resources" -- set aside funds for 60 painters and sculptors "in recognition of past accomplishments and to encourage future efforts."

While the manner in which the NEA distributes support has changed over the years -- there are now separate grant programs for visual arts and museums -- the agency continues to seed the country's visual arts tradition with support to projects that enrich museum programs, ensure communitywide access to the visual arts in both urban and rural areas, and support innovative public interaction with the visual arts through public art work and educational activities. More recently, the NEA launched the multidisciplinary initiative American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Artistic Genius, of which the Visual Arts Touring component highlights the rich history of visual arts in the country.

The NEA also works to preserve the nation's visual arts legacy with funding for conservation projects. For example, in 1997 the NEA helped fund To Conserve a Legacy: American Art from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), a four-year public-private partnership project that supported research and restoration of more than 1,400 paintings, drawings, sculptures, and photographs held by six HBCU institutions.

The NEA also continues its public role of support for unique public art projects. In the early 1980s, the Arts Endowment helped fund the site study and design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. More recently, the NEA was asked by Congress to administer the design competition for a statue of civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks to be permanently installed in the U.S. Capitol building, a project in partnership with the Architect of the Capitol, the Joint Committee on the Library, and the Chrysler Foundation.

While the projects on the following pages represent only a sampling of the NEA's ongoing support to visual arts and museum projects across the country, they all speak to the breadth of that support -- from large-scale shows of world renowned master artists to residencies that actively encourage artists to regularly invite community residents into their studios.