About the NEA

Reaching Out: Challenge America Broadens the NEA's Impact Nationally


Three quarter profile of a woman painted in medium sized strokes, in layered guaches.

An untitled watercolor by Grant Reynard, part of the Museum of Nebraska Art's exhibition Afro Psalms, which is available for touring through the museum's ARTreach program, supported by a 2004 NEA Challenge America grant. Image Courtesy of the Museum of Nebraska Art

2001In 2001, the NEA launched Challenge America, a new national program to expand the reach and impact of NEA activities. Through this program, nearly $7 million was earmarked for arts education projects and projects that brought arts activities to underserved populations whose access to the arts was limited by geography, ethnicity, economics, or disability.

Challenge America was an outgrowth of ArtsREACH, a three-year pilot initiative (1998-2000) by the Arts Endowment intended to nurture stronger applications in 20 states that were underrepresented in terms of agency funding. With the support of the state arts agencies, NEA staff conducted Meet the Endowment meetings statewide in each of the 20 states to offer technical assistance to arts organizations and also to recruit grants application panelists. Arts organizations in the targeted states also were encouraged to foster partnerships with other community organizations in order to maximize the impact of federal funding. Ultimately ArtsREACH led to a 350 percent increase in NEA-supported projects in the targeted states.

Three Senior African Americans clap and sing, two of them are seated and one is standing at a microphone. A sing hangs in the background with the inscrition: Welcome, New Zion Missionary Baptist Church.

1993 National Heritage Fellows the McIntosh County Shouters are one of the groups featured on The Changing Sounds of South Georgia, a radio series developed by the South Georgia Folklife Project of Valdosta State University with support from a 2003 NEA Challenge America grant. Photo courtesy of the Valdosa State University

Building on the success of ArtsREACH, Challenge America broadened the scope of the program to benefit underserved and rural communities in all 50 states. Fast track grants, which were reviewed under a streamlined application process, ranged from $5,000-$10,000 and were awarded in two categories: Community Arts Development and Positive Alternatives for Youth.

The Arts Endowment also earmarked 40 percent of the Challenge America funds for the state and regional arts agencies. The state arts agencies use program funds to support quality projects that provide opportunities for participation in and the experience of a wide range of arts forms and activities, enable artists and arts organizations to expand and diversify audiences, extend the arts to underserved populations, emphasize the potential of the arts to help strengthen communities, and expand arts education opportunities in communities.

At the regional level, Challenge America funds support a significant portion of the NEA Regional Touring Program, which increases access to the performing arts in underserved communities, supports educational outreach and community partnerships, encourages diversity, and strengthens a network of arts presenters in rural and underserved communities.

In 2004, the Arts Endowment refocused the fast track component of Challenge America, setting the goal of making the National Endowment for the Arts truly national in reach by awarding a direct grant to every U.S. Congressional district. In his 2006 annual testimony to Congress in support of the Agency's budget request, Chairman Dana Gioia was able to report, "In 2005 the NEA achieved and realized its goal of 100% coverage with all 435 districts receiving direct grants. In 2006 the NEA will again achieve that 100% coverage goal. The Arts Endowment considers the new Challenge America program one of its central achievements."

Challenge America fast-track grants offer support primarily to small and mid-sized organizations serving underserved populations. Grants of $10,000 are given to support distinct projects that take place over limited periods of time and involve limited geographic areas. These small grants benefit organizations, many of them first-time NEA grantees, by lending credibility to their efforts and allowing them to leverage additional funding from other public and private sources. Types of projects include arts events featuring guest artists, professionally directed public art projects such as murals or sculptures, civic design activities such as design competitions, and projects addressing cultural tourism.