In 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 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 to nurture stronger applications in 20 states that were underrepresented in terms of agency funding—the initiative led to a 350 percent increase in NEA-supported projects in the targeted states. Building on that success, 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 Challenge America program has evolved over the years, and now offers support primarily to small and mid-sized organizations reaching underserved populations, and is often an entry point for organizations seeking NEA funding. 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, and projects addressing cultural tourism.