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  • Tim Greyhavens

Beyond the Boundaries: Why the NEA Matters to Photographers, Part 1

Updated: Apr 28, 2020

Part 1: The Birth of the NEA and the Development of the Photography Program

Richard Misrach, Salton Sea (Concrete Slab), 1985. Collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

“The value of the NEA’s financial aid is almost self-evident, but there’s a message to be found simply in the existence of such a government body, and that is, that art is a valuable and meaningful aspect of society, not to be taken for granted or ignored. The importance of what the artist does extends beyond the boundaries of the art world―a message that can only encourage a lifetime of effort.” ~ Richard Misrach, 1984

For his inauguration in 1960, President John F. Kennedy invited poet Robert Frost to read one of his verses to the audience. Frost composed a new work for the occasion but instead decided to read an older poem, The Gift Outright, which ends with this phrase:

To the land vaguely realizing westward, But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced, Such as she was, such as she would become.

It was the first time a poet had ever spoken at a presidential inauguration, and Frost’s reading of his poem heralded the beginning of a new national recognition of the arts.

Throughout his brief term Kennedy encouraged an appreciation of art as a means of furthering the cultural advancement of the nation. His effort reached a culmination in the unprecedented exhibition of the Mona Lisa at the National Gallery in early 1963. Kennedy became so engaged in the arts that he named a special consultant to develop a report on ways that the federal government could further encourage artistic endeavors.

Although Kennedy’s untimely death interrupted the national enthusiasm for the arts, his successor President Johnson soon found himself desperately looking for a way to rebuild America’s confidence and public spirit. He and his advisors latched onto the idea that reviving some of Kennedy’s aspirations of would not only enrich the growing artistic interests of the country but would also nurture a sorely needed sense of hope for the future.

Eve Sonnememan, The Eggman, 1971. Collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Johnson and a bipartisan group of Congressional leaders established an effort to create a National Council on the Arts, which led directly to the creation of the NEA. From the beginning there was a spirited effort to make sure that photography was part of the discussions about the role of the arts in America. The Society for Photographic Education, led by its Director Robert Forth, lobbied both the President and Congress to include funding for photography in whatever the new Council would establish, and their efforts did not go unnoticed.

When the NEA was founded by an act of Congress in 1965, it was given the mandate to “foster creative effort by individual artists through support for individuals of high artistic talent and demonstrated commitment to their field within the arts.” While the initial budget for the NEA was relatively small, there was a sense from the start that it would be important to use those funds to demonstrate the value of art not only as a cultural experience but also as a voice for social and public good.

In 1968 NEA’s Chairperson Nancy Hanks heard about a project that was already underway to document a neighborhood in New York City’s East Harlem. A then lesser-known photographer named Bruce Davidson had spent more than a year photographing the area, and Hanks felt that his images could help further a social dialogue about poverty and race. She led an effort to have the NEA award a special artist fellowship to Davidson, and with the NEA’s award of $12,000 Davidson went on to mount a major exhibition called East 100th Street at the Museum of Modern Art and publish a now-famous book by the same name.

The NEA already had established an individual fellowship program for artists, but for the first few years it did not include photographers. The success of Bruce Davidson’s fellowship paved the way for the NEA to formally include photography as part of its Visual Arts Program, and in 1971 23 photographers received the first formal awards, ranging from $750 to $4,000 (keep in mind that $1 in 1971 would be worth about $6 in 2017). Among the names in that initial class of NEA Photography Fellows are Paul Caponigro, William Current, Les Krims, William Larson, Danny Lyon, Elaine Mayes, Naomi Savage, Eve Sonneman, and Alwyn Turner.

In order to spread the NEA’s small budget across all disciplines, at first photography fellowships were awarded every other year. By 1975, however, funding for the NEA had increased substantially, and from then on the fellowship were awarded annually for many years. Once the program became established, an average of 2,000 photographers applied for the 40 or so fellowships that were given out each year.

The competition was tough because at the time the NEA fellowships were one of only a handful of funding sources available for photographers, and no other source provided so many opportunities year after year. Those who were fortunate enough to receive a fellowship often remembered them as game-changers.

“It allowed me time,” said Jerry Uelsmann (1973), “time that was needed, first to think through the changes, and then to experiment with new methods.”

Joseph Jachna (1976), who created surreal images of nature before the Photoshop era, recalled “There is no question that the gain was an intensity of work I hadn’t been able to achieve. That NEA period is the benchmark in my life for what can happen when all things come together at the right time.”

Gary Winogrand, Untitled (T.W.A. Terminal), 1978. Collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum
Gary Winogrand, Untitled (T.W.A. Terminal), 1978. Collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

A key factor in the success of the NEA’s fellowship program was the prestige that went along with the funding. The initial panel of judges was John Szarkowski of the Museum of Modern Art, Van Deren Coke of the University of New Mexico, and Alan M. Fern from the Library of Congress. Two years later the NEA expanded the panel by adding photographers Robert Adams, Judy Dater and Fred Parker, along with Peter Bunnell of Princeton University and Michael Hoffman, publisher of Aperture. Receiving an NEA fellowship not only meant that you’d have funds for your work, it meant that you were seen as a serious photographer by some of the biggest names in the field.

“…in 1981 President Ronald Reagan proposed to completely abolish the NEA. It was the first of a series of conservative political attacks on the arts that continue until this day.”

The fellowship program continued to grow throughout the 70s, but in 1981 President Ronald Reagan proposed to completely abolish the NEA. It was the first of a series of conservative political attacks on the arts that continue until this day. Fortunately the NEA weathered those initial forays, although cuts in funding for the agency substantially reduced the size of the photography fellowship program by the end of the decade.

Nonetheless, 184 photographers received fellowships during the 80s, including Jo Ann Callis, Bill Burke, Walter Chappell, Linda Connor, Barbara Crane, Judy Dater, Philip-Lorca DiCorcia, Larry Fink, Lee Friedlander, Ralph Gibson, Robert Heinecken, Kenro Izu, Danny Lyon, Ken Light, Ray K. Metzker, Joel-Peter Witkin, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Andrés Serrano.

It was the notoriety that surrounded the latter two names in this list that ultimately contributed to the end of the photography fellowship program. Both Mapplethorpe and Serrano had received fellowships in the 1980s, and, through another NEA program that funded museum exhibitions, both were featured in separate exhibitions that toured the country. Within a short time the two, as well as the NEA programs that funded them, were under attack by religious and conservative leaders who were offended by what they saw.

Stories about government funding for “obscene and indecent” art became front-page news, and long-time Congressional critics of the NEA pounced on the controversy as a way to gain support for their crusade to defund the agency. In the 1994 Congressional elections a conservative majority, led by Newt Gingrich, was swept into power, and they immediately went after what they called a “wasteful and elitist” use of government funds.

In spite of strong opposition from museums, arts councils and artists, Congress quickly approved a 40% budget cut for the NEA, leading to a nearly 50% reduction in staff and an end to almost all funding for individual artists. President Bill Clinton was forced to accept the budget cuts as a way of fending off Gingrich’s push to eliminate the NEA altogether. It was the end of an era for one part of a visionary program of support for photographers.

Linda Connor, Untitled, 1976. Collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum,
Linda Connor, Untitled, 1976. Collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum,

By the end of the fellowship program in 1995 the NEA had awarded slightly more than $7.5 million to 633 photographers. Some of those who received funding are among the greatest names of 20th century photography. Others are lesser known or even mostly forgotten, but all were given a chance to do their best by a government agency that saw the power in advancing photography in the national interest.

Photographer Paul Hester summed up the importance of the NEA’s fellowships this way: “More than the money, more than the film and paper which it bought, was the encouragement that I ought to keep photographing. In a profession where progress is so difficult to measure, this apparently impartial source of positive assessment of my pictures was terrific.”

While the individual photography fellowships are no longer available, their legacy is still felt today. At a time when there was little encouragement for photographers as true artists, the National Endowment for the Arts inspired and supported a new generation of image makers who continue to influence us.

The national and global scale of funding for the arts is exponentially larger now than when the NEA began, and the NEA’s programs have had to evolve to adapt to that scale. In the next part in the series, I’ll look at how the NEA’s groundbreaking documentary surveys of the 70s and 80s set the course for their continued funding of photography beyond the individual artist.


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