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  • Tim Greyhavens

Beyond the Boundaries: Why the NEA Matters to Photographers, Part 3

Updated: Apr 28, 2020

Part 3: The Legacy and the Future of the NEA

Funding from the National Endowment for the Arts continues to support major photography exhibitions, including this current show at the International Center for Phoptography.

In the previous two articles I wrote about the importance of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) as a funder for individual photographers. From the early 1970s to the mid-1990s, the NEA awarded more than $7.5 million in individual fellowships and nearly $1 million for documentary photography surveys that supported the work of dozens of photographers across the country.

Until 1996 the NEA was the single most influential supporter of documentary and fine art photographers in the U.S., including some who are now regarded as icons of 20th century photography.

All of that individual support vanished in 1996 after conservative politicians, led by then Congressman Newt Gingrich from Georgia, threatened to completely eliminate the agency. After a major push-back from museums, artists and art-loving Americans, Congress settled for making deep cuts in the agency’s budget (see chart below). It’s only in the past decade that funding for the NEA has begun to approach the funding levels it once enjoyed.

While the NEA is unlikely to ever regain the ability to directly support individual photographers, it’s important to understand that the agency has not stopped funding photography — instead it has, shall we say, refocused its support by concentrating on grants to museums, educational institutions, and nonprofit organizations.

In fact, since 1996 the NEA has awarded more than $10 million for museums, photography exhibitions, residency and fellowship programs, community projects, and photographic film and paper conservation research. This is a significant amount of support, and due to the more constrained nature of today’s NEA most photographers aren’t aware of how much the agency has contributed to the advancement of the art. Some examples of the funding provided by the NEA over the last ten years alone are:

  • 2008: Grand Rapids Art Museum) Grand Rapids, MI), $10,000 to support the exhibition “Richard Avedon: Larger Than Life”

  • 2009: Daytona State College (Daytona Beach, FL), $10,000 to support the exhibition “Double Exposure: African American Before and Behind the Camera”

  • 2010: Focus:HOPE (Detroit, MI), $30,000 to support the Excel Photography Program

  • 2011: In-Sight Photography Project (Brattleboro, VT), $10,000 to support the Community Partner Program, a mobile digital photography lab

  • 2012: Nelson Gallery Foundation (Kansas City, MO), $100,000 to support digitization of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s photography collection

  • 2013: Light Work Visual Studies (Syracuse, NY), $45,000 to support a residency program for artists

  • 2014: Philadelphia Photo Arts Center (Philadelphia, PA), $20,000 to support photography workshops as part of Philly Photo Day

  • 2015: Critical Exposure (Washington, DC), $10,000 to support a photography education and youth empowerment program

  • 2016: Telfair Art Museum (Savannah, GA), $25,000 to support the exhibition “Wundercamera: Savannah”

  • 2017: El Museo Latino (Omaha, NE), $35,000 to support a series of photography exhibitions and related programming

This list shows just one sample grant for each year, but during these 10 years the NEA funded at least 175 photography grants totaling more than $5 million (and funding for 2017 has just begun).

This is just one of many photography programs that have been funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Earlier this year reports surfaced that the Trump Administration, supported by extreme members of Congress, was threatening to once again completely eliminate the NEA. As the Washington Post points out, funding for the NEA is a microscopic .003% of the federal budget, so it’s clear that the proposed cut is not based upon any fiscal urgency. Instead, it is another ideological move to further silence free speech and artistic expression.

Fortunately, the proposed federal budget that was recently released included full funding and even a minimal increase for a the agency. This is a significant change from the early proposals, and the significance of the change speaks to the importance of the arts for all Americans. Let’s hope that the funding stays in place as the budget negotiations continue.

Tim Greyhavens



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