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Beyond the Boundaries: Why the NEA Matters to Photographers

February 18, 2017

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 upcoming show at ICP.


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. 


 Data source: National Endowment for the Arts. Chart by the author.


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). If you'd like to look at more examples of NEA funding, the last 5 years of their grants are included in my Photo Funds Database. 



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



Within the last month reports have surfaced that the Trump Administration, supported by extreme members of Congress, is 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. No, this is clearly another ideological move to further silence free speech and artistic expression. 


Fortunately, if the past is any guide (and given the start that this administration is off to, who knows if there are any guideposts at all?), there will be a lot of heated arguments back and forth but in the end the NEA will survive. However, it's very possible that the agency's budget, including its support for photography programs, will once again be slashed.


At this point we have no idea where the proposal to eliminate the NEA will wind up, but I urge anyone who cares about photography and the arts in general to take this threat very seriously. Congress has already shown that if enough people raise their voices they will moderate the political attacks, and now is the time for anyone who cares about the arts to make sure we're heard.


There are several ways you can add your voice to the fight to protect the NEA:

  1. Call your U.S. Senator or U.S. Representative. It's very important to call. Don't email—most offices don't have to time to pay attention to emails since there are so many messages that are auto-generated through activist websites. Tell them you do NOT want to see the NEA eliminated or have its budget cut.

  2. Sign the national petition to President Trump to support arts in America.

  3. Support Americans for the Arts with a financial contribution. Your donation will help them continue their battle to save the NEA.

Please act now. As we've already seen, threats by the Trump Administration aren't to be taken lightly.


Tim Greyhavens

February 2017


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

Part 2: The Groundbreaking Documentary Series


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