Home » Investing in Arts Education » How the National Endowment for the Arts Stretches Its Shoestring Budget
Investing in Arts Education

How the National Endowment for the Arts Stretches Its Shoestring Budget

I’m proud of the National Endowment for the Arts’ massive impact, even with minimal government funding. 

I began working at the National Endowment for the Arts in January 2017, and that’s when I discovered that our budget in 2017 was almost the exact same as it was 40 years earlier.

A 40-year-old budget, no adjustment for inflation, and a hundred million more people in the country. With slight increases from Congress the past three years, our current budget is $162 million.

Fortunately, the agency is a remarkably effective steward of America’s tax dollars. This is in part because of its strict peer review process for grant applications and the requirement that each grantee not only obtain matching funds, but also demonstrate the financial viability of their project. In fact, data shows that on average, for every single dollar of taxpayer money invested by the National Endowment for the Arts in arts programs across the country, almost nine additional dollars are attracted to each project from other sources, including nonprofit organizations and private funding. With the 20-year average return on investment for the S&P 500 under eight percent, the agency’s 9:1 return is not only a good investment for taxpayers, but could be one of the most efficient and effective uses of taxpayer money in the entire federal government.

And when it comes to the arts, we are talking about big money. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the arts and cultural sector contributed $804.2 billion, or 4.3 percent, to the nation’s GDP in 2016. As a point of reference, that is more than the nation’s entire construction industry (4 percent), transportation and warehousing (3.2 percent), or the output of America’s farms (1 percent). Further, arts and cultural goods create a trade surplus. In 2016, the United States exported nearly $25 billion more in arts and cultural goods and services than it imported, a 12-fold increase over ten years.

Investing in the National Endowment for the Arts continues to yield one of the greatest rates of return for the American taxpayer.

Unfortunately, far too few people across the country, including many within our government, have any idea what the National Endowment for the Arts does. First and foremost, it is a grantmaking agency. More than 80 percent of the Arts Endowment funding is distributed as grants and awards across the country.

The majority of grants go to small and medium sized nonprofit organizations, which tend to support projects that benefit audiences that otherwise might not have access to arts programming. In fact, one-third of direct grants go to small-sized organizations with budgets of less than $500,000.

A significant percentage of grants go to those who have few, if any, opportunities to participate in the arts. For example, 42 percent of grants are distributed in high-poverty neighborhoods and 35 percent reach low-income or underserved populations such as veterans, people with disabilities, and people in institutions.

Examples of some of those grants include a theater in Colorado which exclusively features performers with all nature of disability—cognitive, emotional, intellectual, physical. Most recently, the National Endowment for the Arts supported a production of Into the Woods, featuring a cast of actors with disabilities. Then there’s the playhouse in New Jersey which recently received Arts Endowment support for a series of theater programs that serve the needs of children with autism and other neurodiverse youth. And in Wisconsin, grant funding is used to engage older adults with cognitive impairment and memory loss through creative storytelling.

And through the years, the Agency has broadened its reach, including with the Military Healing Arts Network program, Creative Forces.

Creative Forces is a partnership of the National Endowment for the Arts, the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, and the state and local arts agencies that seek to improve the health, wellness, and quality of life for military and veteran populations exposed to trauma, as well as their families and caregivers.

The program places creative arts therapies at the core of patient-centered care at clinical sites throughout the country, plus a telehealth program and increased access to community arts activities. The agency is also in the process of expanding this critical healing arts work to other treatment populations like pediatric oncology patients and those affected by opioid addiction.

Despite the National Endowment for the Arts’ vast reach across the nation, there are some who argue that private dollars can replace public funding. While the arts would continue to thrive in the biggest urban centers, access to the arts would evaporate in many other parts of the country.  A review of the funding for the arts by the top 1,000 private foundations shows that those private dollars don’t reach 65 percent of American counties. In contrast, the National Endowment for the Arts is in 779 more counties than private foundations. That’s 25 percent of America where the National Endowment for the Arts provides funding and the top 1,000 private foundations do not. Access to arts funding should not depend on one’s proximity to private philanthropy.

Next article