ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
There was a time in the 1990s when the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities dominated headlines for funding controversial artworks and what were viewed as exclusive educational programs. Well, on this day, the two endowments were signed into law 50 years ago. And nowadays they're absent from wide public discourse. But they're still at work funding programs and trying to convince Congress and the American people of their value. NPR's Tom Cole reports.
TOM COLE, BYLINE: Jane Chu, the current head of the National Endowment for the Arts, was 8 when the agency was founded.
JANE CHU: (Laughter) That's exactly right. It was founded in 1965, September 29.
COLE: She was already playing piano in her Arkansas hometown.
CHU: I'd participated in every music camp I could get my hands on from grade school through high school. It really became my social life, too.
COLE: The chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities hadn't yet begun studying philosophy in college. William Adams was soon to be deployed to Vietnam.
WILLIAM ADAMS: I was an infantry adviser to the Vietnamese army in the Mekong Delta in 1968, kind of in the epicenter of the war. And, of course, those were the times of great turmoil and strife around the war. But it was also a great time to be asking philosophical questions.
COLE: Three years earlier, President Lyndon Johnson alluded to a fundamental question about the role of arts and culture in American society when he signed the Endowments into law in the White House Rose Garden.
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LYNDON JOHNSON: We in America have not always been kind to the artists and the scholars who are the creators and the keepers of our vision.
COLE: The man wrote the legislation was the late Livingston Biddle, who later went on to head the NEA. He had to convince his then boss, Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell, to introduce the bill, as Biddle told me in 1995.
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LIVINGSTON BIDDLE: Most members of Congress looked at artists and the arts with considerable suspicion. We weren't all that far from the McCarthy period and artists and Communists were equated, still.
COLE: But the bill passed and the very first NEA check went to American Ballet Theatre in response to an emergency request for help. Vice President Hubert Humphrey delivered the check personally in December of 1965. That same year, MacArthur award-winning choreographer Paul Taylor got his first NEA check for $5,000.
PAUL TAYLOR: In New York City, when I first came, there were no handouts. There was no Endowment, no businesses giving monies to modern dance. I don't know that anyone had a manager. We'd just give concerts.
COLE: In 1995, Taylor told me he still applied for NEA grants every year. Everything seemed to tick along fine for the Endowments following their founding. Annual budgets increased from just under $3 million to more than $150 million each by 1989. That's when the NEA raised the ire of Congress by funding the work of visual artists Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe. It was called blasphemous and pornographic, and its most vocal critic was North Carolina Republican Senator Jesse Helms.
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JESSE HELMS: The self-proclaimed art experts pretend that even if the art is gross and even if it is vulgar and offensive, it's art, and it ought to be financed and subsidized by the American taxpayers.
COLE: The ensuing battle, which dominated the media for more than five years, resulted in lawsuits by artists, slashed Endowment budgets and a fundamental change in one way the NEA awards grants, says the agency's current chair, Jane Chu.
CHU: The NEA no longer supports individual artists directly, but the NEA does specifically support individual writers.
COLE: Nevertheless, the Endowments together have distributed over $11 billion through more than 200,000 individual grants over the course of 50 years. NPR has been a recipient. But it's not just about the money, says the current NEH chair. William Adams says it means something when the state chooses to support arts and culture.
ADAMS: We are having an argument in this country about the scope of government. But I'm not afraid to say that I think that scope must include this fundamental concern for culture. And the interest is not just financial. It's also symbolic, and I think that's one of the most important aspects of the history of these two agencies. They've been able to represent the public commitment to the historic and cultural legacy of the country.
COLE: They also, he says, help us to think about who we are and what we want to be. Tom Cole, NPR News, Washington.