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A Grantmaker’s Perspective on the Arts

by Anna Pollard:

Have you ever wonder where federal funding actually goes? What about funding for areas that aren’t typically a high priority in federal budgets? Jason Schupbach, then Director of Design and Creative Placemaking for the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA), spoke at the 2017 Tom Tom Founders Festival Hometown Summit about the NEA’s purpose and process to better the arts in America.

Schupbach says that while most people think of arts funding as having limited impact with initiatives like dance and community theaters, the NEA actually channels its funding to a broader range of programming. Arts accessibility, literature, and design all fall under the NEA’s distributive purview, meaning a wide range of organizations are eligible to receive funding.

However, the process of providing arts grants does not start with the NEA; the federal agency gets allocated funds from Congress each year. Currently, the NEA is operating off of the 2017 fiscal year budget of $150 million. Of that amount 30% goes to operations, 40% to state agencies for distribution, and 30% is given to non-profits.

Schupbach said that although the NEA budget is assessed yearly by Congress, the projection is that there won’t be a reduction in the allocated funds for the next fiscal year. Additionally, the state agencies that help distribute funds often match those of the NEA, which means state agencies can give about 25,000 grants per year.

Applying for an arts grant from the NEA requires several steps. For example, an organization seeking a direct grant – where funds go straight to an organization – must be a non-profit, have a 3-year history of programming, have a 1 to 1 match for the budget, and meet reporting requirements.

A panel will then review whether the organization merits funding, meaning whether its budget is sensible and worthy of federal funding, and if it meets ‘excellence’, or specialization standards. The applicant will then be reviewed by the Chairman of the National Council on the Arts and the Chairman of the NEA in subsequent steps.

However, Schupbach says direct grants are not the only means of receiving funding for arts organizations. The NEA offers programs designed to reach specific groups through Challenge America, which allocates funding for underserved groups, and Our Town, which works to center communities on the arts.

Challenge America is an annual opportunity that typically takes ten months to process and allocates $10,000 of funding, provided that there’s a $20,000 match. Standards to determining who is underserved can be broad, but include factors like race, age, and socio-economic status.  

Meanwhile, Our Town, which Schupbach oversees, works with community partnerships to create projects designed to increase the livability in those communities. For Our Town grants, the emphasis is on the partnerships to strengthen the arts scene from the inside out.

Schupbach says one type of grant available through the NEA that has the highest application rate is the Creative Writing Fellowship, which gives multiple individuals time to write poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction through career enrichment with experiences such as travel and research.

Schupbach says since applying for an arts grant through the NEA has several steps involved he recommends preparing work samples beforehand, reviewing previously awarded grants to consider what makes a grant application successful, and contacting an NEA discipline specialist with questions.

To learn more about the the NEA grant process or about specific arts grants available, visit or for more general information.

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