As the National Endowment for the Arts once again finds itself a punching bag on the chopping block (summon that mixed-metaphor image), it seems like a good time to take a step back and reflect on how and why the NEA was founded in 1965. Did you know, for example, that a dominant argument about supporting the NEA was the Cold War and our fears about the infiltration of American culture by our Russian counterparts? Not coincidentally, the end of the Cold War coincided with the decline in support for the NEA from certain Republican corners of Congress.
But back before that, on a cool day in June 1962, a patrician looking man, not terribly tall, dressed in a dark suit with bowtie and pocket square, took his place behind the podium in the main ballroom of the Sheraton-Park Hotel in Washington, DC. August Heckscher (in photo, being sworn in as Special Consultant for the Arts), the grandson of a wealthy capitalist and philanthropist from whom he inherited both wealth and his name, had a rounded nose and chin that gave him a vaguely Midwestern look, which, paired with a ready smile, the three-button suit and bowtie, and his carefully coiffed white-gray hair, painstakingly parted over his left eye, gave him a combined air of gentile approachability and quiet authority. Both an academic and a frequent politico of various stripes, he looked at his notes, and then out at the gathered crowd—over 1,500 women drawn from throughout the country, there to participate in the 71st annual Convention of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs and to caucus around issues of community improvement and development—took a breath, and began to speak.
“The arts,” he said, “have received in these years an attention, and have been employed with an enthusiasm, never before known in this country…It is impossible to go into the cities across our land without being convinced of the significance men attach to the cultural institutions in their midst.”
The women sat at their tables and listened. The previous day, they had heard from Sargent Shriver, a Kennedy-by-marriage and the shepherd of a new government program, just over a year old, called the Peace Corps, about which he had spoken forcefully and at some length. He had articulated a new, peaceful view of what citizenship in America could mean. In so doing he had, in a way, primed the crowd for the speech Heckscher was now embarking upon, for Mr. Heckscher was the newly-minted Special Consultant for the Arts to President Kennedy, the first person to hold such a post, and he had been asked to speak about the federal government’s role in the arts, and the role of the arts in the betterment of American communities—a role that he felt was nothing short of vital to the future success of the nation.
“Why this emphasis should have occurred,” he went on, “the historian of the future will tell us better than we can perceive or guess. I suspect that the reason lies deep in the national life.”
Reflecting back on his work years later, Heckscher would run this history line in the other direction, as well, not towards the future, but instead towards the past:
We must always remember our previous generations. If Kennedy had Robert Frost as the poet of the White House, Theodore Roosevelt of course had brought national attention to Edwin Arlington Robinson. Go back to the early days of the Republic and Jefferson is the outstanding example. And Adams used to say that his generation had to build the continent and do the work with their hands, but a generation would come along which would devote itself fully to the arts and literature. And in the twentieth century that time has certainly come.
The start of the 1960s was a time of incredible promise and optimism for the nation. Even in the glimmerings of the new, simmering social consciousness that would eventually erupt into the civil rights movement, even in the shadow of a looming and terrifying Russia, the close of the monotonous, post-World War II 1950’s brought with it a celebration of a sort of possibility—not least possibility for the widespread communities of ever-more-diverse people who called the United States home. This was a particular view, of course, and one that, with the eye of the historian Heckscher yielded clarity to on that day, seems overly rosy and simplistic. But as he went on to outline, to him, speaking in a ballroom in 1962, the nation seemed poised on the edge of an era where fact-based knowledge was to be no longer either enough or fulfilling, where the relative prosperity of the majority of the country’s citizens had created a unique opportunity to look up and past the base of Maslow’s pyramid to the higher needs that existed above, and where technology and health improvements had, for many, freed up copious amounts of time from doing work and allowed for longer lifespans. To Heckscher, such a convergence created a void most ideally filled with culture—or else dangerous and an opening to decline.
“We do not intend that our people should decline,” said Heckscher, defiantly. “We intend great days for ourselves and for our descendants. And so the cultivation of the arts attracts us. There is thus in all parts of our country, and at all levels of the population, a new emphasis upon the life of the arts.”
Heckscher would eventually author the report that crystallized a movement long in the making to create a federal government body to support and nurture America’s arts and culture—and which would lead to the founding, in 1966, of the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities. His life, ultimately stretching from his birth in 1914 to his death, at age 83, in 1997, would allow him to witness a tremendous progression in America—a shift from industrialization to an idea economy, a rising awareness of the multitude of voices that had before been a background drone to a single dominant culture, and, perhaps foremost, the ongoing transformation and re-transformation of America’s communities in cycles of boom and bust through war and peace, recession and prosperity, generations and generations again.
But on that day in 1962, smack in the middle of his life and the life of a very particular movement, Heckscher called out a truth that has echoed across at least the last 115 years, in various forms and functions, and that now, in the late dawn of a new century, leads the creative sector forward: “Where the cultural life flowers,” he said, “the community as a whole prospers and grows.”
Due in large part to ubiquitous access to new types of arts and culture, in which there were in turn more and more representations of the extant poverty in American cities, the late 1950s and early 1960’s were a time in which the general U.S. population “rediscovered” income inequality in the country. A special edition of Fortune magazine in 1957 was filled with essays on the negative effects urban policy, and also featured the debut of Jane Jacobs’ extremely influential excoriations of such policies and their failure to revive American downtowns. Films like The Blackboard Jungle and West Side Story served as vanguards of a general influx of pop culture representations of the urban plight. Photography, journalism, and music started opening previously closed doors between white middle- and upper-class populations and the African-American and Hispanic populations who were beginning to organize for equal representation.
The dawning awareness of poverty and inequality made it a political pressure point as well as a social one. A wide range of efforts cropped up to fight both urban and rural social problems, particularly after the 1962 publication of The Other America, a scathing portrayal of various classes of “invisible” poor people that caught the attention of many national political leaders including President Kennedy. Internationally, a slowly chilling Cold War provided another argument for the government’s role in nurturing arts and culture—cultural might. Said Roy Johnson, the head of the Advance Research Projects Agency:
If we’re going to survive in the struggle with Russia, this is our only hope for victory. Outright war is unlikely, so the battle of winning men to one camp or the other becomes the strategy of appealing to men’s spiritual needs, to their hunger for fulfillment, to their cultural sides. This country is on the verge of an explosion in culture. The traditional barriers between artists and businessmen are breaking down. So are the barriers between art and life. Cultural leadership is there for the taking. If we work hard and with understanding, we can take it.
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., one of President Kennedy’s senior advisors and a behind-the-scenes architect of the process that ultimately led to the creation of the NEA, framed it more grandly:
We will win the world to an understanding of our policy and purposes not through the force of our arms or the array of our wealth but through the splendor of our ideals. Let us never forget the wise reminder of the President’s Committee on National Goals: “In the eyes of posterity, the success of the United States as a civilized society will be largely judged by the creative activities of its citizens in art, architecture, literature, music, and the sciences.”
The Rockefeller Foundation turned its attention to philanthropic support of social interventions, including a variety of cultural measures—among them community-based arts activity, and a variety of proposals for a more coordinated role of government in arts-based community development emerged from Congress, who had ironically killed the Arts Projects of the WPA a few decades before. In 1958, Congressman Jim Wright, in a statement so baldly honest as to be practically unimaginable today, said on the House floor:
It is always kind of easy to ridicule and poke fun at things of a cultural nature. I plead guilty to having done my share of it, but I think, Mr. Speaker, that we have reached a state of maturity in this nation where that kind of attitude no longer becomes us. Sooner or later we have to grow up and stop poking fun at things intellectual and cultural.
By the beginning of the 1960s, Wright and others—the majority of Congress—had come to see the value of, and government role in, cultivating the arts as a way of promoting general community health. So prevalent was political support on both sides of the aisle for federal support of the arts in one form or another that poet Karl Shapiro, skeptical of the intervention of government into private artistic practice, derisively said, “We are in a period of cultural kissing games…every politician is taking on the arts as part of his constituency!”
The number of disconnected local arts agencies continued to grow, as did the theory and practice around arts-based community development and cultural planning. For the second time in American history, the federal government had aligned behind a more formal and pervasive role of art in civic life—even as a rising spirit of resistance to dominant white cultural norms and top-down policy creation threatened to destabilize the whole country.
In 1960, the loose collection of local arts agencies that existed in the United States, nurtured under the wing of the American Symphony Orchestra League, coalesced into Community Arts Councils, Inc. (CACI, the precursor to Americans for the Arts). At the same moment, due in large part to increasing civil unrest and the rising voices of dissent from the disenfranchised, as well as increased support from both government and private philanthropy, a complex national community development system emerged.
As a new awareness of how power was shifting from the grasstops to the grassroots took hold, there was, as predicted by Roy Johnson, an explosion of cultural activity. The cultural hegemony that had been the norm basically since the founding of the country was being challenged nationwide, particularly through the large lens of the Civil Rights movement and cultural leaders within it like Luis Valdez of Teatro Campesino and John O’Neal of the Free Southern Theater. Much of the power of the civil rights movement, particularly the coordinated and unified efforts of black civil rights leaders in the South, emerged from the use of cultural assets ranging from songs to propaganda art that catalyzed action and gave the movement identity.
As early as 1955, there had been federal-level interest in the creation of a national Advisory Commission on the Arts. In March 1962, President Kennedy appointed Heckscher as the first ever Special Consultant on the Arts, and Heckscher, over the course of 15 months (with an interlude one day in June to speak to the General Federation of Women’s Clubs) wrote The Arts and the National Government, a report that recommended both a Federal Advisory Council and a funded Federal Arts Foundation to provide subsidies. Kennedy issued an executive order in 1963 that founded the first Advisory Commission on the Arts inside the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, but never had the chance to populate it. In November, 1963, Kennedy was assassinated two days after announcing Heckscher’s successor, leaving the creation of a federal arts body in the hands of his successor, President Johnson.
Following the Kennedy assassination, President Johnson launched the War on Poverty with a mandate to “strike at poverty’s roots [through] remedial education, job training, health and employment counseling, and neighborhood improvement.” He later added mandates around preschool education, food stamps, college preparation and child nutrition. His noble efforts, like the iterations that had come before, felt to those on the ground like a top-down approach that minimized and marginalized the opinions of those most impacted by the work. Buoyed by a feeling of new agency drawn in part from increased awareness and general support of the public, grassroots groups and individuals started rising up against top-down urban renewal efforts, stopping the construction of highway projects and the tearing down of homes.
Race riots occurred in Los Angeles and Chicago, the civil rights marches laced through the South, protests began around the Vietnam War, and the various protest activities of the United Farm Workers and Cesar Chavez in the Southwest forced a reckoning of sorts among the population. These movements focused on extending agency to those impacted—bridging up from local-level community development efforts first pursued in the aftermath of the WPA projects to encourage national-level policy that involved input from those who would be impacted by it.
To some degree, through these efforts, the anti-poverty and community development policies of the 1960s bucked the tide set in motion through City Beautiful, public housing, urban renewal, and the creation of transit systems and instead incorporated at least some degree of input from the bottom up. This is perhaps the reason that arts-based community development often situates the “founding” of the movement to the 1960’s—not just because of the incorporation of the National Endowment for the Arts and CACI in this decade, but also, fundamentally, because the War on Poverty was a watershed moment in how governments at all levels interacted with the communities they were trying to help, shifting from a dictatorial approach to a collaborative one, and thereby opening the door for the transition of community-based art to art-based community activation.
With continued pressure being exerted nationally for the formation of what would become the National Endowment for the Arts, legislation authorizing its creation was passed in September 1965 and signed shortly thereafter, and the National Endowment for the Arts was born in 1966.
This essay is adapted in part from the longer essay “Arts & America: 1780-2015,” which originally appeared in Arts & America: Arts, Culture, and the Future of America’s Communities. The linked-to edition includes full citations.