Public Funding for the Arts, 2018

Ryan Stubbs and Patricia Mullaney-Loss

pdf   Arts Funding Snapshot: GIA’s Annual Research on Support for Arts and Culture (1.1Mb)

Direct public funding for the arts is best understood by tracking congressional allocations to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), legislative appropriations to state arts agencies, and local government funds going to local arts agencies. These entities distribute public grants and services to artists, creatives, and cultural organizations across the nation. Federal, state, and local public funding for the arts totaled $1.37 billion in FY2018.

FIGURE 1. Federal, state, and local government arts funding, nominal and inflation-adjusted dollars, 1999-2018

2018 Funding Levels

The federal government, states, and localities appropriated a combined $1.37 billion to the arts in FY2018, for a total per capita investment of $4.18. Comprising this total were

  • $152.8 million in appropriations to the NEA, an increase of 2 percent from FY2017;
  • $355.2 million in legislative appropriations to state and jurisdictional arts agencies, an increase of 0.1 percent from FY2017; and
  • $860.0 million in funds allocated by local governments to local arts agencies,1 an increase of 4 percent from FY2017.

Trends over Time

In nominal dollars (not adjusted for inflation), public funding for the arts increased by 24 percent over the past twenty years. State and local funding patterns correlate with periods of economic growth and recession. State arts agency aggregate appropriations reached a high point in 2001, while local funding reported a historical high point this year. Federal funding for the NEA has displayed incremental growth after sustaining large cuts in the mid-1990s.

Despite these nominal dollar increases, public funding for the arts has not kept pace with inflation. When adjusting for inflation, total public funding decreased by 16.1 percent over the past twenty years. In constant dollar terms, state arts agency appropriations decreased by 35 percent, local funding contracted by 8.4 percent, and federal funds increased by 5.4 percent (figure 1).

Looking Ahead

Preliminary data on FY2019 appropriations to state arts agencies indicate that funding will increase by 2 percent. Appropriations to state arts agencies are constantly in flux, as midyear changes will occur. However, these figures suggest this will be the fifth year in a row funding has remained relatively flat at the state level, even with states seeing robust aggregate growth in general fund revenues.2

As of this writing, Congress has not passed a federal budget for FY2019. Continuing resolutions have kept funding for the NEA at FY2018 levels until Congress enacts the spending package for the Department of the Interior, the budget bill in which the NEA is placed.

Although the NEA and many other federal agencies are affected by political stalemates (a notable example of which was the recent thirty-five-day partial government shutdown in early 2019), the NEA has earned broad support in Congress, from elected officials across the political spectrum. Both the House and Senate approved a $2 million dollar increase for the agency for FY2019, which would raise the agency’s appropriation to $155 million. However, this increase will not be realized unless the president and the new Congress can pass a new budget for the remainder of FY2019.

Local government revenues are estimated based on past and current data collection efforts by Americans for the Arts. If the rate of increase of local government funding estimates continues to stay on pace, local funding will reach close to $900 million in FY2019. Budget conditions of cities and counties remain relatively robust at this time, but fiscal analysts observe that municipal budgets may be approaching structural limits of expansion.3 So it will be important to monitor whether local spending on the arts may experience slower growth over the long term.

Implications for Grantmaking

Appropriations to state and local arts agencies — and, by extension, available grant dollars — rise and fall in accordance with government fiscal conditions, particularly revenue projections. For example, trends in state arts agency grantmaking track closely with appropriations to state arts agencies over time.4 When state arts agency appropriations declined by 26 percent during the Great Recession between 2008 and 2012, state arts agency grant outlays declined by a nearly identical 27 percent.

Direct federal grants from the NEA totaled 2,422 and $65.8 million in FY2017. Another $51 million from the NEA, or about 40 percent of NEA’s appropriation, was awarded to state and regional agencies for further grantmaking and related activities. State arts agencies in turn awarded 21,296 grants and $282.9 million in award dollars in FY2017, and regional arts organizations also made 1,226 awards, totaling $16.2 million.

Local governments spend the most dollars on arts and culture when compared to states and the NEA, but local arts agencies are less likely to focus their services on grantmaking. According to the 2015 local arts agency census from Americans for the Arts, 53 percent of local arts agencies provide direct community investment in local artists or arts organizations. Larger percentages of local arts agencies support direct culture programming, such as public art and festivals, as well as service provision such as arts marketing. Of the local arts agencies that are involved in grantmaking, 92 percent do so for cultural and artistic programming, and 49 percent provide operating support.

Private funders contribute the largest amount of dollars to artists and cultural organizations in the United States. In 2015, foundation funding for the largest 1,000 foundations totaled approximately $2.5 billion dollars and 19,635 arts and culture grants. Candid (formerly Foundation Center) estimates indicated that US foundation giving overall increased by 5 percent in 2015; 86,000 active foundations gave a total of $62.8 billion in 2015. However, giving from the largest 1,000 foundations to arts and culture remained stagnant, accounting for 9 percent of all funding.

With this amalgamation of grantmaking policies and agendas, it is difficult to find comparative data across public and private sectors. Standardized data collection practices are not employed at the local arts agency level. However, using published data from state arts agencies, the NEA, and the 1,000 largest foundations, there are a handful of categories for which we can approximate relative investments.

Foundations and state arts agencies make significant grant investments in operating support. Foundations spend approximately 20 percent of their arts and culture grant dollars on operating support. In terms of the percentage of dollars invested, state arts agencies make the largest commitment to operational support. Forty-four percent of state arts agency grant dollars and 25.7 percent of all state arts agency awards went to operational support in FY2017.

The NEA invests over $51 million dollars in state arts agencies and regional art organizations. These dollars are not operating support for individual arts organizations, but they help enable state arts agencies and local arts agencies to make investments in operating support by increasing the total dollars agencies have available for grants and services (table 1).

TABLE 1. Comparative grantmaking statistics by selected award types.

Outside of operating support, it is possible to compare a few other grant categories and activity types. Foundations, states, and the NEA all make investments in museums and arts education. A key contrast between public and private sectors is investment in capital construction and physical infrastructure. The NEA does not provide funding for capital construction, and relatively few state arts agencies make grants for facilities. Foundations bear the load for funding physical cultural infrastructure in the United States. Another challenging topic for grantmakers is investment in individual artists and fellowships.5 The NEA makes a few selected investments in individual artists through National Heritage Fellows, Jazz Masters, and Literature Fellowships but otherwise is statutorily restricted from awarding grant funds to individual artists. Many state arts agencies devote a portion of their grants to individual artists.6 In FY2017, state arts agencies made 2,402 awards to individual artists. When compared to other types of applicants, awards to individual artists were the second most frequent type of award made by state arts agencies. Private foundations also fund individuals, but comparison data are not available.

TABLE 2. Grant distribution by size of award and grantor.

Grantmaking by Award Size and Distribution

The distribution patterns of government arts grants reflect a priority public sector objective of attaining maximum geographic coverage. Given the modest appropriations described above, this often necessitates the mechanism of awarding many grants that are small in size. To illustrate this, state arts agencies have a median award value of $4,550. Although the median NEA award amount is $20,000, 58 percent of all NEA grants are less than $25,000 in size (table 2).

When considering reach to rural communities, a US Department of Agriculture report found that 5.5 percent of large foundations’ grant dollars go to rural areas. Although the latest Giving USA 2018 report suggests that some foundations are increasing their focus on rural development, significant funding gaps remain, especially for rural areas in the South.7 Comparatively, 14 percent of state arts funding and 13 percent of NEA funding goes to rural communities, which is consistent with the percentage of the US population residing in these areas.

Funding economically disadvantaged communities is another important aspect of grantmaking equity. The majority of state arts agency awards also go to counties with higher levels of residents living below the poverty line, and 21 percent of state arts agency grantees directly serve individuals below the poverty line. The NEA reports that 40 percent of their supported activities go to high-poverty neighborhoods.8

State arts agency awards and grant dollars also serve populations of color at rates comparable to or higher than population statistics: 21 percent of grant recipients report serving African American populations, and 19 percent of recipients report serving Latine populations. Seventy-four percent of awards and 81 percent of grant dollars go to counties in which people of color make up more than a fifth of the population. These figures do not suggest that public funders are achieving perfectly equitable funding patterns, but these nationally aggregated figures give us some indication that state arts agencies grant patterns generally follow race population patterns. This type of information provides an indication of how state arts agencies work toward equitable grantmaking practices; however, more research on individual programs, awards, and local communities benefiting is necessary to fully describe equitable grantmaking practices.

Complementary Roles

These data on awards and grant dollars begin to suggest a varied landscape of cultural support in the United States. Public and private institutions at every level operate independently according to the needs of their constituencies, stakeholders, and partners. The cultural ecosystem requires both public and private support to thrive.9 While the private sector provides the lion’s share of support, government funds are modest but important, achieving wide geographic access to cultural experiences and embedding the arts into many functions of state government.

Data limitations hinder our ability to fully compare public and private grantmaking patterns; however, our analysis indicates that different segments of the funding ecosystem fill complementary roles. Observable convergences in grantmaking patterns — such as program support and arts education — reflect the high priorities that constituents ascribe to these forms of assistance. Divergences in grantmaking patterns — such as individual artist support, operating support, and facility construction — indicate that each sector is playing to its unique strengths and limitations.


This profile draws on local spending estimates from Americans for the Arts, the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies’ legislative appropriations surveys of the nation’s state and jurisdictional arts agencies, and appropriations data from the National Endowment for the Arts. As of this writing, the most recent data available about federal and local funding for the arts are from FY2018. In FY2018 and FY2019 data for state arts agencies are available from Constant dollar adjustments for inflation are calculated using Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index (CPI) figures with a base year of 1999. Per capita calculations are based on national population estimates from the US Census Bureau.

  1. Americans for the Arts substantially changed the methodology for collecting local arts agency investments through the local arts agency census in 2016. Annual estimates are used prior to 2011 and after 2016.
  2. National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO), Fiscal Survey of the States Fall, 2018,
  3. National League of Cities (NLC), City Fiscal Conditions, 2018,
  4. National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA), State Arts Agency Grant-Making Statistics, 2017,
  5. Grantmakers in the Arts, Support for Individual Artists,
  6. NASAA, State Arts Agency Support for Individual Artists Fact Sheet,
  7. Giving USA 2018 Annual Report.
  8. National Endowment for the Arts, 2017 Annual Report,
  9. Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, “Better Together; Public and Private Funding for the Arts,” Pam Breaux,