National Endowment for the Humanities

National Endowment for the Humanities
Agency overview
FormedSeptember 29, 1965
JurisdictionFederal government of the United States
HeadquartersConstitution Center, Washington, D.C.
Employees500 (2022)
Annual budget$207 million (2023)
Agency executive

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) is an independent federal agency of the U.S. government, established by the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965 (Pub. L.Tooltip Public Law (United States) 89–209), dedicated to supporting research, education, preservation, and public programs in the humanities. The NEH is housed at 400 7th St SW, Washington, D.C. From 1979 to 2014, NEH was at 1100 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C., in the Nancy Hanks Center at the Old Post Office.

History and purpose

The NEH provides grants for high-quality humanities projects to cultural institutions such as museums, archives, libraries, colleges, universities, public television, and radio stations, and to individual scholars. According to its mission statement: "Because democracy demands wisdom, NEH serves and strengthens our republic by promoting excellence in the humanities and conveying the lessons of history to all Americans."

The NEH was created in 1965 as a sub-agency of the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities, which today also includes the National Endowment for the Arts, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. NEH was based upon recommendation of the National Commission on the Humanities, convened in 1963 with representatives from three US scholarly and educational associations, the Phi Beta Kappa Society, the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), and the Council of Graduate Schools.

The agencies stated purpose is to create incentives for excellent work in the humanities by:

  • awarding grants that strengthen teaching and learning in the humanities in schools and colleges
  • facilitate research and original scholarship
  • provide opportunities for lifelong learning
  • preserve and provide access to cultural and educational resources
  • strengthen the institutional base of the humanities.

As part of its mandate to support humanities programs in every US state and territory, the agency supports a network of private, nonprofit affiliates, the 56 humanities councils in the states and territories of the United States.

Jim Leach leadership, 2009–2013

The ninth NEH chair was Jim Leach. President Obama nominated the former Iowa congressman, a Republican, to chair the NEH on June 3, 2009; the Senate confirmed his appointment in August 2009. Leach began his term as the NEH chair on August 12, 2009, and stepped down in May 2013. Between November 2009 and May 2011, Leach conducted the American "Civility Tour" to call attention to the need to restore reason and civility back into politics, a goal that in his words was "central to the humanities." Leach visited each of the 50 states, speaking at venues ranging from university and museum lecture halls to hospitals for veterans, to support the return of non-emotive, civil exchange and rational consideration of other viewpoints. According to Leach, "Little is more important...than establishing an ethos of thoughtfulness and decency of expression in the public square. Words reflect emotion as well as meaning. They clarify—or cloud—thought and energize action, sometimes bringing out the better angels in our nature, sometimes lesser instincts."

William Adams leadership, 2014–2017

The tenth chair of the NEH was William Adams, who served from 2014 to 2017. President Obama nominated Adams on April 4, 2014; Adams was confirmed by the Senate in a voice vote on July 9, 2014. Adams appointed Margaret (Peggy) Plympton as the deputy NEH chair in January 2015.

Before Adams's appointment, the NEH was headed by Acting Chair Carole M. Watson. Adams resigned his appointment on May 23, 2017, when he cited accomplishments under the "Common Good" initiative and the appointment of new administration officials.

Jon Parish Peede, 2018–2022

Appointed under Donald Trump, from 2018 to 2022, Jon Parrish Peede served as Chair of the NEH. On February 10, 2020, the NEH was presented by the Trump administration with a FY2021 budget that included an orderly wind-down of the agency.

Shelly Lowe

Plans to close the agency were halted under the Biden administration and the NEH continues to operate and provides funding for various projects. In 2022, Shelly Lowe was confirmed as the chairman of the NEH. She is the first Native American to lead the agency. Congress appropriated US$180 million for the NEH in FY2022, and US$207 million in 2023.

Offices and initiatives

The Endowment is directed by the NEH chair. Advising the chair is the National Council on the Humanities, a board of 26 distinguished private citizens who are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The National Council members serve staggered six-year terms.

The NEH chair

The Endowment is directed by a chair, who has legal authority to approve all recommendations and award grants and cooperative agreements. The chair is nominated by the president and confirmed with the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate. The chair's decisions are informed by recommendations from the National Council on the Humanities, peer-reviewers who are selected to read each project proposal submitted to the Endowment, as well as by the Endowment's staff.

Major program offices

The NEH has six grant-making divisions and offices:

  • The Division of Preservation and Access awards grants to preserve, maintain, and improve access to primary sources in the humanities, in both digital and analog form.
  • The Division of Public Programs supports projects that bring the humanities to large audiences through libraries and museums, television and radio, historic sites, and digital media.
  • The Division of Research makes awards to support the publication of books in and outside the humanities.
  • The Division of Education works to support and strengthen teaching of the humanities.
  • The Office of Federal/State Partnership collaborates with 56 state and territory humanities councils to strengthen local programs.
  • The Office of Digital Humanities advises on use of technology in the humanities and coordinates, and was established in 2008.

The Office of Challenge Grants, dissolved in 2017, administered grants intended to support capacity building and encourage fundraising in humanities institutions. The Division of Preservation and Access now offers a grant program that is similar to previous programs in the Challenge Grants office.

Special initiatives

These are special priorities of the endowment that indicate critical areas of the humanities as identified by the NEH chair. They differ from the divisions of the endowment in that they do not sponsor or coordinate specific grant programs.

Bridging Cultures initiative

Bridging Cultures was an NEH initiative that explored ways the humanities promote understanding and mutual respect for people with diverse histories, cultures, and perspectives. Projects supported through this initiative focused on cultures globally as well as within the United States.

Standing Together

This initiative, launched in 2014, marks a priority to make awards that promote understanding of the military experience and to support returning veterans.

We the People

We the People was an NEH special funding stream initiated by NEH chair Coles, using dedicated funds available to each chair of the NEH, which was designed to encourage and enhance the teaching, study, and understanding of American history, culture, and democratic principles. The initiative supports projects and programs that explore significant events and themes in American nation's history, which advance knowledge of the principles that define America.

According to NEH, the initiative led a renaissance in knowledge about American history and principles among all US citizens. The initiative was launched on Constitution Day, September 17, 2002, and active through 2009.

Notable projects

Since 1965, the NEH has sponsored many projects, including:


Jefferson Lecture

Since 1972 the NEH has sponsored the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, which it describes as "the highest honor the federal government confers for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities." The Jefferson Lecturer is selected each year by the National Council on the Humanities. The honoree delivers a lecture in Washington, D.C., during the spring, and receives an honorarium of $10,000. The stated purpose of the honor is to recognize "an individual who has made significant scholarly contributions in the humanities and who has the ability to communicate the knowledge and wisdom of the humanities in a broadly appealing way."

National Humanities Medal and Charles Frankel Prize

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities, broadened citizens' engagement with the humanities, or helped preserve and expand Americans' access to important resources in the humanities. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year. From 1989 to 1996 the NEH awarded a similar prize known as the Charles Frankel Prize. The new award, a bronze medallion, was designed by David Macaulay, the 1995 winner of the Frankel Prize. Lists of the winners of the National Humanities Medal and the Frankel Prize are available at the NEH website.

Humanities magazine

Starting in 1969, the NEH published a periodical called Humanities; that original incarnation was discontinued in 1978. In 1980, Humanities magazine was relaunched (ISSN 0018-7526). It is published six times per year, with one cover article each year dedicated to profiling that year's Jefferson Lecturer. Most of its articles have some connection to NEH activities. The magazine's editor since 2007 has been journalist and author David Skinner. From 1990 until her death in 2007, Humanities was edited by Mary Lou Beatty (who had previously been a high-ranking editor at the Washington Post).

See also

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