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President Lyndon B. Johnson speaks before signing the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965, which created the NEA and NEH. (Photo courtesy of the LBJ Library)

The Arts Race: Theatre’s Leading Role in the Founding of the NEA

The U.S. got national arts funding after decades of advocacy, much of it by theatre folks working with various government entities, including the CIA.

Earlier this year David Marcus, artistic director of the Brooklyn-based Blue Box World theatre and a writer for the conservative website the Federalist, made a provocative argument against the National Endowment for the Arts in an interview on NPR. “The basic problem with the government supporting the arts in the way that it does,” Marcus said, “is that it stands in the way of free-market competition, which is really the best way for arts organizations to build new audiences.”

In a letter written in response that was published on AmericanTheatre.org, Teresa Eyring, executive director of Theatre Communications Group, corrected this and other assertions by Marcus, pointing out, among other things, the ways in which commercial stages have thrived alongside, even in conjunction with, the nation’s nonprofit theatres.

Regularly since its start in 1965, the NEA has had to make a case for its continued existence. Whether due to budgetary concerns, controversy over who receives funding and for what, or simply a principled objection to state funding for the arts, U.S. citizens have expressed a range of anxieties about the NEA.

What’s often missing from public conversations of the NEA is the story of the grassroots campaign that led to its 1965 founding. Histories, both popular and scholarly, tend to focus on the national leaders—presidents, senators, and wealthy philanthropists—rather than the artists and community members who spent decades painstakingly making the case for national support for the arts. Who led that campaign? Who made the case over decades that the U.S. needed to recognize the national importance of the arts?

Theatre people, in fact, are the ones who made a case for the arts as being in the national interest. Theatre artists and administrators from all over the U.S. knew firsthand that the absence of non-commercial funding was preventing theatre from reaching audiences who had no access to professional theatres. Theatre practitioners, critics, and leaders were determined to change that—and to put theatre into the national conversation.

The campaign for the NEA began in the 1930s, some 30 years before President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the endowment into existence. Even with the Depression in full force, public arts funding was on people’s minds. For many this was because of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), which, as part of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA), put theatre professionals to work from coast to coast. The FTP was short-lived, lasting just four years (1935-39), but it gave some in the theatre and in Washington hope for the future of arts funding in America. For others it was a spur: Director Robert Breen, one of the founders of the Chicago Unit of the FTP, stood up at a 1935 national gathering of theatre leaders and “started preaching the idea of a national arts foundation.”

Of course, it wasn’t only theatre people who thought the arts deserved better national recognition than the FTP could offer. Some in Washington were working on alternatives as well. From 1937 to ’38, representatives William Sirovich (D-N.Y.), John M. Coffee (D-Wash.), and Senator Claude Pepper (D-Fla.) authored a bill to establish a Fine Arts Bureau that would guarantee federal money for the arts. Inspired by the WPA projects for artists, they thought there should be a permanent version. The bill was soundly defeated, with their colleagues citing objections, from the possibility of federal censorship of the arts to the need for more unemployment funding. One congressman even leveled the accusation that the arts were merely a way to spread “Red propaganda.”

“Melodies on Parade,” one of the Federal Theatre Project’s original musical revues, in FTP’s Caravan Theater in Crotona Park in the Bronx, c. 1936. (Photo from the Federal Theatre Project Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress)

That’s where things stood as World War II began. While serving in the Air Force, Breen maintained his passion for arts funding. In 1942 he wrote to his wife, “We should start very soon laying foundations for this…thing, because anything is possible in this fast war…” He urged her to “check through Congressional Record…to learn the various legislators’ attitudes on the idea… Enlist important people to form a committee with us…Then maybe contact the Natl Res. Planning BD and/or Public Works Reserve. Then start our letter campaign to the legislators…”

The letters went out, but legislators were understandably focused elsewhere. Undaunted, Breen kept casting his net as widely (and creatively) as he could. It was amid this relentless search for allies that Breen met another director just as eager to shape the postwar U.S. theatre.

Robert Porterfield had founded Virginia’s Barter Theatre in 1933 and was serving in the Army. He came to Breen’s attention in 1944 because he was circulating an idea for a veterans’ theatre. This was music to Breen’s ears, and Breen quickly recruited Porterfield to share his own vision. “Thanks for your ‘Veteran’s Theatre’ letter—a good idea indeed! Later on I shall write more on it—and about the possibility of including it in a much larger program which is brewing—and on which I have been asked to do a list of extra-curricular work.” In little more than a month Porterfield was a key member of the community of advocates consulting with Breen about whom to write and about what.

As a two-man team, they blanketed the country with information about the newly named Porterfield-Breen Plan. Anyone in a federal agency or department, any elected official, or anyone with a national profile in the arts was a potential target for their relentless campaign. Their plan was to use the now-defunct American National Theatre and Academy (ANTA) and reimagine it as a “fund administered by a central board, to make loans or grants for the purposes of play production on the basis of quality and standard of the material submitted, the soundness and integrity of the plan submitted, and the demonstrated need of the community or territory where the production or productions are to be performed.”

The New York City-based board of the then-dormant ANTA was initially wary of Breen and Porterfield. The organization had been federally chartered in 1935, the same year that the FTP started, but its origins could not have been more different. It was the brainchild of wealthy Philadelphia philanthropists who initially planned a theatre for the city but soon expanded their focus to encompass the entire nation. Their efforts to interest national leaders in their plan varied: Edith Isaacs, the editor of Theatre Arts, a predecessor to American Theatre, spurned them (“Take it away,” she told them. “It has no meaning, no professional backers…Lot of nonsense”). But an old friend of theirs who was now the U.S. president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was more receptive, and helped land them congressional sponsors. They soon had their charter, and presented ANTA to the nation as their “gift to the American people.”

The nation received the gift with little enthusiasm or gratitude. ANTA had no money or artists, and the separately conceived FTP had soon stolen its thunder. Despite some lackluster attempts at fundraising and projects, ANTA had almost no impact in the 1930s. The organization was largely suspended during the war, and by the mid-1940s ANTA lay fallow. By the time Breen and Porterfield came along, it had a board but nothing else.

The initially suspicious ANTA board was eventually won over by Porterfield and Breen, and Breen became the resurrected ANTA’s executive secretary. The Breen years proved terrific for ANTA and for U.S. thea-tre. Among the works ANTA supported was the Broadway run of Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo, with Charles Laughton in the eponymous role, in 1947. The organization also helped the fledgling regional theatre movement stay connected across far-flung distances, and produced television shows based on theatrical productions that were watched by millions. They even made a series of LP records of theatrical productions so that anyone anywhere could hear the best the U.S. stage had to offer. ANTA also owned a Broadway theatre, the Guild, and then a theatre downtown in Greenwich Village.

The lead performers in the State Department’s 1949 “Hamlet”: Robert Breen, Aline MacMahon, Clarence Derwent, Ruth Ford, and Walter Abel. (Photo from the Robert Breen Collection, George Mason University Libraries)

But the organization’s most lasting contribution—and the one that ultimately led to the NEA—was its collaboration on cultural diplomacy with the U.S. government.

The government was not waiting for ANTA’s prodding to support the arts. In 1946 Senator Elbert D. Thomas (D-Utah) read the Porterfield-Breen Plan into the Congressional Record. His was a national call to support the theatre: “Under the test of war, the American theatre proved its universal power to move and unify…The people of the theatre, realizing the tremendous part they played in total mobilization for war, are now endeavoring through the National Theatre movement, to be of equal service in contributing to the national well-being, happiness, and cultural enrichment during peacetime.” Elbert was among those who helped forge relationships between ANTA and the federal government.

Building on support from Elbert, during the Truman administration ANTA made a fledgling attempt at cultural diplomacy. In response to an invitation from the Danish government, Breen and Porterfield took a Barter Theatre production of Hamlet to Denmark for a 1949 festival in Elsinore Castle. Lacking the funds to transport the show, producer Blevins Davis asked his childhood friend Bess Truman to lean on her husband Harry. Bess persuaded the president to give his blessing, and for the first time the U.S. government paid to send theatre abroad. The entire endeavor was approvingly reviewed in U.S. newspapers. People liked the idea of the U.S. showing the world how its cultural work could compete on a global stage.

Excited by this success, Breen and Davis collaborated once again, this time on a production of Porgy and Bess. This effort would become the standard by which cultural diplomacy tours were judged. It was on the road for four years; the opening performance was in Dallas in 1952 and the final one in Amsterdam in 1956. The show performed in 29 countries and on four continents. Standing ovations became the norm, whether at La Fenice in Venice, the Habima in Tel Aviv, or Teatro Solís in Montevideo. Several of its performers had their careers launched by the show, including Leontyne Price and Maya Angelou. Another place where the tour had an enormous impact was at the White House.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower was a believer in what he called “people to people” diplomacy, but he had no funding to support it. In 1954 he requested $5 million from Congress for an Emergency Fund to support cultural diplomacy, and specifically offered Porgy and Bess as evidence of the potential impact of U.S. arts abroad, writing, “The enthusiasm with which this type of cultural offering is received abroad is demonstrated by the fabulous success of Porgy and Bess, playing to capacity houses in an extended tour of the free countries of Europe.” The president’s brief request—not even 600 words—would herald a profound change in U.S. foreign policy, change the direction of the arts in the U.S., and offer a successful precedent for permanent government support of the arts.

ANTA would be one of the primary beneficiaries of the Emergency Fund, well beyond the expenditure of the initial $5 million. When the State Department needed to identify artists to send abroad, it asked ANTA for help. ANTA created a new division, the International Exchange Program (IEP), which created peer selection panels of experts in the fields of music, dance, and thea-tre. The New York Times reported: “All artistic decisions in the selection of these attractions are reserved to the panels of recognized experts serving voluntarily…Our government officials have agreed that no performing artist shall be assisted through this program without the approval of the appropriate artistic advisory panel.”

This kind of publicity was essential to ensure the public that the arts remained independent and the government was not influencing selection. A precedent was set: Peer review would become the standard way for the government to involve itself in the arts. Even as ANTA began to dwindle in the late 1950s, the IEP worked with the State Department until 1963, when the government entity no longer wanted to be associated with the failing organization.

The Emergency Fund and IEP were important steps toward national arts funding. But they were not the only ways the government supported the arts. Even with some funding from the initial $5 million appropriation, arts organizations scrambled to get their work abroad, participate in international organizations, or just keep the doors open. The struggles of the U.S. center of the International Theatre Institute (ITI) exemplified these challenges. A non-governmental organization of UNESCO, ITI was founded in 1948 and had centers around the world. The U.S. had been a founding member and its office was housed in ANTA (later at TCG as part of the Global Theater Initiative). While ANTA argued it was the appropriate home for such an organization, it had little money to support the U.S.-ITI.

In 1952 ANTA, without consulting ITI-U.S.’s director, Rosamond Gilder, abruptly decided to close the U.S. center. Gilder appealed to her colleagues for help, and the UNESCO secretary in the State Department stepped in. It was clearly in the U.S. interest to be part of this global organization, but State had no money to offer. Then an ANTA advisor and the head of Triton Press, Joseph Verner Reed, and philanthropist Julius Fleischman, heir to a fortune from yeast and gin, assured ANTA that ITI would be funded. A substantial grant quickly followed from the Farfield Foundation, whose president was Fleischman and of which Reed was a trustee. Gilder and ANTA were grateful that ITI had been saved.

What really saved ITI, however, was one of the most controversial government arts funding initiatives in U.S. history. Fleischman and Reed’s Farfield Foundation was a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) “dummy front,” meaning it was set up as a legal foundation, though the only funds it had were provided by the CIA. The Farfield cover was often used to camouflage CIA participation in the arts, especially cultural diplomacy. The foundation would also fund the Living Theatre in 1963, as well as the New York Pro Musica and the Dancer’s Workshop.

Legitimate foundations also played a role in supporting the arts clandestinely, serving as “pass-throughs”—that is, the CIA gave the foundation money to give to a project identified by the CIA. Major foundations participated—the Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie were all used at some point—as well as smaller regional foundations like the Hoblitzelle Foundation in Dallas or New York’s J.M. Kaplan Fund.

Scene from the production of “Porgy & Bess” that toured the Soviet Union in the 1950s. (Photo courtesy of the Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee Theatre Research Institute at the Ohio State University)

The CIA had advocated for Porgy and Bess from the beginning. One White House official told deputy director Frank Wisner, “You rendered a great service to our country getting this started,” because Wisner had always been quick to provide evidence that the tour was effective, sending agents to attend performances and comment on audience response. Porgy and Bess was effective “psychological warfare,” Wisner argued, and the CIA was determined that it be seen around the world.

Historian Frances Stonor Saunders notes that millions of dollars flowed to the arts and cultural projects from CIA dummy and pass-through funding sources. “With this kind of commitment,” Saunders writes, “the CIA was in effect acting as America’s ministry of culture.” Like a ministry, it even followed up on funding with program reviews. But it lacked public accountability, peer panels, and governmental oversight, and it was less a ministry of culture than a ministry of propaganda.

This “ministry” would continue until 1967, when the magazine Ramparts exposed it, forcing the U.S. government to end the program. The CIA’s approach was obviously not an exemplary model to build on for the future, but if nothing else it demonstrates how desperately the arts need national funding.


Meanwhile the movement in favor of such funding continued on other tracks as well. By the end of the Eisenhower administration, a new generation of legislators, including Rep. John Brademas (D-Ind.), Sen. Hubert Humphrey (D-Minn.), Sen. Jacob Javits (R-N.Y.), Sen. Clairborne Pell (D-R.I.), and Rep. Frank Thompson (D-N.J.) were committed to bringing forward national arts legislation. In this they were supported by the incoming Kennedy administration. President Johnson would also include the arts (and the humanities) in the wide-ranging legislation he would usher into law, as part of his commitment to ensuring Kennedy’s legacy. Real estate magnate and Broadway producer Roger Stevens (who would be the first chairman of the NEA) had pushed Kennedy toward arts funding, and he did the same under Johnson.

When President Johnson signed the NEA (and National Endowment for the Humanities) into existence on Sept. 29, 1965, Robert Breen called it “the happiest day of my life.” What Breen could not have predicted then was that the history of theatre’s efforts on behalf of arts funding would be quickly forgotten. People like Porterfield and Breen are historical footnotes, and very few histories of the NEA mention ANTA, Breen, or theatre’s unique advocacy role. To be sure, the other arts had their own paths to the NEA, but theatre’s was central.

When William Sirovich argued for his Fine Arts Bureau in the 1930s, he claimed it would allow the U.S. to establish itself as the “foremost cultural power in the world.” The preamble to the bill that became the NEA made a similar claim. “The world leadership which has come to the United States cannot rest solely upon superior power, wealth, and technology,” it read, “but must be solidly founded upon worldwide respect and admiration for the Nation’s high qualities as a leader in the realm of ideas and of the spirit.”

For most of the 20th century, U.S. leaders, both in and out of government, have understood that the arts are part of what make us a nation, and theatres have often led the way. Will theatres continue to lead the charge in the 21st century?

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