The NEH and the NEA: Who’s Who?

This is the first post in a series called “Who’s Who?” where Humanities Insights will compare the NEH to other federal agencies and independent humanities organizations. From these posts, we hope to explain how the NEH is similar to, different from, and in collaboration with a number of different organizations.

The NEH and the NEA are similar in acronym. Their office space overlaps in D.C.’s Old Post Office Pavilion.  Both are federal grant-making agencies, but the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts serve different constituents, and notably different purposes.


Logo for the National Endowment for the Humanities.

NEH Logo MASTER_082010

Logo for the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The Humanities and the Arts: Who Does What?

The NEH and the NEA are distinct from one another most fundamentally in that one funds programs supporting the “humanities,” and the other the “arts.” The salient distinction, then, is how the humanities and the arts differ. The humanities look at the human experience through literature, philosophy, language, and history, among other things. The arts, on the other hand, explore human experience through expressive media like paint, dance, music, and the written word, among others.

Because of this difference in focus, the NEA and the NEH often fund distinct types of grantees. Grantees from the NEH might include schools, colleges, individual scholars, cultural centers, libraries, and museums. NEA recipients are often theaters, art museums, dance companies, community groups, and schools with strong arts programming.

Where Do These Overlap?

It may seem that there is little opportunity for the NEH and the NEA to be involved in the same project, given their disparate missions and grantees. However, the two agencies’ areas of interest are not mutually exclusive, and programs often bridge the divide. Projects that have both strong humanistic and artistic value might be funded by both agencies. The arts can and do overlap with the study of philosophy, language, history, or literature.

An example of one such overlap is the documentary Charles and Ray Eames: The Architect and the Painter, narrated by James Franco. The NEA supports American Masters on PBS, which produced this feature. The two agencies were brought together when the NEH awarded a grant to assist in the scholarly, historical research that provided the background for this particular documentary.


The NEA and the NEH were both involved in the funding of the PBS documentary Charles and Ray Eames: the Architect and the Painter. Some projects qualify for support from both agencies. Photo courtesy of

How to Choose

The NEH seeks to promote excellence in the humanities and convey the lessons of history. The NEA seeks to support artistic excellence, creativity, and innovation. They both award grants to exceptional cultural institutions that feature innovative and compelling programming. While they work in different fields, their grant application processes and their missions to protect and expand cultural programming in a variety of communities support one another.  

When you wish to advise a cultural institution whether to apply to the NEA or the NEH, many people can point you and your constituent applicants in the right direction. In particular, staff members in the Office of White House and Congressional Affairs can answer questions about the qualifications for NEH funding, and put applicants in touch with the appropriate grant program for their project.

Art, or Art History?

How to tell if an artistic project is more appropriate for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) or the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)


If your project involves the creation of musical compositions, dance, painting, poetry, short stories, novels, or projects that focus on arts performance or training, you should apply to the NEA.

Art History:

If your project involves an analytical, reflective, or historical perspective on the arts, you should apply to the NEH.