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.

What’s in Your District?

This post was written by one of our summer interns, Micah Khater, who is a rising junior at North Carolina State University. Her experience discovering NEH-funded projects that took place at her school may inspire others to see what the NEH has supported at their own colleges and universities.

On the first day of my internship at the NEH I was directed to the “Funded Projects” section on Here it is possible to search previous NEH grants by year, region, institution, or name. Naturally, as a curious undergraduate, I searched for my own university to see what kinds of grants we had been awarded. I learned that since the 1970s, the NEH has awarded 91 grants to North Carolina State University (NCSU)—a strong statement about the depth and breadth of our research and scholarship in the humanities.

court of carolina ncsu

The Court of North Carolina at North Carolina State University, which is a central area on campus. Photo courtesy of ABC11 News.

More about My School

NCSU was founded in 1887 as a land-grant institution with a particular focus on agriculture and, later, engineering. Even though it is known primarily for its strength in STEM, NCSU is emblematic of a new trend in research—building strong universities in all disciplines. So while NCSU is ranked among the best schools for engineering, it can also boast excellent, research-driven programs in the humanities. The NEH has encouraged our interdisciplinary initiatives that propel research in the humanities.

NCSU: Technology and the Humanities

In particular, my school has received grants from the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities (ODH). The ODH offers grant programs that fund projects designed to study digital culture and harness new technology for research in the humanities. Programs housed in this office range from Digital Humanities Implementation Grants to Institutes for Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities. These grant programs may seem complicated, but essentially they support the intersection of digital tools and humanistic exploration.


Saint Paul’s Cross in England, photo courtesy of the Virtual Paul’s Cross Project, funded by an NEH Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant.

One project I found on from 2011 serves as a perfect example.  The NEH granted NCSU a Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant to begin research to study acoustics for sermons at St. Paul’s Cross,England’s most important public pulpit in the early modern period. Using advanced modeling and acoustic algorithms, the Virtual St. Paul’s Cross Project (in which the School of Architecture collaborated) combined the humanities, technology, and design.

st pauls virtual model

A screen shot of the architectural model software used to study what a public Paul’s Cross sermon may have looked like in 17th-century England. Photo courtesy of the Virtual Paul’s Cross Project.

What Does This Mean For You?

The NEH supports interdisciplinary initiatives nationwide, and in my case the NEH has supported many in my own backyard. The NEH looks for excellence in research, scholarship, and public outreach in the humanities, whether at a land-grant university or a small liberal arts college.

If you are interested in the grants awarded to a particular university or college (like your alma mater), please visit And, of course, constituents in your district or state—beyond university faculty—may be eligible for grant opportunities provided by the NEH. To search for grant programs, please visit