The National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965 is the most ambitious piece of cultural legislation in American history. The story of its creation and evolution is a tangled one that continues to the present day. This essay looks at NEH and NEA in their early years, their relations with Congress, and the process by which NEH fostered the invention of humanities-based “State Committees,” significantly different in concept from NEA’s innovation of “State Arts Agencies.” The circumstances that led to the creation of these grassroots programs ultimately changed NEH itself while popularizing the novel terminology and concept of “public” humanities work. The essay concludes with reflections about the time-bound quality of NEH and the State Humanities Councils and considers their sustainability in a new century.

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