There is a long and noble tradition of governments funding the arts and scholarship. In the Renaissance, Florence commissioned and paid for Michelangelo’s David that stood in front of city hall, the Palazzo Vecchio. The city could have used that money for arms to defend themselves from military aggressors, but they decided that even in adverse circumstances beauty was something worth creating and celebrating, which is why people still make trips to visit the city five hundred years after the commission of Michelangelo’s statue.
More recently and closer to home, on April 13, 2022 the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded $33.17 million in grants for 245 humanities projects. With some of its budget, the NEH awarded summer stipends for scholars to research Black media representation in Motown Production films and television programs, the Smithsonian’s patronage of jazz, and Native American activism through correspondence in the late nineteenth century. I agree with NEH Chair Shelly C. Lowe that these kinds of projects “expand the horizons of our knowledge of culture and history.”
Scholars often have a responsibility to preserve and continue intellectual and artistic traditions, and it is fitting that society help subsidize research that nurtures civilization. Without wishing to be melodramatic, if the NEH does not fund research on topics such as Black female brewers in the lower Mississippi valley during the eighteenth century, knowledge of that event would fade away—and that would be a shame.
It is with these intuitions in mind that I must register a complaint. The NEH summer grants are a modest amount and not worth the considerable labor applying for them. If the government is going to support the arts and sciences, then it needs to do so in such a way that they enable scholars to do good work. Otherwise, they are giving Michelangelo a small slab of rock with a sheet of instructions for how he must sculpt.
Recently, my university sent out an email inviting faculty to apply for a National Endowment for the Humanities summer grant. My first thought was: perfect! I would love to have money, and the time that money provides, to finish this project next summer.
Once I started looking at the application, however, I discovered that the grant required a ludicrous amount of work for a trifling amount of money.
The first step in the process is to prepare an application that includes a narrative, work plan, bibliography, and resume. The Notice of Funding Opportunity includes instructions about how the narrative must address questions about the project’s significance, contribution, organization, methods, and the researcher’s competencies and skills. The notice also specifies what fonts to use, the size margins, how to format one’s resume, and so forth. If this was all that the application required, I would have taken the time to finish the application rather than write this article! (And to be fair, preparing an application can often be a good exercise for clarifying your thinking about a project and its importance for a broader audience.)
But no such luck that the application ended there.
The next step of the process is to submit the application for an internal competition at my university. I could win one of the two slots, but there are many talented faculty at my university with promising projects and the committee might choose one of them.
If I won, I would then have to register with Grants.gov and submit the application via an online “Grants.gov Workspace.” Doubtless an online portal for a government grant will take considerable time and energy to learn and use.
But even that would be endurable. Here is the activity that ensures that I will not apply.
I am “encouraged” to solicit two letters of reference for this project. This would require that I ask busy people at the top of the profession to stop what they are doing to write me a letter for a grant that pays me approximately 5 percent of my annual salary.
If I did ask them for letters, then the application would undergo peer review at NEH. I might win. The notice also says that NEH seeks to support projects related to an initiative to explore America’s story and commemorating its 250th anniversary. Surely some of the grants will be earmarked for A More Perfect Union.
Say that I wrote the narrative, formatted all my documents just so, uploaded the application, called in favors for letters of recommendation, and won internal and NEH competitions. What would I actually win?
$6,000, before taxes, for two months of research and writing. Sure, that might cover a couple months of rent or supplement my resources for a period of research—but it is a fairly insignificant amount for tenured professors such as myself.
I am sure that the folks at the NEH would like more money to distribute, and that is at the heart of the issue. The pot that the NEH is distributing for summer grants is $600,000. For a national program, that is a miniscule amount of money. That’s a spare part for a fighter jet or a rounding error at a major government agency . . . it’s less money than some college presidents make.
I appreciate that the federal government is providing money to fund scholars working in the summer. And I am sure that people desperate for any kind of stipend or line on their resume will apply for an NEH summer stipend. But the scarce amount of money is not worth the effort that universities must take to assemble review committees or for most faculty to apply. A highly competitive grant for a few thousand dollars in the summer is not worth the time for many of us.
When Michelangelo sculpted David five centuries agree, this masterpiece was not the fruit of laborious application processes. Without evidence that the NEH’s grant application and multi-step review process improves the projects they fund, then all we are seeing is an unnecessarily onerous process for a paltry grant from an underfunded project. It is commendable that the government continues to invest in the arts, but I hope they will increase that commitment to more significant levels and streamline access for deserving scholars to access it.