NEH Announces New Grants to Support Humanities Infrastructure

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) recently announced a new program to create and sustain the infrastructure underlying humanities initiatives in public libraries, archives, museums, colleges and universities, historic sites, scholarly associations, and other cultural institutions.
The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) recently announced a new program to create and sustain the infrastructure underlying humanities initiatives in public libraries, archives, museums, colleges and universities, historic sites, scholarly associations, and other cultural institutions. Eligible needs include capital improvements, preservation and access to humanities resources, conserving cultural heritage materials that are lost or in danger of damage, and sustaining digital scholarly infrastructure. Through matching grants, the Infrastructure and Capacity-Building Challenge Grants program will help enable institutional capacity to ensure the long-term sustainability of humanities programs. Grants may also go toward purchasing equipment or software; designing, purchasing, constructing, or renovating facilities; and sharing collections. Requests of up to $750,000 are eligible, although NEH’s contribution usually does not exceed $500,000. Costs can be one-time or ongoing, as long as they demonstrate long-term benefits. Projects will be evaluated on their significance, the appropriateness of their resources and plans, the impact challenge grant funds will have, the audience served, and the feasibility of long-term fundraising and institutional support for the initiatives.


The idea behind the Infrastructure and Capacity-Building Grants came out of general nationwide necessity, explained NEH Senior Deputy Chairman Jon Parrish Peede, but also solidified around a response to Hurricane Harvey, which devastated southeastern Texas and parts of Louisiana in late August 2017. One of several culturally significant works damaged in the catastrophic rainfall and flooding was a historic mural, “Contribution of Negro Women to American Life and Education,” painted by African American artist John Biggers in 1953. Biggers, a longtime Houston resident and founding chairman of the art department at what would become Texas Southern University, painted the mural in the Blue Triangle YWCA building. Eventually repurposed as the Blue Triangle Multi-Cultural Association in 2000, the building has been designated a state historic landmark, but the community center it housed had been unable to raise the roughly $50,000 it needed to waterproof the leaking roof over the mural. Although NEH has historically supported infrastructure aid, it stopped providing those grants several years ago. When Peede stepped into the role last summer, he told LJ, "one program that I thought the agency needed to have was a way to support construction projects and to stabilize physical structures, particularly…historic preservation and expansion of facilities." The barrage of hurricanes in August and September of 2017—Harvey, Irma, and Maria—spurred the agency to institute emergency relief grants, capped at $30,000, to help affected cultural institutions with preservation, restoration, and storage needs. NEH funding helped stabilize the Biggers mural. But the damage, coupled with mold issues from the ongoing roof leak beforehand, was extensive. The fact that prior to Harvey Blue Triangle had no funding resources to address its roof issues “seemed to me to be a huge gap in the funding of the cultural agencies at the federal level,” said Peede, so together with NEH staff he developed the Infrastructure Grants.


Challenge grant programs call for most recipients to commit to raising three times the amount received from NEH over the subsequent five years from nonfederal third-party donors. Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), tribal colleges, and two-year colleges—which are encouraged to apply—are only required to match grants one-to-one, and the schedule is extended to six years. Grant recipients may use up to ten percent of total federal plus matching grant funds to help cover fundraising costs. The multiyear fundraising schedule should allow institutions to identify donors and develop fundraising plans that are realistic, explained Peede, as the federal funds are released consistently in designated amounts. While delays can arise from the need to satisfy landmark requirements, for instance, which means a longer review process for plans, the longer cycle will allow for institutions to meet their fundraising benchmarks. And if an organization secures all its matching funding earlier, then it will be awarded the balance of its NEH funds at that time. After the grants are awarded, NEH staffers work closely with recipients. But before an organization applies, it can take advantage of NEH workshops that cover fundraising for challenge grants—particularly helpful for institutions that are already involved in construction projects and are looking for what Peede terms “catalytic dollars” to move those projects toward final phases. A library or historic society may have capital improvements built into their strategic plan, he noted, and may have potential funders in mind, “but they didn't see a path forward.” A funding schedule from NEH will give a director an opportunity to go back to their board and those donors to show, explicitly, what they can accomplish.


While NEH has a long history of supporting the work of academic libraries, Peede hopes that public libraries will also apply for the grants. If a library needs to migrate or digitize documents, or invest in a platform to share local resources, he told LJ, "that, for us, is considered sustaining digital scholarly infrastructure, or preservation and conservation of humanities collections." Funding could cover capital needs as well, whether building a new branch or expanding the physical footprint of an existing building. Particularly at a time when other donors may earmark library funds for programming or collections, Peede wants the NEH’s funds to fill in the gaps—the leaky basement, the new HVAC unit, the modernized fire suppression system, the upgraded software. “That kind of activity is simply not something that private donors will do,” noted Peede. “It's not something that the local tax base always allows for. But those one-time needs [are what] this infrastructure grant can support." And, added Peede, the grants aren’t targeted only at large library systems. “When I look at something that sounds kind of mundane,” he said, “that means everything to a small town library…. This grant guideline works best when it's available to small institutions, when it's at the level of equipment, at the level of sharing resources.” In addition to the money itself, the award from NEH also provides a “national stamp of approval” that can help drive fundraising to match the grant money, added Peede. “If you're running a private foundation, if you're a corporate leader in a town, and you get asked to support so many different endeavors, I can definitely say that when they look at what to fund, that one entity that came in with the NEH grant is going to rise to the top.” The current round of grants doesn’t have an official cap, although Peede expects that it will likely not exceed $10 million. The deadline for the first round of applicants is March 15, and grantees will be announced in July. Peede plans to continue the grant line “for the entire time that I'm at this agency," so there will be many further opportunities for libraries that aren’t ready by March to apply. "The important part of the infrastructure category, particularly when we think of libraries and museums, is to remind people that we fund the humanities across all types of cultural groups,” Peede told LJ. “We do so many wonderful project with research scholars and at universities, sometimes…[other kinds of institutions] may forget how open we are to funding them. I hope that this category is a reminder that we really do focus on the public humanities, not just on the academy itself."
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