Preserving the Nation's Cultural Legacy: The Federal Save America's Treasures program

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Artist Norman Rockwell sits in a wooden chair, smoking a pipe, and working on a painting. In his left hand, he holds several brushes. On the walls surrounding the artists are painted drafts of various elements of the final painting in various stages of co

Norman Rockwell painting "The Art Critic," 1955. Photo by Bill Scoville, courtesy of Norman Rockwell Museum

"I am proposing a public-private partnership to advance our arts and humanities, and to celebrate the millennium by saving America's treasures, great and small."   -- President William Jefferson Clinton, 1998

1998The White House Millennium Council, created by President Clinton in 1998, was a multi-year initiative "marking the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the new millennium." In 1998, the White House Millennium Council partnered with the National Trust for Historic Preservation to establish Save America's Treasures, an effort to protect "America's threatened cultural treasures, including historic structures, collections, works of art, maps, and journals that document and illuminate the history and culture of the United States." The four goals of this innovative public-private partnership were to: foster pride in U.S. heritage; educate citizens on the preservation problems facing the nation's cultural legacy; raise concern for the urgent preservation needs of nationally significant artifacts, sites, and documents; and stimulate wide-scale involvement in preservation efforts.

President George W. Bush has continued White House support for the Save America's Treasures program, and Mrs. Laura Bush serves as the program's honorary chairperson. In the announcement of the 2005 Save America's Treasures grantees, Mrs. Bush said, "Historic preservation and conservation has such an important place in America. The devastation in the Gulf region [after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita] is a stark reminder of the significant fragility of buildings, sites, and artifacts that define our neighborhoods and the character of our country."

Black and white image of two corner panels from a wall‑sized mural including images such as a bridge and several couples dancing.

Two panels of the MURAL OF CINCINNATI by Saul Steinberg. The mural is currently undergoing conservation efforts by the Cincinnati Art Museum.
Photo by Saul Steinberg (American, b. 1914, d. 1999), MURAL OF CINCINNATI (detail), © Saul Steinberg, 1947, Cincinnati Art Museum, Gift of Thomas Emery's Sons, Inc.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation participates in the Save America's Treasures program through fundraising, advocacy, and technical assistance efforts. From 1999-2000, the National Trust also worked with the White House Millennium Council to designate historical, educational, and architectural projects across the United States as "official projects." This designation brings national recognition to significant preservation efforts for these icons of the nation's heritage. The current list of "official projects" includes the papers of former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the permanent sculpture collection of the National Gallery of Art, and San Francisco's Angel Island Immigration Center.

Each year Congress appropriates funding for Save America's Treasures. Since its inception, more than $216 million has been appropriated for the program. The funds are distributed in two ways: Congress annually designates some projects with the remainder distributed through competitive grants.

A workman walks toward a one‑story, wood shingled, saltbox style house. Several ladders lean against the house while a sawhorse in front of the house holds lumber waiting to be cut.

Installing climate control systems in the Jackson Pollock‑Lee Krasner home in East Hampton, New York to preserve this historic site was one of the 2003 Save America's Treasures projects. Photo by Helen A. Harrison

The National Park Service (NPS) partners with the four federal cultural entities—the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the President's Council on the Arts and the Humanities (PCAH), and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS)—to administer and distribute the Save America's Treasures grants funds. NPS manages the application and review process for historic properties while the cultural entities manage the process for collections.

In 2000, the first year in which grants were awarded, more than 60 organizations received Save America's Treasures grants. The NEA awarded six of those grants, distributing $2.3 million in support of preservation efforts of arts objects, artifacts, and collections of cultural significance. (When taken in total with grants awarded through the Arts Endowment's own Heritage and Preservation program, more than $6 million of federal support was given to preservation and conservation projects by the agency in 2000.)

Projects supported by NEA Save America's Treasures grants have included the preservation of acetate negatives of photography sessions by illustrator and painter Norman Rockwell, the conservation of the archives of master choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham, and the restoration of Thomas Sully's 1817 painting of George Washington, The Passage of the Delaware.