In the history of the arts in America in the second half of the 20th century, one name looms especially large. It’s not the name of a playwright or director, a choreographer or composer, a painter or sculptor, but that of a politician: Claiborne Pell, the Rhode Island Democrat who authored the legislation that led to the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts. Pell, who served in the U.S. Senate from 1961 until 1997 (when health concerns forced him to retire), died Dec. 31 at the age of 90. His legacy is the tens of thousands of artists in all media who have shaped the nation’s cultural landscape–and the theaters, museums, and other venues that gave them forums.

Pell authored the National Foundation of the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965; the bill paved the way for the creation of the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The importance of the NEA and NEH cannot be overstated–or measured merely in the amount of money the two endowments actually disburse. The federal funding of individuals and organizations in the arts and humanities stimulates private philanthropy from foundations, corporations, and individuals as well as local and regional government arts councils. Equally important, it asserts the ideal that the arts are fundamentally significant to the life of the nation–the whole nation, not just the major urban centers. The NEA has been crucial to the growth of nonprofit regional theater, dance groups, public television, and galleries and museums across the country. And, as Pell’s New York Times obituary noted, “The creation of the National Endowment for the Arts did much over the years to foster avant-garde styles and techniques that made American artists renowned worldwide.” Artists were freed to pursue careers without having to hew to supposed “mainstream commercial” appetites–thus allowing them to influence, even reshape, the tastes of America’s arts consumers and to undertake work that might be considered dissident, offensive, or just plain weird by some portions of the public.

In the early 1960s, Pell also devised the legislation that created the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant, which provides financial aid for needy college students. Along with the G.I. Bill, these Pell Grants, as they are known, have helped define college education as something to which all Americans, not just the privileged, are entitled.