President Bush is proposing a big funding boost to the National Endowment for the Arts (search), an agency that once was a favorite target of Republicans. The money would go for a new program to give Americans an up-close look at their arts heritage.

The $18 million increase, a 15 percent hike in the NEA's funding, would be the largest in years. Last year, Congress increased the agency's funding to $122.5 million, up from $115.7 million but still well below what the agency received 25 years ago.

Most of the increase Bush is proposing in his upcoming federal budget would be used for a new initiative called "American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Artistic Genius." The programs will take works of American art on tour to large and small communities in all 50 states, said Douglas Sonntag, director of the NEA's Office of National Initiatives.

Sonntag said the program also will create educational packages of videos and study guides tailored for schoolchildren, bringing jazz (search), Shakespeare (search), dance and other art forms to classrooms nationwide.

While federal spending on the arts has edged up slightly, cash-strapped state governments have slashed funding for theaters, museums and performance groups by nearly one quarter.

The NEA's budget was slashed when Republicans gained control of Congress in 1995. Conservatives were upset by some of the projects funded by the NEA, such as works by controversial artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, contending they were a threat to the nation's moral standards.

The arts agency is one of the few domestic programs in line for a major spending increase under the budget plan Bush will unveil Tuesday. He has proposed holding spending for non-defense, non-domestic security programs to an increase of about 0.5 percent.