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On January 26, 1966, Governor William D. Scranton signed enabling legislation for the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Under the provisions of Act No. 538, the Council is charged with "the encouragement and development of the various arts" in the Commonwealth. As its first task, the PCA conducted a survey of the arts in the state. A report based on this survey was published in 1969. The Council's grants programs began in 1968 with a modest program of support for community arts festivals.

Since the initial survey, the Council has periodically assessed its role and redefined or added to its goals and procedures. In 1973, the Council adopted its first list of goals, along with a formal application process and the establishment of advisory panels. In 1978, a reassessment focusing on the constituencies the Council served resulted in the establishment of general support grants, local government grants, and fellowships for individual creative artists. In 1979 and again in 1987, the Council took its programs and policies to the citizens of Pennsylvania in a series of statewide hearings.

The Council's mission is to foster the excellence, diversity, and vitality of the arts in Pennsylvania and to broaden the availability of the arts throughout the state. Funding for the PCA comes from the citizens of Pennsylvania through an annual state appropriation by the General Assembly. The PCA also receives funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency.