Frank Hodsoll, a self-described bureaucratic “gnome” who emerged as a surprisingly persistent champion of cultural funding and programming as President Ronald Reagan’s chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, died July 24 at a hospice center in Falls Church, Va. He was 78.

His death, from cancer, was confirmed by his family.

Mr. Hodsoll — a lawyer and Foreign Service officer whose previous artistic endeavors consisted largely of collegiate theatrical productions and glee clubs — was deputy to White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III when he was asked to help form a presidential task force to stimulate private philanthropy in the arts.

Before Reagan’s first year in office was over, Mr. Hodsoll floated his own name for chairman of the NEA, the largest single U.S. funder of theater and dance companies, musical ensembles, soloists, artists, writers and others engaged in creative pursuit.

Baker was astonished. “Are you serious?” he reportedly asked. “Why would you want to do that?”

Frank Hodsoll is pictured with President Ronald Reagan, holding the Academy Award received by the National Endowment for the Arts, in 1985. (Courtesy Frank Hodsoll/National Endowment for the Arts)

Mr. Hodsoll explained to The Washington Post at the time that he maintained an enduring passion for the lively arts, even as he spent a career mastering the art of policy papers. “Encouraging creativity is like being at the cutting edge of human development,” he said. “Maybe I’m crazy, but I think that would be an exciting thing to do. Not being a member of the creative sector myself, I think it would be interesting to help develop a climate within which creative people will find it easier to do their thing.”

Mr. Hodsoll took office in 1981 and remained in the post until 1989. He was widely reported to have earned the appreciation of the arts community, where many had initially feared that he would join other Reagan officials in advocating sweeping cuts to federal funding.

In a discussion panel last year, Mr. Hodsoll said that David A. Stockman, Reagan’s first director of the Office of Management and Budget, regarded the NEA and its sister organization, the National Endowment for the Humanities, as “good ones to simply bring to a halt because they went too far, and they would be easy to defeat.” (At one point, the Reagan administration proposed halving the arts endowment budget.)

Reagan, a Hollywood actor before his rise through politics, was ultimately dissuaded from taking the draconian step of eliminating the NEA. Congressional support helped the NEA maintain its appropriations, which amounted to approximately $158.8 million in 1981, dipped to $143.5 million the next year, and rose to $169.1 million by 1989.

As chairman, Mr. Hodsoll took a particular interest in film. Under his leadership, the NEA partnered with the American Film Institute to form a national center for video and film preservation, a project for which the NEA, represented by Mr. Hodsoll, received an honorary Academy Award in 1985.

He sought to spur local and regional support for the arts through matching grants. Among the recipients of funding during his tenure was the fledgling Sundance Institute, actor and director Robert Redford’s nonprofit organization to support independent artists in film and theater.

Also under Mr. Hodsoll, the National Medal of Arts was established in 1984 to recognize exceptional achievement by artists and arts patrons. He sought to encourage cultural education in schools and was credited with supporting avant-garde as well as traditional arts, major companies as well as new ones.

“Rock and roll builds on Bach,” he told the Los Angeles Times when he stepped down, describing what he regarded as a “cultural stream” that grows over time. “Andy Warhol builds on Coca-Cola, and vice-versa. One of the great art works of the 20th century has to be ‘Lawrence of Arabia.’ . . . It’s as good, in my view, as some of the famous paintings in museums.”

Mr. Hodsoll was a hands-on administrator and attracted controversy for his willingness, on occasion, to veto grant decisions by peer-review panels. He discarded a plan, roundly criticized, to use computer-generated formulas in an effort to improve consistency in grant allocations.

In 1989, Mr. Hodsoll left the NEA to become executive associate director and chief financial officer at the OMB under President George H.W. Bush. He retired from federal service in 1993.

Looking back on his time at the NEA, he told the New York Times that “the endowment has nothing to do with creating genius.”

“What we’ve done essentially is to make it easier for institutions and creative individuals to pursue their art,” he said. “More important, we symbolize the federal government’s recognition of culture in this country as an aspect of national health.’’

Francis Samuel Monaise Hodsoll was born in Los Angeles on May 1, 1938. He received a bachelor’s degree in art history and American studies from Yale University in 1959. After Army service, he received a master’s degree and a bachelor of laws degree in 1963, both from the University of Cambridge in England, followed by a juris doctor degree from Stanford University in 1964.

He worked briefly for a Wall Street law firm doing securities work before joining the Foreign Service, which took him on assignment to Belgium. Later in his career, he worked in the State Department on nuclear nonproliferation. He called himself a “jack of all trades” in government work, and he also had stints with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Commerce Department, where he first met Baker.

Mr. Hodsoll was a coordinator of Reagan’s presidential debate preparation in 1980 and served on his transition team, working on matters including the resolution of the Iran hostage crisis. After his federal career, he was a county commissioner and management consultant in Ridgway, Colo., before returning to the Washington area.

Survivors include his wife of 52 years, Mimi McEwen Hodsoll of Falls Church; two children, Francis Hodsoll of Reston, Va., and Lisa Hodsoll of Falls Church; a sister; and two grandchildren.

Mr. Hodsoll’s opportunity to attend the Academy Awards and accept an Oscar was an unusual privilege of government work. He recalled that he was introduced by Glenn Close and that Gregory Peck offered him tips on how to prevent his Oscar statuette from tarnishing.