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The 2nd International Documentary Congress: Public Funding for U.S. Media Arts

By Rich Samuels

Is public funding still a viable option for U.S.-based documentarians?

Are cutbacks at the NEA and NEH foreshadowing a shutdown of all access to public funding? Can we avoid the seeming maelstrom approaching from Washington? These were among the questions underlying a roundtable discussion on the state and future of public funding, which was led by Ruby Lerner, associate executive director of the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers, and Romalyn Tilghman, a former regional representative for the NEA and an arts consultant.

As we all know, in this era of government cutbacks and conservative political pressure, state-supported arts funding is coming under attack. Already the NEA and NEH have suffered massive cutbacks in budgets and personnel and are engaged in a sweeping restructuring. It is possible that individual artists will no longer be able to receive direct grants through the endowment.

The NEA will no longer be structured along disciplinary lines-that is, there will no longer be a media program, a theater program, a literature program, and so on. Instead, it is restructuring itself according to functional categories: "Creation and Presentation," "Planning and Stabilization," "Education and Access," and "Heritage and Preservation."

At the NEH, in addition to the dramatic funding cutbacks, the two yearly deadlines have now been consolidated to one deadline per year. The agency is now looking for "national blockbuster projects"-projects with "maximum impact." A project's viability i n secondary markets-beyond initial broadcast-will be scrutinized as never before. The ways in which the staff and monetary cutbacks will affect documentarians are numerous; as an example, Lerner observed, "I think one of the best services the NEH has provided is how helpful the staff has been to applicants once they take your application seriously. They spent a lot of time reading and rereading your drafts and really working with potential applicants to present the strongest proposal. Ob­viously, with the huge staff cuts they've experienced, they'll no longer be able to do that, so instead of reading two or three drafts, they're saying that they hope they'll be able to read one draft."

The Independent Television Service, which is funded through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, survived an effort to eliminate the ITVS program, but suffered a 25 percent administrative cut. ITVS future, of course, is tied to the still ­uncertain future of CPB.

What can be done?

On a positive note,Tilghman observed that the effort to dissolve the NEA and NEH in two years was defeated. If the dissolution had been successful, it would have made the future rebirth of these agencies much more difficult.

Ruby Lerner outlined some of the work underway in response to the current state of media arts funding. A group of media arts organizations have created the MEDIA (Media Democracy in Action) Consortium, which will focus on telecommunications policy issues (especially in the face of the new technological environment) and educate their constituency.  Efforts here include the hiring of a part-time lobbyist to fight for media funding.

The National Artists Advocacy Group, another consortium of arts organizations, is attacking the problem from the electoral-politics angle. Taking a page from the successful efforts of the conservative movement, the nonpartisan NAAG aims to work from the earliest stages of political organization, including supporting pro-arts candidates and registering pro-arts voters.  Candidate education-making sure that candidates are well informed about  arts issues-will also be a part of the effort. This group has already compiled a congressionally coded mailing list of 100,000 names, including only the membership lists of the organizations.   It's Quite possible that a list of 500,000 names, all likely supporters of NAAG's goals, can be created.   Another possibility being discussed is that of forming a political action committee.

The arts community is in the very early stages of exploring the possible creation of a private  national trust to support the efforts of the individual artist.  This would be the product of a major long-term fundraising effort, incorporating both significant funders and grassroots  support by the general public. Tilghman suggested that "our biggest danger in the arts field is fatigue."  In the face of extended, constant attacks on the arts community, supporters of the arts should be careful to maintain the continuing struggle necessary to keep media arts funding alive. 

The 2nd International Documentary Congress Special