By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Public sentiment in the United States has historically placed public funding for the arts somewhere near the bottom of the list of government priorities, and accordingly, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has been a prime target for congressional trims and cuts. It currently operates on half of its 1970 budget, and each fiscal year brings a new round of belt-tightening--both for the organization and for the artists and nonprofit groups it helps support.
Last month, however, brought a financial decision that will hit independent film and videomakers hard--especially in Texas.
Responding to a congressional edict to cut $3 million from its budget for fiscal year 1995, the NEA eliminated seven so-called "re-grant" programs, which distribute funds from the NEA's headquarters in Washington, D.C. to designated regional arts groups.
The regional groups act as way stations for the federal agency, redistributing NEA money to artists in different multi-state areas. The re-grant process was intended by the NEA to foster creativity at a regional and local level and to help preserve and protect film and video history. (The Los Angeles-based American Film Institute, for instance, lost all of its NEA funding for film restoration and preservation.)
The re-grant program also was designed to encourage artists who are disenfranchised for one reason or another--because of their financial status, their race, or their geographical isolation from big cities--and to help unknown, inexperienced artists find their creative footing.
Approximately $1.2 million of the NEA's recent cuts fell in the category of Media Arts. Half the money in Media Arts helped defray operating expenses for regional nonprofit groups geared towards independent film and video work; those same groups, in turn, redistributed the rest of the Media Arts funds--roughly $665,000 a year--to applicants in their geographic region. These grants, called the Independent Production Fund, were intended primarily to help unknown, obscure, and minority film and videomakers.
In a press release, NEA director Jane Alexander assured independent imagesmiths and the nonprofit groups who support them that the cuts were actually less devastating than they might seem.
She pointed out that in making the cuts, the NEA simultaneously beefed up the amount of money available to film and videomakers who apply directly to the agency in Washington, rather than going through a regional organization. The amount available to those who apply directly to the NEA was increased from $633,000 to $1 million for fiscal year 1995.
"The important thing for critics of this decision to remember," says NEA spokesperson Josh Dare, "is that the NEA has been enduring these kinds of cuts for a long time, and not just in the area of Media Arts. There's no particular agenda for picking on one area of the arts as opposed to another. We recognize there's a lot of pain out there right now, but the fact of the matter is, no matter who you are, when cuts have to be made, sooner or later it's going to be your turn. There's a clichŽ that says a rising tide lifts all boats. In this situation, the reverse is true. Everybody gets hurt sooner or later, and this time it's film and video artists."
Dare repeats Alexander's point that film and videomakers can still get NEA funding--they'll just have to go directly through the agency's headquarters in Washington to do it. "The middleman has been taken out," Dare says. That means that no matter where an artist lives and works, or how strongly he feels about remaining local or regional, if that artist wants NEA money, he'll have to jockey against people from every state and territory, not just in his geographical area.
"It's absolutely going to be more competitive now," Dare says. "And frankly, that probably means the artist with smaller financial needs doing work on a smaller scale will be less inclined to get funding [through Washington] than somebody with bigger needs."
Predictably, regional artists and nonprofits don't find Dare's words particularly reassuring.
Among the hardest hit by the NEA's cuts was Houston's Southwest Alternate Media Project, which once re-granted money to film and videomakers in Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, Arkansas, Missouri, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. S.W.A.M.P. arguably was, and still is, the most important and reliable source of funding for film and video makers between the two coasts.
Among the better-known filmmakers who have received re-grants money through S.W.A.M.P. include Austin-based director Richard Linklater, who won $2700 to complete his influential, low-budget experimental narrative feature, Slacker; Dallas-area filmmakers Andy Anderson (Positive I.D.) and Ken Harrison (Texas Trilogy, Ninth Life); consummate Houston-based indie firebrand Eagle Pennell (Last Night at the Alamo); and Louisiana filmmaker Glen Pitre (the Armand Assante melodrama Belazaire the Cajun).
Locals whose work has been partly financed with money from the Independent Production Fund are Allan and Cynthia Mondell (West of Hester Street); Bart Weiss and Mark Birnbaum (Hate Mail; and John Carstarphen (Mea Culpa). And for every remotely recognizable person whose careers were assisted by NEA money, there are dozens more who used the money to create tiny, personal, and experimental works for limited audiences--viewers of public access cable, members of underground film societies, and fans of film and video festivals.