Rough cut

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 clich 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.  

"This is a devastating blow to media artists in this region in particular, and for any region of the United States that isn't on the two coasts," says Celia Lightfoot, director of S.W.A.M.P. "It's not just damaging to independent filmmakers because the re-grants themselves were so important. It's also damaging because of what those grants represented to the artists. They were a vote of confidence in the artist's ability to do good work, and they were often used by artists to seek additional funding from other nonprofit groups and from private sources. A filmmaker used to be able to say, 'Hey, look guys--I just got this start-up grant from S.W.A.M.P., can you help me out with some money to finish my project?' Now that opportunity is gone. It's going to make it tough on filmmakers who don't yet have a national reputation or who are young and just starting out."

Katie Cocionos, who used to run S.W.A.M.P., and who now acts as managing director for the nonprofit Austin Film Society, offers another concern: that in the absence of a Media Arts fund, and an Independent Production Fund in particular, the NEA will fund work mostly by people they've already heard of--particularly higher-profile artists who live and work in Washington, New York, and Los Angeles--and bypass artists in middle-America who'd prefer to stay regional and work with smaller budgets.

"Now that the IPF is gone, there are no grants available at the NEA for experimental films, short films, and a lot of smaller-scale, more inventive documentaries," she says. "If you're doing offbeat work that isn't strictly old-fashioned fictional narrative, or a narrative-style documentary, then the NEA in Washington is off limits to you. It always has been really--only now, or course, there's really no other alternative."

Dallas Video Festival director Bart Weiss agrees: "This decision lops young, creative, unknown, and unconventional film and videomakers off at the knees."

"The regional re-grant program was one of the ones that gave the NEA the most bang for its buck," says Arlington-based filmmaker Andy Anderson, whose critically lauded 1987 thriller Positive I.D. was partially paid for with an IPF grant he received through S.W.A.M.P. "It wasn't a lot," says Anderson, "but I could never have made my feature without that money. What makes this situation worse is that the re-grant program was one of the few truly democratic processes inside the NEA. It didn't matter if you were doing work on a small scale, or if nobody knew your name--you could still get help through a regional agency in your area. The re-grant program was specifically put in place to help somebody besides the same big corporate-type organizations who get the same big grants over and over and over, like big city museums and symphonies."

"It's nothing short of a disaster, an instant decimation of local film and videomakers," says Richard Linklater, the Austin auteur whose NEA-assisted Slacker kick-started his career as a nationally known writer-director.

In addition to his professional career as a feature filmmaker, Linklater also serves as director of the nonprofit Austin Film Society, which helps fund independent, experimental movies, primarily by artists who live and work in Texas' capital.

"The Austin Film Society has never been able to get through the door at the NEA in Washington," Linklater says. "The idea that we can get money from the NEA with no regional re-grant funds available, just by applying directly to D.C., is a big, fat joke."

Spokesperson Dare repeats Alexander's assurance that the NEA in Washington was, and still is, receptive to offbeat work, even by untried and obscure and unconventional artists. "Our grant panels are diverse in every way--geographically, economically, racially, culturally," says Dare. "So I think it's a mistake to say this decision means the NEA won't be interested in regional voices anymore. Having a reputation in Los Angeles or New York or Washington won't be an advantage with them. It's still the quality of the work that counts."

Deare says that film and videomakers outraged with the NEA cuts are "shooting the messenger" and fail to see the bigger, more disturbing picture: that the organization has been whittled away by Congress for years, and that with a newly elected Republican majority in both legislative houses, it's time for artists to express support for the NEA, not hammer away at individual funding decisions.  

"There's understandably a lot of concern here that the Republican steamroller could roll right over us without a lot of forethought," Dare says. "And there are people in Congress from both parties who have been after this agency for symbolic reasons for years and years. But the tone of film and videomakers who call us to complain has changed somewhat since last month's elections. They're not calling just to complain anymore--at least not as regularly.

"Instead, they're mostly calling to say, 'Hey, what's the strategy? What can I do to express support for you guys and maybe discourage more things like this from happening?' The issue used to be, me, me, me. Now it's us, us, us. And I think that's definitely the approach to take."

Dallas filmmaker Andy Anderson, however, is not convinced. "What the NEA has to say in its defense is just a corporate line written by a corporate mentality," Anderson says. "It's a government variation on, What's Good for GM is Good for You. I don't want to see the organization disappear, either, but bringing that issue up is a diversion. The real issue, and what is most disturbing about this situation, is that the people the National Endowment for the Arts was created to help are the very same people they've been steadily slamming the door on in the last few years. I can't help thinking that this decision wasn't random. It was premeditated. It occurred because the re-grants program was a little progam--little grants to little people. And that's what made it easy to eliminate.

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