Funding 'disaster' hits close to home
"That which we value the mostour families, our work, our art
has the stamp of our focused attention,"
said Ken Burns. "Without that attention,
we do not learn, we do not remember, we do not care.
The public programs in media ...
give us back our attention.
And by so doing, insure that we have a future."
Will public broadcasting suffer humanities and art aches?
Originally published in Current, Aug. 28, 1995
By Jacqueline Conciatore
Public broadcasting has Big Bird. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), on the other hand, has a Hershey's-dipped performance artist partially nude except for the chocolate. And NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities), well, sounds a little too much like "NEA.''
Perhaps it's not surprising then that CPB's sister cultural organizations, NEA and NEH, this year had less success than the corporation did in escaping the full force of the congressional budget axe.
As legislation yet to be finalized currently stands, NEA and NEH are slated for cuts on the order of 32 to 40 percent. What's worse, congressional conservatives want each agency on a short track to zero fundingNEA out in two years, NEH in three.
And this will noticeably affect public broadcasting, which has close links with NEA and NEH. In the first place, the endowments provide significant funding of program production. In the second, they help pay for projects and events that are fodder for public television and radio programstheatrical performances, concerts and dances, histories and biographies and much more.
Though the congressional leadership argues that the marketplace will replace support for the arts and humanities, others say it's not likely to happen. Between cuts to the endowments and their own funding losses, some pubcasters worry that the system won't be able to sustain the high quality in programming that is its hallmark.
NEA has been a target of conservatives' vigilance and criticism for years. Many of its critics don't support public arts funding of any kind, and are either truly incited by the few examples of provocative NEA-supported art, or are seizing on images they know will turn the public sour on NEAAndres Serrano's crucifix in urine; Ron Athey's carving knife. At least five years back, Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) was indignantly waving Robert Mapplethorpe photos around on the Senate floor; what's new is that his ideological brethren now hold the gavels.
NEHangel for Ken Burns' The Civil War as well as the nation's public libraries, museums and a bounty of scholarly projects such as the publication of unabridged Lewis and Clark journalspreviously escaped such controversy, by and large. But this Congress has criticized it, in part for supporting development of K-12 American History Standards some say are marked by "political correctness.'' Even past chairs Lynne Cheney and William Bennett have come out against their former agency.
The prevailing cultural and fiscal conservatism has led to harsh treatment of the endowments by the House, which called for 40 percent cuts. Those reductions were only slightly moderated by the Senate. Both chambers are expected to begin reconciling differences in their appropriations bills in mid-September. Provisions that would give more endowment money directly to states and prohibit the endowments from giving awards to individuals are likely to make it through the House-Senate conference. A Helms-sponsored amendment barring NEA from funding obscene art is more vulnerable to defeat. [But it wasn't defeated.]
It's possible the endowments will enter the next fiscal year without knowing their budget standing, because President Clinton has hinted he may veto the appropriations bill. Observers predict a budget standoff between the administration and Congress that could lead to a shutdown of the federal government for a few days or more.
After CPB and PBS, NEH is the largest single funder of public broadcasting programming. In fiscal 1994 and 1995, the agency gave $16.5 million to programs aired by PBS. Series with NEH backing include The Great Depression and American Experience. Some of the better known projects it has funded include The Civil War and Baseball.
The NEA gives less money to public broadcasting but it's still substantial major fundingmore than $900,000 a yearto series such as Great Performances, American Experience, and Dancing. In fiscal 1994 and 1995, it supported PBS National Program Service programming with about $8.25 million. The endowment supports many public TV staples: Live from the Met, American Playhouse, Live from Lincoln Center, American Masters and P.O.V. On the radio side, NEA funding supports such shows as Afropop Worldwide and Echoes. While CPB gives far larger grants to some independent radio producers, NEA assists more of them, according to Kevin Singer of the Association of Independents in Radio (AIR).
Many programs and producers got their starts with endowment funding. Says Kim Haas, co-producer of Echoes, a contemporary instrumental/world music program now carried by 146 stations:"If the NEA wasn't there 10 years ago, Echoes wouldn't be here now.'' Like many producers, Haas regularly wins aid from her state's arts council, which itself is supported by NEA.
Some of the artists the NEA and NEH backed in their early struggling days went on to become major playersBurns, for example. And NEA grantees often go on to win high acclaim and awards. Recent projects NEA helped support include "Hoop Dreams''which will air on PBS Nov. 15and three Oscar nominees: "Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter,'' "Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision'' (about the designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which itself was backed by NEA) and "Freedom on My Mind.''
"I look at the track records of some of the artists funded by the NEA and NEH and think, 'What good judgment,'' says Ruby Lerner, executive director of the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers (AIVF). "The public sector has been one of the first recognizers of talent at early stages.''
But will they do Dewey?
Endowment money is often used as leverage to raise support from other funders who might otherwise be skittish about backing a project: NEH or NEA funding acts as an imprimatur. "Hoop Dreams'' offers a clear example of how seed money can bear fruit, and a lot of it. The three-hour documentary about two Chicago kids with NBA aspirations started with a $2,000 grant from the NEA-funded Illinois State Arts Council, says Executive Producer Gordon Quinn. Then it got a $5,000 award through a regional "regrants'' programsince abolished by NEA in the face of budget cuts. After a series of additional awards from sponsoring station KTCA (St. Paul), CPB, PBS and others, the film went on to commercial release and critical acclaim. It was completed for a cash budget of about $500,000, Quinn said. "Hoop Dreams'' eventually made $10 million at the box office and will earn a lot more in video and foreign sales. "Everyone is all of a sudden interested in the long-form documentary as a viable commercial entity,'' Quinn says. Indeed, the Discovery Channel has opened a division devoted to them. "What people don't remember is, ["Hoop Dreams''] began with public funding. There's a real synergy between the two parts of our economy. Public funding is extremely important. It'll take risks no one else will take.''
While commercial productions often display their own brand of high quality, it is true there are certain types of deserving programs that commercial broadcasters would never back. Quinn has for 20 years wanted to produce a film about educator John Dewey. The only entity that might fund it would be the NEH, he says. If NEH is abolished? "I probably won't do that film, but I will do other films. I think producers will still produce, particularly independents, but there are certain kinds of work that isn't necessarily possible.''
In testimony about NEA and NEH before an appropriations subcommittee in February, Ken Burns spoke to the same point: "The marketplace could not have made and to this day could not make my Civil War series, indeed any of the films I have made.''
Funders operating in the marketplace often have different assumptions than the endowments about what audiences want to see or hear. "Usually, commercial sources tell you everything that is limited about an audience,'' says independent film producer Barbara Abrash. "That the audiences don't have the attention span, don't know anything, really like trivia.'' One minor example: Fine Line Features, which distributed "Hoop Dreams'' to theaters, offered the show's producers $50,000 to cut out a half-hour. The producers decided against it.
Burns spoke eloquently to Congress on the matter of viewer attention: "All real meaning in our world accrues in duration; that is to say, that which we value the mostour families, our work, our arthas the stamp of our focused attention. Without that attention, we do not learn, we do not remember, we do not care. We are not responsible citizens. The public programs in media that the endowments have sponsored on public television, especially those in history, offer the rarest treat amidst the outrageous cacophony of our television marketplacethey give us back our attention. And by so doing, ensure that we have a future.''
NEH has a quite rigorous grant proposal process that seeks to guarantee the academic integrity and high scholastic standards of projects. Producers say NEH can require hundreds of pages that detail scholarly interpretation, budgets, and other aspects of a proposed project. The endowment also requires producers to engage the opinions of academics throughout a program's creation, to ensure balance and quality. While filmmakers are not always wild about these requirements, the final product is often enhanced by the rigors, they admit. "On the two occasions in my career when I did not enjoy Endowment support,'' said Burns to the congressional subcommittee, "I triedwith decidedly mixed resultsto duplicate the arduous but honorable discipline the NEH imposes on every project that comes its way, because I thought it would make my films better.''
Some worry that the loss of NEH and its grantmaking standards will mean the loss of a whole caliber of television programming. "Nobody demands what the NEH does,'' says Abrash. "You really have to be a very substantial thinker about your material, your audience, how you tell your story.''
Losing NEH "would be like losing a big chunk of the educational world where people take work seriously and are called to account for it. It would be an enormous loss, a loss of information and loss of reasoned thinking.''
At a time when public broadcasting's congressional critics say the system has been rendered unnecessary by new program providers such as A&E and Discovery, the implications of public television losing its distinctivennessof quality or choice of programsaren't good. Jac Venza, WNET's head of arts programming, sees the prospect of losing major endowment funding for programs like Great Performances and American Masters as a "disaster.'' Great Performances, one of public television's mainstays, has received NEA and NEH funding from its earliest daysat least $20 million over about 20 years.
"This is a frightening time for us,'' Venza says. "It's a time [in] public television [when] we are looking for ways to define our uniqueness. ... Our fine arts profile is one of the things that most separates usour willingness to do things, beyond what ratings they may get, that are fine and unique.''
Venza and other producers are hoping that, as Republicans insist will happen, the private sector will come forth with the cash that Congress is whipping out of Jane Alexander's and Sheldon Hackney's hands. But Venza doubts corporate funders will give more money without additional incentives. Some major producers in the PTV system are seeking relaxation of underwriting guidelines.
"The house falls down"
NEA and NEH won't reveal any plans to reorganize their grants programs until Congress finalizes their budgets. NEA's Alexander has said, however, that she will restructure the agency to support four priorities. One of these is access and education, which looks to be good news for public broadcasting producers. The other priorities are creation and presentation of art, preservation of artistic heritage, and planning and stabilization for arts organizations.
For their part, producers are already adjusting to a harsher economic climate. Independent filmmakers are taking advantage of quality advances in video technology and shooting more work on videotape. And radio producers, like virtually all media producers, are diversifying their distribution modes, and finding multiple uses for their workadapting pieces for print, for example.
But the biggest losers in this attempt to end public funding of arts and humanities may be the viewers and listeners. Speaking about television, AIVF's Lerner says: "I worry about the diversity of what's going to be available to me as a spectator. I think the public should be very concerned about how public television is going to work in the future with the disappearance of these public dollars.
"What has been in place is an effective and fragile ecology. If you pull out one of the pieces, the house falls down.''
. To Current's home page . Later news: NEA is cutting its number of grants in half for 1996.
Web page revised Aug. 20, 1996
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