The National Endowment for the Arts has announced $1.65 million in funding cuts, including more than $700,000 in support for the American Film Institute's preservation program and its support to independent film and video makers.
Those funds are among so-called "sub-grants"--money given to organizations that funnel funds to artists or arts groups--that will be suspended by the NEA in the next couple of years. The NEA maintains it is making the cuts because Congress has pared $3.4 million from the endowment's 1995 budget. Critics, however, are charging that the moves are partly designed to deflect political problems for the agency.
The reductions are concentrated in the area of film and video, including $355,000 for the AFI's Film Preservation Program and $350,000 for the institute's grants to independent film and video makers--programs that have been in existence for 27 years. Additionally, the NEA is eliminating $315,000 in regional fellowships for film and video makers, and $170,000 in support to the National Alliance of Media Arts and Culture. NEA spokesman Cherie Simon denied that film and video was targeted in the paring process. "We're extremely supportive of the AFI," she said.
Other sub-grant programs that will be suspended include Meet the Composer ($125,000), which sponsors new commissions (past recipients include the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Music Center Opera); the Rural/Inner City Arts Presenting Regrant Initiative ($90,000); and the Artists Projects Regional Initiative ($250,000), which supports experimental and interdisciplinary arts. Last year, the West Coast portion of the program was co-administered by Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions and New Langton Arts in San Francisco.
"Any move by the NEA in the last six years can easily be construed as being motivated . . . to avoid controversy," said Christiane Robbins, executive co-director of the New Langton Arts. "If this had happened in 1990, there would have been an outcry in the community. I'm not seeing that happen this year, which is disturbing to me. It's the frog being (slowly) boiled in water."
Some NEA sub-grants have been troublesome for the agency in the past. In March, the NEA's recent budget battles were touched off by a $150 grant given by Minneapolis' Walker Arts Center to performance artist Ron Athey. The budget fracas was touched off by complaints to Congress about a performance in which Athey, who is HIV-positive, carved a pattern onto the back of another artist, who was said to not have the AIDS virus.
NEA spokesman Josh Dare denied that the move to slash sub-grants was designed to consolidate granting decisions in Washington. He said the grant category that funded Athey's performance was untouched by the latest cuts.
Independent film and video makers should feel the cuts most directly. The AFI's program, for example, has awarded $6 million to more than 600 artists, including Mira Nair, Gus Van Sant, Wayne Wang, Robert Wilson and Marlon Riggs, whose film "Tongues Untied" was pilloried in 1992 by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who said it promoted homosexuality. That film, however, was not supported by the AFI program, and the NEA's Dare said the cuts were not made to stem further controversy. (Independent media artists will still be able to apply directly to the NEA for grants.)
An NEA source said that agency Chairwoman Jane Alexander believes the private sector, including the film industry, hasn't carried its weight in supporting the arts. Alexander promised to help AFI raise private funds to offset the loss, although she hasn't specified how she will do that, said AFI Director Jean Firstenberg. The $355,000 cut in AFI's preservation program halves the public funding available for film restoration nationally.
"It's a very distressing message . . . that support at the endowment for preservation, that is restoration projects, no longer exists," Firstenberg said in an interview.
The AFI Preservation Program has doled out $9.5 million to archives including the UCLA Film and Television Archive, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the George Eastman House in Rochester.