President Trump’s budget calls for the elimination of the National Endowment of the Arts, the independent federal agency that funds nearly $150 million toward a wide spectrum of arts organizations. About $2 million goes toward funding roughly 70 film nonprofits, but losing that in the face of the NEA’s dissolution would only be a fraction of the collateral damage sustained by independent film.
Trump isn’t the first Republican to argue tax dollars shouldn’t fund the arts. In 1981, Ronald Reagan proposed the NEA should be abolished over a three-year period. (He backed off after a special task force, one that included his friend Charlton Heston, concluded that was a bad idea.) The movement kicked into gear again in 1989, following the controversy over photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s “The Perfect Moment” exhibit, which explored homoerotic and sadomasochistic themes. (Republicans had a field day with the artist’s self portrait with a bullwhip.)
While the NEA survived, its infrastructure permanently changed. “Funding for individual artists effectively ended,” said Eugene Hernandez, the IndieWire founder who is now deputy director of the NEA-funded Film Society of Lincoln Center. “The government came up with new mechanisms by which to fund the arts through presenting organizations. They decided rather than give money to Todd Haynes for ‘Poison,’ they would give money to the Sundance Film Festival, which would show a film like ‘Poison.'”
Since then, many of America’s best filmmakers have continued to benefit from the NEA via a lab, fellowship, grant, film festival, equipment, or post-production facilities. Among the many organizations that currently receive support are the Sundance Institute, the Austin Film Society, San Francisco Film Society, Tribeca Film Institute, Rooftop Films, Jacob Burns Film Center, and Film Forum.
That support is even more vital when you consider that Hollywood has all but declared its complete disinterest in any filmmaking that doesn’t have franchise potential. Studios have always valued making a dollar over making art, but with the increasing demand for movies that play to a global audience, there’s virtually no room for filmmakers who want to tell smaller stories. Nonprofits’ support has become a primary engine for developing and showcasing these films.
Sundance Institute, photo by Jonathan Hickerson
Most of these NEA grants are under $50,000, and often less; Tribeca, for example, received just $15K for the 2017 fiscal year. According to the 2015 Sundance Institute annual report (the most recent available), Sundance revenues were $36.7 million; about $22.4 million came from contributions, of which the NEA provided just $100,000. However, the NEA provided Sundance with its first grant more than 30 years ago and it’s possible that without the NEA, Sundance could never have become the force it is today.
“NEA support played a crucial role in launching Sundance Institute in 1981 and has helped thousands of museums, arts programs and organizations,” Sundance said in a statement provided to IndieWire. “The NEA plays a critical role in building a culture that values artists and understands the important economic benefits of investing in the arts. Defunding the Endowment undermines our national artistic heritage, and handicaps our future potential.”
However, perhaps even more valuable than the actual NEA dollars is that private donors recognize that any NEA-sanctioned organization has a heavily vetted seal of approval. “You don’t make the decision on the funding, but you make recommendations as peers in the community,” said Hernandez, who once served on the NEA funding panel. “You look at the budgets for that are submitted by these organizations … and you give real-world advice to the program officers at the NEA on what’s worthy and what organizations are important. I always called it ‘cultural jury duty.'”
That’s vital for corporations and other private donors, which make up the bulk of nonprofit film organizations’ funding. In addition to its direct funding, the NEA has a network of matching investors who generate far more funding than the organization itself. According to the NEA’s 2017 fiscal year appropriations request, “NEA awards will generate more than $600 million in matching support; in our direct grant-making categories alone, the ratio of matching to Federal funds will approach 10:1, far surpassing the required non-Federal match of at least one to one.”
NEA grants also allow organizations to reach underserved communities that corporations often find less interesting. “Most sponsors are most concerned with attaching their name and their products to events that reach relatively comfortable or even wealthy audiences,” said Dan Nuxoll director of Rooftop Films, which creates unique and popular screenings for independent films throughout New York, and uses a portion of the ticket sales to create grants for up-and-coming filmmakers like Behn Zeitlin and Gillian Robespierre. “I say this not at all to criticize those sponsors — they support much of what we do, but they are for-profit companies and not philanthropies.”
Nuxoll said that while Rooftop only gets about five percent of its budget from the NEA, it’s those monies that allow the organization to reach vulnerable communities that often lack arts programs.”We probably won’t go out of business if we lose that funding, but we will have less money to show films in less-privileged neighborhoods,” he said. “That will just exacerbate the class divide in the arts and make us less able to help to revitalize and bring together communities that truly can benefit from what we do.”
The film world also benefits from NEA funding in that a portion is funneled into smaller state arts funds, like the New York State Council On The Arts. Their grantees often produce successful cultural events or works of art, but their even greater value may be testing the ground for a screening series, a youth filmmaking program, the formation of a filmmaking collective, maybe a film. These in turn can create more nonprofit film entities, to support more film innovation, and keep our national cinema strong.
Additional Reporting By Graham Winfrey.