Does the NEA Think Documentaries Are Irrelevant?

Earlier this week, when it was announced the National Endowment of the Arts was slashing more than a $1 million from funding PBS shows, including major cuts to important (and embattled) documentary programs “Independent Lens” and “P.O.V.,” documentary filmmakers were rightly outraged. Part of their frustration and rancor lead to some interesting back-and-forths on Twitter, involving NEA media arts director Alyce Myatt, a former PBS programming executive, who oversaw the cuts.

The Twitter fight began when Kartemquin Films, the activist Chicago-based documentary production company (“The Interrupters”) tweeted, “Read between the lines of NEA cuts. Alyce Myatt of NEA stated at #OpenDoc she no longer liked the term

So were the budget cuts an outgrowth of prejudice against nonfiction cinema? It’s certainly a strange charge to levy against a former PBS programmer. And wouldn’t independent documentaries fulfill the very mission of the National Endowment of the Arts? Or are they not commercial enough?

According to the New York Times article that broke the story, Myatt won’t comment publically until the cuts become official on April 25, but she did respond to Kartemquin on Twitter, writing: “My comment was 2 consider replacing ‘documentary’ with ‘nonfiction.’ Docs suggest specific form w/sm mkt potential.”

If you can’t read Twitterspeak, translation: the documentary brand, according to Myatt, implies a small market potential.

There are obviously several problems with that notion: It ignores the numerous documentaries that have proven quite commercial, from Michael Moore to “Buck”; it also shows an ignorance of what many believe to be an increased blurring of documentary and fiction forms; and it’s also strange to come from someone at the NEA. Does “market potential” really have anything to do with their mission?

In today’s budget-conscious era, the NEA remains a favorite target of conservatives, and it’s not surprising that the organization is under some duress. But I can’t help but wonder what they have to do and in what ways they must compromise to seem relevant.

Though the NEA’s budget has bounced back from its 1996 low of $99.5 million, its 2011 budget was $155 million, $12.5 million lower than its 2010 budget of $167.5 million.

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