1986 INTO THE 21ST CENTURY
by Anne Marie Stein
Media arts organizations are a curious lot - a breed unto themselves. Sitting somewhere between the arts world, the territory of first amendment issues and the 'Industry' they have been pretty much adopted by nobody, perhaps to their credit.
These centers boast few big name affiliates (one of the inevitable frequently asked questions is who is famous who has come through BF/VF?), and balance sheets which rarely show sizeable, if any equity. They offer a mix of services and programs which make absolute and inviolable sense to the NEA Media Arts folks, a handful (and I mean a handful) of other public and private funders, the people who work at these institutions, and people who use these institutions, including both aspiring and established film and video makers: arguably a too small subset of the universe.
For those who count success by the size of the balance sheet, the sheer audience or participant numbers, or who is on the board in terms of wealth or power, many if not most media arts centers might be found wanting.
Yet it is my unwavering belief, after fourteen years, that these centers are underfunded, undervalued, and underrecognized precisely because of the enormity of what they stand for and what they do. By encouraging independent media, the subtext is encouraging real power sharing - it drives at the premise of who controls the media, who is represented by whom, and what the messages are and points of view are that the public gets to hear and see. Independents stand at the vanguard of providing media work which is socially provocative and
artistically compelling - works which ask us as audience members to do more than simply be entertained. They ask us to look at the world in a different way and consider alternate ways of thinking.
I came to BF/VF in 1986 as Director of Programs, overseeing all of the artistic programs of the organization. I was supposed to be managing a staff of three: an education director in charge of the workshops, an exhibition programmer responsible for the screening programs, and an artists' resources coordinator in charge of the New England Regional Fellowships and all services related to artists, including managing the newsletter/ magazine. Typical of the situation at BF/VF, then and through the years, the funding never allowed for hiring two of those three staff members. I found myself programming the exhibition series, coordinating BF/VF's end of the New England Film & Video Festival, managing the newsletter, running the regional fellowship program, working with the education director on special projects and performing any other duties as assigned.
The work was both fun and overwhelming. I put together a retrospective screening series of artists who had been involved with BF/VF. With the help of some great volunteers, particularly Jackie Davies, along with Marc English's generous pro bono work, we built Visions into what became Visions Magazine, which was later spun off by Marie-France Alderman. We ran an ambitious and extensive festival in 1989 with former Board member Alia Arasoughly and screening coordinator Pia Massie, "Issues of Cultural Representation in Filmmaking," which brought in filmmakers from around the world to explore the question of how cultures were represented by filmmakers from within, vs. from outside a given culture or community. In 1991, Connie White and Marianne Lampke, the co-directors of the Brattle Theatre and former BF/VF staff members, invited BF/VF to work with them in launching the Boston International Festival of Women's Cinema, which we co-presented until 1996.
The late eighties/early nineties was perhaps, in retrospect, the real watershed period for BF/VF and for many media arts organizations. The recession in Massachusetts brought unprecedented cuts to arts funding: for BF/VF, our operating support went from a high of $47,000 in one year to less than $7,000 three years later. The state recession was then followed by the political attacks on the National Endowments which brought further arts funding cuts on the national level, translating to further operating support losses plus the loss of the regranting programs. BF/VF lost the New England Regional Film/Video Fellowships along with the administrative funding that helped support the artists' resources position. Finally, to exacerbate these losses, William Kirby, the president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, died. Kirby had passionately supported independent and progressive media at all levels and had been responsible for the Foundation's strong support of media arts organizations - his death portended the loss of MacArthur's willingness to provide the general operating support that had been the lifeblood and fueled the development of so many organizations.
The most traditionally stable sources of support for the field were changed forever and the media arts field was reeling. NAMAC (our national alliance group) meetings were like psychotherapeutic support groups for Executive Directors trying to reposition their organizations in the new world. Every conference title started with "Re' - "Rewiring our Networks," things like that. Youth serving programs were springing like flowers from a fresh field as funders turned to the next generation as the bright hope for the future and some organizations turned towards work-training programs, the most successful example of which is the Bay Area Video Coalition.
The psychological impact of these changes ran deep at BF/VF and in the field. Organizations were unrelentingly asked to question their worth and the worth of their programs. "Should we exist, and if so in what form?" was a mantra heard from coast to coast. Do people really need all that equipment anymore when costs are obviously coming down and no one will give any money to help support those intensive capital costs when it only supports a bunch of artists who probably come from middle class families anyway? Can we really afford to invite artists and pay them $250 for a screening when only ten people show up even if it is better than anything you'd ever get to see at the Cheri?
In the early nineties, BF/VF gave up its exhibition programs and we laboriously examined every possible configuration of the organization along with its financial implications. As a fairly young organization we made some not so good long-term choices in the interest of saving cash in the short-term. The decision making was all too often driven by short-term financial considerations over long-term strategy.
Interestingly, at some point, I think some of us in the field finally got fed up with acting like victims. Sure we were all still struggling, but was the crisis we faced in our funding base really a judgment of our worth? Were the externally obvious signs of success the ones we should really be judging ourselves by? I vividly remember a conversation once with my friend Ella King Torrey, now the president of the San Francisco Art Institute, but formerly a program officer for Pew Charitable Trusts. She described a meeting between a nationally respected director of a community based organization and a funder, where the funder was encouraging the organization to rethink its programs and whether they were all viable. As I remember the story, or perhaps as I have chosen to remember it, the director held up one hand with her five fingers extended and then asked the funder, "which one of my fingers would you like me to cut off?"
We have weathered many storms. We still present the New England Festival, which is soaring to new heights although just a few short years ago everyone was questioning whether it still had a role to play with distribution morphing before our eyes with new technology. We are the only media arts organization in the country that used to administer regional fellowships that is still, thanks to the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the LEF Foundation, awarding direct grants to artists. We have started a new work-in-progress exhibition series that is bringing people back together as in the early days, where they are having substantive discussions around films and issues. We have our own programs that are designed to serve youth, but in a way that integrates those programs into the culture of the organization and the field. We have reworked our equipment support programs so that artists can receive discounts at the best vendors in town when they want the best equipment. Our education program continues to grow thanks to building partnerships with places like Northeastern University which recognizes the opportunities BF/VF's relationships can provide their students.
We have learned some very important lessons. The core of the organization is the strength of its relationship with independent film and video makers. The better a job we do in meeting the needs of independents, the stronger our revenue-based programs like education will continue to be. This has not necessarily been a commonly shared view but it is a firm conclusion I have drawn after fourteen years on a bumpy ride. Sure you can take Final Cut Pro classes at five or six places around town, but BF/VF is the place where you might run
into some cool local filmmakers like Laurel Chiten or James Rutenbeck or Bill Roth, who are all teaching at BF/VF in spring, 2001.
The hardest thing about being Executive Director at BF/VF has
been this - every single day I have had to ask myself whether the things that I so passionately believed in, acted upon, held out for were justified, since by external measures they might have seemed sheer folly. In a market-driven culture, can we believe in and sustain programs which do not cater to the broadest common denominator? I, and other executive directors, are being continually asked to look at that thin line between vision or being ahead of the curve, and the truth of popular consensus.
I believe that BF/VF is more vital than ever. As the world becomes more connected electronically we have greater needs for real rather than virtual communities. BF/VF acts as the all important glue, as Robert Patton-Spruill has said, for this independent media arts community As BF/VF moves into the 21st century it is my hope that the greater community will finally take notice of its worth and support the cause.
Anne Marie Stein is the Executive Director of BF/VF. She joined BF/VF in September, 1986 as Director of Programs, and became Executive Director in February, 1988. Her tenure as Director ends in March, 2001 as she leaves to join Northern Light Productions as Director of Development.