What is the New York State Council on the Arts?
Long recognized for its leadership role, the New York State Council on the Arts takes particular care in its support of the media arts and assists virtually every aspect of film, video, radio, audio, installation work, and web-based/computer projects. The Council’s Individual Artists Program and Electronic Media & Film Programs go way beyond supporting only production: NYSCA supports artists in a “cradle to grave” system whereby funding is available for the full-range of production—from project development to completion and through distribution—to organizational projects that also enhance the success of artists’ work, especially in exhibition, and in distribution and preservation as well.
How does NYSCA rank among state arts councils in terms of overall budget?
NYSCA has one of the biggest budgets for public funders in the arts in the U.S.: $50.2 million this year (an increase of $9.2 million over last year). Few states spend as much either on an absolute or relative percapita basis. This year the budget for Individual Artists was $2.1 million, or 4.7 percent of the agency’s budget. This includes production support, music and theater commissions, and the Fellowship Program run by the New York Foundation for the Arts.
What are the biggest changes that have resulted from the cutbacks, both internally and in the field?
NYSCA was seriously hurt by budget cuts in the early ’90s. Our highest budget was 1989 at $60.1 million and we’re still hoping to get back there. When inflation is factored and rising costs for virtually every budget item, it’s clear that we have a way to go. Still, our recent funding picture has been very encouraging.
How much of your budget goes toward film and media, either to individuals or to organizations?
In 1989 we spent $1.03 million on Individual Artists Grants (Film & Video). In addition, the Film and Media departments spend an additional $3.3 million on organizational grants, some of which was used to support the work of independent producers, for example through rental fees and artists’ appearances. This also includes residencies and workshop instructors payments.
When and why did NYSCA’s film and video program come into being? How has it changed?
NYSCA was one of the first Arts Councils in the United States and from its earliest days supported film and video. Early grants included the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Cinema 16, and Young Filmmakers (now Film/Video Arts). Workshops and arts education activities were big back then and so it’s interesting that there is renewed interest in those areas today. More interesting is that from those initial activities we’ve seen a whole generation of artists grow up and produce important work.
Funding for film production was greatly expanded beginning in 1976/77. Ira Wohl’s Best Boy, Barbara Koppel’s Harlan County USA, and Claudia Weil’s Girlfriends all received support during that period.
The “bad old days” of budget cutbacks are remembered with considerable chagrin. And many of the changes that occurred during that period are still in place. Most important, of course, is the level of support available to artists and organizations. The current level of support available to media activity is about $3 million compared to almost $4 million a decade ago. This has resulted in fundamental changes in the landscape and many of the organizations that were devoted to helping artists—especially in areas of distribution and exhibition—no longer exist. Grants are smaller as well. When adjusted for inflation, much of our support is only a fraction of what it was in the late ’80s.
Internally, staffing has been greatly reduced. In the “old” days there were two separate departments for Film and Video, each with a staff of three people—a total of six. Now there are two people in the merged Film and Media Departments and one person in Individual Artists Program. Clearly, a lot less time is spent on each application—including individual producers who often wend their way through the process, which can be challenging alone!
How many media artists have you funded since your inception? What has been the distribution/exhibition path of some of those projects?
NYSCA has funded hundreds of individual productions over the years. Village Voice critic Amy Taubin put it eloquently in the ‘Set in Motion’ catalogue (1994): “From Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It to Leslie Harris’ Just Another Girl on the IRT, from Todd Haynes’ Poison to Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning, from Bette Gordon’s Variety to Mark Rappaport’s Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, NYSCA has been a catalyst for a new New York wave of independent filmmaking. NYSCA provided early funds for films that might otherwise have been thought difficult or marginal, thus encouraging more cautious and commercially-minded investors to come aboard. It threw its support behind “other” points of view: feminist, gay, African-American, Asian, Hispanic. Without NYSCA funding for production and exhibition, creative filmmaking in New York would have withered away years ago.”
Has NYCA been targeted over individual grants for controversial projects the way the NEA has?
There have been a number of controversial projects over the years. But the Council has always been fortunate to have a very strong Board of Directors led by equally strong Chairmen who have eloquently made the case for no censorship in NYSCA’s funding. Long-time Chairman Kitty Carlisle Hart articulated a clear policy that defended artists rights. The Council’s subsequent leaders, Earle I. Mack (1996-98) and Richard J. Schwartz (1998-present) have been equally forceful about the Council’s role in supporting artists’ free expression.
NYSCA has been criticized for specific grants and several times the Chairman has testified in Albany about such projects. The Council has always emerged with its support intact. We continue to be optimistic that all kinds of different voices will find expression through NYSCA support.
What are the various grant categories that currently fund film and video (including production, exhibition, preservation, etc.)?
In recent years the Council has moved toward streamlining operations so that many groups who previously received support on a project basis are now grouped under this broad rubric. Reading between the lines, our largest funding category remains exhibition which reaches virtually every part of the state. Our concerns are three-fold—for artists, audiences, and organizations and it is in the exhibition category that these concerns come together.
From the Film Department at the Museum of Modern Art to small exhibition programs—the 1891 Fredonia Opera House or the Mohawk Valley Center for the Arts, both of which do small series—our funding supports a wide range of programming. Independent, foreign, classic, experimental, animation—you name it and it shows up on a NYSCA supported calendar. NYSCA also supports installations, audio art, and radio, for example WJFF in Jeffersonville. The Council has also been supporting web-based exhibition projects in recent years.
Other active grant categories include Distribution for organizations like Women Make Movies and Camera News, Preservation and Services to the Field which deal with equipment access and training.
It’s important to note that funding priorities are constantly evolving. For example in recent years preservation has taken on a new importance as many video works created in the 70’s have begun to deteriorate. The Council has also been energetic in supporting new technology applications. The EMF Program was the impetus for the 1997 Governor’s Conference on Arts and Technology and there have been two separate funding initiatives for technology related programs.
You mainly fund nonprofit organizations; can individuals apply for funds?
While all of the Council’s support goes to not-for-profit organizations, individuals may receive support through sponsored projects—that is, an application filed on behalf of the artists by an organization or through several other re-grant mechanisms. Experimental Television Center in Owego [see “Funder FAQs,” July 1999] administers a regrant account which provides modest assistance to individual artists. We also offer a special category: Distribution for NYS Artists, which provides modest distribution support for individual projects. Individuals can apply for funds to the Individual Artists Program through a fiscal sponsor as well.
Does NYSCA provide a list of fiscal sponsors or in any way help make those links?
There is no formal list of fiscal sponsors, although the NYSCA Annual Report is a viable source of potential sponsors. Council staff can provide some informal advice on possible connections. [A fact sheet and brief list of organizations offering fiscal sponsorships is available through the AIVF website]
Can the same project come back to NYSCA at various stages of production? What is the time frame within which the funds must be used?
One of the Council’s best features is its willingness to support the same project for different stages of production: preproduction, production, or postproduction or any combination of the three. NYSCA contracts generally cover one year and are based upon the fiscal year of the sponsoring organization. Individuals must have completed the phase of production for which they were funded before being eligible for additional support. It should be noted, however, since Film Production and Media Production (video, multimedia, new technology, radio, and audio projects) are offered in alternating years, it might not make sense to apply for one phase at a time.
On average, how many media awards are given out each year to individuals? What is the average size of a grant?
The Council’s maximum production grant is $25,000. Grants generally range from $7,500 to $25,000 depending on available funds. The number of awards is also dependent upon the program’s allocation.
What’s the ratio of applicants to recipients in your division?
For the last two years, there have been 37 and 42 recipients. The total expenditures were $542,000 and $614,000. The ratio of awards to applicants is between 10 and 33 per cent, but this depends upon the amount of money available in any given year.
What are the restrictions on applicants’ qualifications (e.g., geography, medium)?
Restrictions are as follows: The applicant must be a New York State resident, and the work cannot be a student project. Funding is not available for projects that are strictly for education or training.
Tell us a little bit about the review process.
An artist or an organization with a strong idea will get a very fair hearing, maybe the most open-minded, fairest of any government agency or private foundation. We really try to err on the side of supporting our applicants and do our best to help them succeed. The percentage of organizations that are turned away is minuscule. The percentage of artists’ projects turned down is much higher, but that’s because there are proportionately more applications for much more expensive projects.
Years ago we decided to try to fund programs and individual projects in a meaningful way and we have stuck to our guns. We try our best to provide a level of support that will insure a project’s success. We try never to give a project so little support that it will not succeed. Along the way, many people look at each proposal and the process is very open.
Are comments pertaining to an application available to the applicant?
It’s impossible to talk to every organization or artist but in many cases where we think we can help we do offer feedback. Many groups receive letters which detail the Panel’s concerns or offer suggestions for stronger programs. Artists are often advised about how the Panel reviewed the project.
What are some of the common mistakes that applicants make?
One of the most common mistakes for a new organization is to request support for too many things in their first application to us. This goes for individuals as well: it’s always good to appear focused, to demonstrate that you really can do what you say you can do. There are some other mistakes that are almost not worth mentioning. The bottom line is that we’re not looking for perfect proposals, we’re looking for strong projects. No one should ever lose sleep because of a typo or a run-on sentence. That’s not what we’re about.
What advice do you have for media artists for putting forth a strong application?
Be brief! Pay attention to deadlines! Always give us a credit on the project! Always file a final report on time!
How are you planning to handle the burgeoning field of new media? How does your Technology Initiative Grant address this issue?
Organizationally, the Council is working across disciplines in advancing the use and understanding of digital media and the new technologies. The Internet and other computer-based applications are having a profound impact on the way the arts can be experienced, created, and appreciated. NYSCA is undertaking a two-year Technology Initiative Grant to identify and support some of the work in this area. This first year is focused on the ways artists are using digital technology in the production and presentation of their work.
Approximately $300,000 has been earmarked for these projects. The applicant roster includes a strong presence of media arts organizations. Next year, NYSCA will turn its attention to funding projects using the web for audience development and services. NYSCA is also funding some of this development work with the New York Foundation on the Arts, supporting two rounds of Technology Planning Grants and a new technical assistance fund for nonprofit arts organizations in the State.
What would people most be surprised to learn about NYSCA and/or its staff?
How many chances NYSCA takes. We are often the first support for a project and we often take a flyer where other funders would not. Moreover, we tend to stick with organizations over time. For example, it takes years to develop a strong exhibition site. And very often an individual producer falters at the beginning only to come back with really strong work. The Arts Council is never dismissive and we never take artists or art for granted.
Other foundations or grantmaking organizations you admire.
Jerome, Andy Warhol, Rockefeller, the Funding Exchange, and WNET/Channel 13—all organizations that have displayed a real vision and commitment to independent media arts. And we’re really excited about the appearance of Creative Capital [see Funder FAQ, April 1999]. Finding other funders for media has been a longtime struggle. Over the years we’ve made a real effort to try to engage other funders although we’ve moved forward only in fits and starts.
Famous last words:
The Arts Council represents the best that government has to offer. Our history depicts the evolution of media arts in New York State and, in some respects, the nation. We don’t make everyone happy, but we can point to real accomplishments in film, video, and audio for artists, audiences, and arts organizations. Virtually every NYSCA staff member recognizes the honor and responsibility that goes with working here.