What is the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and why did it come into being?
The NEH is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1965. As the largest funder of humanities programs in the United States, the NEH awards grants to institutions that create and preserve knowledge, enrich classroom learning, expand humanities content on the Internet, and bring ideas to life through public television and radio, museum exhibitions, and programs in libraries and other community places. NEH’s current budget allocation from Congress is $115 million.
The driving philosophy behind the NEH is…?
to advance knowledge in the humanities, defined as history, literature, philosophy, and foreign cultures, and to foster understanding of the important role of the humanities in American life. The humanities offer insight into human values, traditions, ideals, thoughts, and actions by examining the human experience in systematic and reflective ways.
How has the funding climate for independent media changed since the inception of the NEH in 1965?
Since its inception, the NEH has awarded nearly a quarter of a billion dollars for media projects. However, the average size of our grants decreased after Congress mandated cutbacks in fiscal year 1995. The average grant was approximately $263,000 in FY 1995 and $149,000 in FY 2000.
Since we require all submissions to come through non-profit organizations, individual media artists sometimes approach us through public broadcasting stations or umbrella organizations such as Film Arts Foundation in San Francisco. Of 42 media grants awarded in FY 2000, approximately 70% went to independent producers, including a few who worked through stations, and the remainder went for films produced by public television stations.
How have the political climate changes affected your budget or structure?
Even with reduced funds, we respond to the needs of producers. For example, in 1999, after meeting with independent filmmakers, we added Consultation Grants. These awards, up to $10,000, aid projects at an early stage of development. The grants have two deadlines a year and we are able to notify applicants about whether they receive funding relatively quickly. More broadly, the NEH supports documentaries from pre- through postproduction to the development of digital enhancements for completed films.
What percentage of the NEH overall budget goes towards individual film or video projects?
Of NEH funds allocated for Public Programs, over 50% support media projects.
What types of projects does the NEH seek?
The sine qua non here is great storytelling combined with active collaboration between academic and media experts. It’s a marriage that requires give and take for both professions, but the end result can represent the best of both worlds. For the most part, we rely on the creativity and imagination of filmmakers throughout the country to bring us good ideas, but over the years we have occasionally conducted special thematic initiatives on topics such as children’s programming, the Bicentennial of the Revolution, the Bicentennial of the Constitution, American identity, and the millennium.
What defines a “project in the humanities” and thereby qualifies a project for the NEH?
We fund creative films that explore ideas analytically. We expect films developed with our support to have a strong team of advisers, to appeal to a broad, national audience, and to present a balanced perspective.
Collaboration with scholars is another key requirement. At what stage must these people be in place, and to what degree are they involved in a project?
Close and meaningful collaboration between the producer and the scholarly team should begin early and continue throughout the project. The Endowment has made a deep and lasting contribution to documentary film by fostering collaborations between media producers and humanities scholars.
How do you qualify scholars?
Most advisers have advanced degrees in the humanities, hold university appointments, and have written books and articles in their field. We also recognize people who have gained expertise through non-academic life experiences.
Generally, producing teams with track records are funded over emerging filmmakers. What kind of experience does your “typical” awardee have? What advice do you give producers who have less experience but worthy projects?
The typical awardee is an experienced PBS documentary producer. Less experienced applicants find it advantageous to link up with a seasoned media team. We have also developed Consultation Grants of up to $10,000 to help less experienced producers get a foot in the NEH door. Consultation Grants have a much higher success rate than other categories.
What are the script requirements? How do you advise documentary filmmakers who do not begin projects with scripts?
All production proposals require either a script or a detailed treatment. The proposal should contain sufficient information about the intellectual content and visual style to convince a panel that it is worthwhile.
Are there particular items in the budget guidelines that producers should be aware of, i.e. wage standards, owning vs. renting equipment, etc.?
In general, we require that all guild and/or union rates be respected. The Endowment discourages equipment purchases [using NEH funds] unless applicants can make a case that such purchases will save the government money. So, for example, a producer usually cannot use an NEH grant to purchase an edit system. For detailed information, check out our budget guidelines and specific labor regulations, available from the NEH.
Are there time frame restrictions within which the funds must be used?
The time frame varies for each project. The average duration for Consultation is 3-6 months; for Planning and/or Scripting, 6-12 months; and for Production, 2-3 years.
Can the same individual apply two years in a row?
Yes. Producers may even revise a proposal and resubmit it.
Can individuals apply for different grants for the same project?
Yes, but not while one application is under review. If a producer has several projects, he or she may submit applications for each project. Along these lines, we don’t require applicants to apply for early support if they believe they are ready for production funding. A project may receive a production grant, for example, without having been awarded a scripting grant.
What is the NEH Extending the Reach program?
It’s a new initiative to provide resources for creative humanities programming, education, and preservation efforts in 15 jurisdictions: Alabama, Alaska, Florida, Idaho, Louisiana, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Puerto Rico, Texas, Washington, and Wyoming. People in these areas historically have not benefited as fully as others have from NEH programs. Producers from all 50 states may receive Consultation Grants, but special consideration is given to applications from the designated areas.
Who makes the awards decisions?
Approximately 30 media artists participate in the NEH review process each year. We recruit nationally and look for panelists who bring different perspectives to our peer review process. Panels from the past couple of years have included such people as Victoria Westermark, Paul Espinosa, Juanita Anderson, Muffie Meyer, Sarah Patton, Jennifer Lawson, Bob Seidman, Leslie Lee, Ray Telles, Lisa Heller, and Carma Hinton.
Tell us a little about the review process.
All proposals are reviewed by panels comprised of scholars and media professionals. Next steps include review by staff, the National Council on the Humanities, and the Endowment’s Chairman, William Ferris, who, by law, is authorized to make the award.
What are primary criteria for judging projects? Do they center more on academic content or filmmaking approach?
We’re looking for a balance of strong academic content and good visual storytelling. We instruct our panelists to give both areas equal weight. Beyond that, we want NEH-supported films to reach diverse audiences and have national impact.
Name some of the best known titles and/or artists you have funded. What have been some of the distribution/exhibition) paths of those projects?
With such ground-breaking historical documentaries as The Civil War (Ken Burns), The Great Depression (Henry Hampton), and contributions to PBS’s The American Experience, the NEH has helped to create an appetite for nonfiction television. A turning point in historical documentary filmmaking occurred with The Civil War, in which figures from the past spoke directly to contemporary viewers through archival materials, contemporary scholarship, location shooting, and powerful storytelling techniques.
The tradition of strong scholarship and good storytelling continues with Barak Goodman and Daniel Anker’s Scottsboro: An American Tragedy and Anne Makepeace’s Coming to Light: Edward C. Curtis, both of which premiered at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival and are scheduled to air on PBS within the next year. Most of our films air on PBS, but we allow other distribution paths as well.
It’s commonly believed that the NEH docs are “traditional” in their style and format. Can you give some examples of more experimental work?
Good question. The NEH favors projects with strong narratives and high production values. Having said this, many projects that were considered “experimental” or risky when they received Endowment funds have since been widely emulated and are now considered “traditional.” We are always looking for creative filmmakers who will deliver the sort of content the NEH is known for while advancing the documentary genre.
Several NEH-funded films—including Liberty (Muffie Meyer and Ellen Hovde for KTCA-TV), The Great War (Blaine Baggett for KCET-TV), Divided Highways (Tom Lewis and Larry Hott), A Midwife’s Tale (Laurie Kahn-Leavitt), and Cathedral (Larry Kline and Mark Olshaker)—have made innovative use of music, editing, animation, narration, and dramatic recreation. There are also a few “experimental” films in production, such as Eric Spenge’s The Murder of Dr. Parkman and Andrea Kalin’s Partners of the Heart.
Once a producer is funded, what are the financial requirements of the NEH?
Detailed instructions appear in our guidelines, but people should know a couple of things up front. The NEH requires a sound financial management system and if the grant is over $300,000 for one fiscal year, an audit must be performed.
Is it true that an NEH-funded project cannot accept funding from foundations without prior approval?
Quite the contrary. We encourage producers to approach a range of funders, as it’s unlikely that we can support the full costs of a single or series of programs.
What are the “pay-back” requirements for NEH-funded projects that net a sizeable income (e.g., Ken Burns’ The Civil War)?
In the event that the grantee earns over $50,000 within seven years after the film is completed, we require that the federal share of program income be returned to the Endowment.
Are the officers open to phone calls while producers are preparing their applications?
We encourage potential applicants to call any one of us. We are happy to discuss applications in progress.
Who are the Program Officers?
Pam Elder, Virginia Field, Karen Miles, Tom Phelps, Mike Shirley, and David Weinstein.
What advice do you have for media artists in putting forth a strong application?
We have several tips: First, a producer needs a well-reasoned story outline combined with a strong belief in the project. Another critical aspect is to align the project with the purpose and goals of the NEH. Define the target audience. Conceive of the budget along industry standards.
It’s also essential to know the endowment’s requirements for each category of funding. The NEH publishes extensive proposal guidelines (also available on the web). Sample applications as well as a list of previously funded projects are available upon request. It seems like common sense, but sometimes people forget who we are, what we need to know from an applicant, and the types of projects that we fund.
What’s the most common mistake applicants make?
Media producers sometimes neglect to form an equal partnership with scholars and experts. As a result, panelists find that their applications do not have a strong enough humanities component.
What would people be most surprised to learn about the NEH and/or its founders?
This small government agency is accessible and responsive to ideas from all filmmakers. We are a user-friendly funder. A big part of our work centers on education and feedback. We offer suggestions at the preliminary stage and try to anticipate questions that might come up in the review process. After the decisions are made, producers can ask for and receive the panelists’ comments on their projects.
Other foundations or grantmaking organizations you admire and why.
We see ourselves as part of a community that provides visions of a complex and diverse world to national audiences. We admire all foundations who do this humanistic work.
Famous last words:
“Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens” (from the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965).
The National Endowment for the Humanities
1100 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W., Room 426
Washington, D.C. 20506
Contacts: Virginia Field, David Weinstein