Distributor FAQ: Video Data Bank

What is the Video Data Bank?
The Video Data Bank (VDB) is a nonprofit that has assembled and distributes one of the largest collections of videos on and about artists. This collection of over 5,000 titles is housed at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). We handle the work of about 270 artists. I [Kate Horsfield] keep an office in New York for business and screenings, but VDB is based in Chicago.

What kind of work do you handle?
All kinds of interesting stuff from around the U.S. and more recently from South America. Our oldest title is from 1965. We have lots of experimental works, some experimental documentaries, and a tiny number of animation tapes. I would say that overall the content of our tapes is challenging in comparison to mainstream media. Artists always want to think differently and work with new subject matter and that’s the kind of work we want. We don’t care too much about length, but if someone is making one-minute tapes, s/he’d better have at least 16 of them!

The difference between video art and film art…?
is getting smaller by the day.

How, when, and why did Video Data Bank come into being?
In 1972 when my partner, Lyn Blumenthal, and I came into the graduate program, we started making video interviews with artists. The school used these tapes to educate students about different types of work, intentions, and attitudes in contemporary work. So when the school was looking for someone to catalog the small collection of tapes, we offered. We were hired for $1,000 per year each and somehow parlayed that into what the VDB is now. The first artists we handled were from Chicago: John Manning, Barbara Latham, and Edward Rankus. Then we expanded out to Dara Birnbaum, Doug Hall, Chip Lord, Carole Ann Klonarides, and Bruce Yonemoto.

So what’s your relationship now to the school?
We have a great supportive relationship. Basically they give us dollars, space, and oversight in some financial and administrative ways, but mostly they give us the freedom to design and implement our own program.

Who is Video Data Bank?
Mindy Faber, the associate director, keeps everything very organized and professional; Jennifer Reede was recently featured in a photo in the New York Times Magazine for an article on “whiteness,” since that’s her area of investigation – she is our “White Trash Girl”; Ken Vandermark, a well-known jazz saxophonist, is our bookkeeper; Laura Heit does animation and recently exhibited her work at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis; and three fabulous grad students: Pedro Paixao from Lisbon, Laurie Reynolds, a video student from Iowa, and Kate Schaeffer, a cyberwizard from the Art and Technology Program. Then there’s me. My job is to infuse the organization with sixties ideals. The VDB staff is fabulous and we are even nice to everyone on the phone.

Unofficial motto or driving philosophy:
We all have different philosophies; whose do you want? We never had a motto; maybe we should get one.

Biggest change at Video Data Bank in the last five years:
Analog to digital.

Where does the money come from to fund VDB’s activities?
Three sources: earned income (60%), the School of the Art Institute (30%), and government and foundation grants (10%).

The most important issue facing Video Data Bank today is…?
finding really good new work.

How is your collection organized?
We have five collections, four of which are distributed: Americas With/Out Borders; On Art and Artists; Independent Video and Alternative Media; and Early Video Art. The fifth is the in-house VDB collection.

Range of production budgets in your collection:
from $10 to $250,000.

How do you decide what to add to your collection?
We look at about 300 tapes each year. Most are unsolicited, and others are recommended by other artists or curators. New tapes by artists already in our collection are reviewed for distribution and/or addition to the VDB collection. We choose about 12 tapes for distribution each year. I would say that we distribute a work because we love it and think our clients will be interested in the subject matter. We want the work to extend the ideological dialogue of videomaking.

Best known directors in your collection:
I wouldn’t say there is a single “best known director.” We do have several who are very well-known in different arenas. Sadie Benning represents a new, young sensibility; Bruce Nauman is a video pioneer; and [there are] artists like Stuart Marshall, Chris Marker, and Jill Godmilow.

Do you distribute works that were shot on film, but were edited and can only be exhibited on video?
A very small number, and we have a few CD-Roms. But most works were generated on video.

Where do you find your titles and how should makers approach you for consideration?
Makers should send tapes to the VDB in Chicago. It takes us about three months to review work, so they shouldn’t get concerned if they don’t hear back from us right away.

What’s your basic approach to releasing a title?
We try to set up a primary exhibition circuit of first-tier sites for 12 months, with the artist making appearances with the tape, then we go to a more general release that includes everything else. After 18 months we have “special discounts.”

What’s the basic structure of a distribution deal?
We don’t have exclusive contracts and the contract can be broken with 30 days notice by either party. We pay royalties twice a year for general distribution and once a year for special projects.

VDB’s relationship with its artists is…?

Who rents and/or buys Video Data Bank titles?
Mostly cultural institutions in the U.S. and in Europe. We also do business with libraries and educational institutions in the U.S. Very few purchases are made directly by individuals, video stores, or bookstores.

Where do Video Data Bank titles show?
Museums, galleries, alternative spaces, festivals, and in curricular programming. At places and events like the Pacific Film Archive, the Rotterdam Film Festival, the New York Video Festival, the Consoling Passions and Visible Evidence conferences, Cal Arts, UC Irvine, UC San Diego, and Street Level Youth Media in Chicago.

Biggest challenge in reaching your audience:

How do people find out about your collection?
Mainly from one-page flyers, catalogs, word-of-mouth, advertisements, and the Web.

How have cuts in public monies affected Video Data Bank and its work?
The whole video field was supported by NEA and other government and foundation funds—producers, exhibitors, and distributors. So the loss of federal and foundation dollars has had a devastating effect. It’s a very holistic field, and we are all suffering now. Only eight percent of our business is domestic exhibition. Lots of business has shifted to Europe, where video is still very popular.

Where will Video Data Bank be 10 years from now?
In cyberspace, hopefully, just pressing the “send” button to distribute tapes from our server.

The difference between Video Data Bank and other distributors of independent work is…?
that our customers say we are very efficient and send out great dubs!

Other distributors you admire:
Women Make Movies and California Newsreel. Both Debbie [Zimmerman] and Larry [Daressa] run very smart and effective organizations. They are leaders in the field.

If you weren’t distributing films, you’d be…?
living out in the Texas wilderness raising sheep.

Famous last words:
Choose another field besides nonprofit media!

About :

Lissa Gibbs was a contributing editor to The Independent and former Film Arts Foundation Fest director.