Getting Perspective

When I came to work with AIVF in February, I don’t believe the Board or staff could have predicted that AIVF’s situation would spark a debate about the possible meltdown of an entire industry. AIVF’s Board retained me through a referral from the Support Center for Nonprofit Management, charging me to maintain the organization’s operations following a change in leadership and to rebuild systems that had fallen into disrepair. Being a newcomer to this industry (I am a lawyer and nonprofit management consultant, not a filmmaker or media arts professional), I was able to assess AIVF’s viability as a business in isolation from larger industry questions. After working with the Board and staff for a few weeks, we all quickly learned how deeply troubled the organization really was. Its operational systems, accounting and financial support, and technological capacity were all outdated and barely functioning.

Although aware of the internal and external difficulties facing the organization, neither the Board nor the staff wanted to go down without a fight. So we’ve searched for long-term solutions and necessary resources, and we started on the task of devising necessary changes to AIVF’s service model. We also sought an influx of cash via donations or earned revenue, to help us finance necessary changes in infrastructure as well as programs and services. More importantly, additional financial resources would enable us to lay the groundwork for a long-term plan to revitalize the organization in a way that engaged the community and articulated AIVF’s mission—namely, to service and improve the professional lives of independent media artists. Reaching these goals, though not impossible, has proven challenging.

As Brian Newman, Jim McKay, and Anthony Kaufman have discussed, AIVF’s problems viewed against larger industry problems look even more challenging. Nonprofit organizations regardless of their service area are facing leadership, staffing, and budgetary problems— and a push to act more like their for-profit counterparts. Nonprofits must protect the “bottom line” in terms of maximizing the quality of
beneficiary services while meeting standards of efficiency, fiscal soundness, and innovation in their fields. Any nonprofit focused on improving its performance must possess the foresight to adequately size its budget, retain qualified personnel, and enter into worthwhile partnerships in the nonprofit and for-profit sectors, all the while keeping an eye on income opportunities, industry trends, and technological innovations. A tall order. Now throw into the mix the fact that only a few donors will fund a nonprofit’s efforts to improve its organizational capacity, preferring to fund programs alone.

The nonprofit media arts industry is dealing with its own challenges, which complicates AIVF’s task, but has made the question of the organization’s survival that much more crucial. The field has changed radically in the last 5 to 10 years. Independent media artists are working in the midst of a cultural chill brought on by repressive, pro-consolidation media policies. One of the most recent and disturbing examples of this has been the creation of Smithsonian Networks and its alliance with CBS/Showtime, an alliance that threatens artists’ access to primary source materials [see page 39]. On the other side, the for-profit media sector has made a successful foray into the field. That’s not inherently a bad thing: Responsible for-profit players bring a great deal to the table for artists, primarily in terms of distribution and access to technological innovations and artists and nonprofits alike could benefit greatly from exploring collaboration. But for-profit companies are not set up to support independent creators of art or media. Truly independent media and film is already hard to find.

If the nonprofit media arts movement does indeed “die,” who will protect the makers of the medium? No matter how much foundations and activists push to reform media policy, it won’t mean anything for the American cultural landscape if artists can no longer fund or disseminate their works. If there exists a compelling reason for AIVF to survive and reinvent itself— or for any other organization that works in the realm of nonprofit media arts—it is to protect independent media artists and their ability to do their work.