ONE YEAR AT THE HELM:

A Talk with the NEA's William Ivey


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One year ago, William J. Ivey was quietly confirmed by the United States Senate as the seventh Chair of the bruised and battered National Endowment for the Arts. Ivey's appointment occurred just as the dust was starting to settle from a decade-long assault against the government-funded arts agency by congressional critics who had targeted controversial works by individual artists receiving NEA grants.
In 1996, when Ivey's predecessor, Jane Alexander, was fighting what appeared to be a futile effort to keep the NEA alive, Congress slashed 40 percent from the endowment's budget. The newly Republican-controlled Congress also demanded the elimination of most individual grants. This was seen as a blatant attempt to prevent artists whose work did not reflect the neo-conservative values of Congress from receiving any further public arts subsidies. There was even serious talk in the House and Senate of shutting down the endowment entirely.
Still, the NEA has managed to survive, due in no small part to the efforts of artists and arts organizations lobbying tirelessly on its behalf. When The Independent paid a brief visit to Chairman Ivey's office in the Old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, he did not seem phased by the tumultuous events of the past several years. A soft-spoken man, the 53-year-old Michigan native served as Director of the Country Music Foundation in Nashville, from 1971 until his NEA appointment.

Ivey's work history includes stints as a folklorist, musician, teacher, and writer, and is further enhanced by his having chaired or served on 15 different endowment grant panels during the past two decades. With Midwestern roots, Southern job experience, and degrees in history, folklore, and ethnomusicology, Ivey seems the ideal NEA figurehead to fend off any further Capitol Hill attempts to penalize the arts in the United States.
Considerable attention is now focused on Ivey to determine whether he will have the diplomacy and temerity to convince a previously hostile Congress to restore individual NEA grants to future endowment budgets. In his conversation with The Independent, Ivey expressed considerable optimism about the future of individual grants, although he admitted the agency would need to conduct research and studies prior to overcoming necessary congressional hurdles. [Editor's note: On March 9th, after this interview was conducted, Ivey made his first foray into controversy by withdrawing a $7,500 grant from an El Paso publisher, Cinco Puntos. Ivey was concerned that funds for an apolitical children's book, The Story of Colors, might end up in the hands of Zapatista rebels, since its author, Subcomandante Marcos, is one of the rebel leaders.]
What are your thoughts on the future of individual grants?
I'm optimistic. However, there are two pieces to it that need to be accomplished and are likely to slow the process down a bit. One is that Congress told us legislatively not to give grants to individual artists, so that means when we come up with a good plan on how to get back into the business of working with individual artists directly we will have to go to Congress, explain it to them--it'll have to make sense to them--and there will have to be change in our legislation. Second, one of the things I really want the agency to do is proceed according to research, studies, and specific plans. So, one of the things we need to do over the next 18 months to two years is determine just what is the situation of the individual artist in our creative economy. How much does it vary from field to field? [How can] we help, given the nature and size of our resources, to advance the careers of individual artists? When we have that information, then we can go to Congress and say, "Here is a study that points to the dimension of the real problem. Here is the endowment's strategy for addressing that problem," while continuing to be aware of the concerns of Congress.

What is NEA's commitment to film/video art at this point?
It's a substantial commitment. You have within the entire film [arena]--particularly if you include film that makes its way onto television--some of the issues that affect other parts of the arts spectrum. You have some arts that are very expensive and others that are less expensive, some that involve a lot of outreach through distribution channels, others that are almost cottage industries, both in the way they're developed and the way they're distributed. So you're probably talking about a couple of million dollars as the total for '98 [media grants]. The commitment in total is pretty large, but just as our commitment to music is large, it ranges from very expensive opera productions to small chamber music residencies. Total dollars might be vast, but when applied to individual sections might be smaller.
How solid is NEA funding beyond Clinton and should mediamakers be concerned about a possible climate of retrenchment from potential grantgivers?
I would say no. I may be unreasonably optimistic, but I think there have been some very strong signs in the last six, eight months that indicate the agency has truly turned a corner in its relationship with Congress. That has occurred for a variety of reasons. But the most tangible evidence of that change is that last year we had two very supportive votes in Congress (one in each house) in which funding for the agency was preserved by overwhelming majorities. So far in my meetings with members of Congress, we are not talking at all about eliminating the agency or cutting the agency back, not at all. We're really just talking about [how] some would like flat funding and others would like us to move forward. Of course, we would like to move forward because we think we have a great plan. But I do think that the strength of the economy, the strength and support that coalesced around the NEA when its existence was really threatened a couple of years ago, and the fact that the hard-edged politics of anger have been softened or blended to a certain extent. All of that combined gives us good reason to be optimistic about the future of the agency. I know that Vice President Gore is very supportive, and I would think that the way the agency is operating, the way we are presenting our goals, our strategies, give every indication that we're going to have strong support on a bipartisan basis regardless of who will be in the White House or despite what the precise composition of Congress will be. So filmmakers and other artists or arts organizations should at this time be looking forward to a brighter future and one in which the ability of the agency to support work around the country should increase.
How do you see the Artsreach program (which provides grants to remote or underpopulated regions in the 20 states receiving the smallest NEA grants) affecting film- and videomakers?
In retrospect, Artsrearch is almost a pilot for aggressive access programming on the part of the endowment. Artsrearch was targeted at 20 states that have received the smallest number of direct grants (five or fewer), and as a result it has a very strong emphasis on mostly geographically remote or underpopulated areas. As we move into Challenge America--which has some elements of Artsrearch preserved in it--we're going to continue to be aggressive about access, about helping small communities and rural areas to begin to develop their own arts infrastructures. We're also going to work with neighborhoods within communities, underserved parts of urban districts.

Organizations that deal with video could be a significant part of what happens in this kind of access programming. A good example would be the congruence between afterschool programming for young people on the need for media literacy and the availability of media professionals at the community level. I think there's enough demand and enough of a clear need that that could be a significant area of activity, just at that level of the smaller grants made to areas that have historically been underserved.
What are your thoughts regarding mediamakers working to achieve the same goals as the NEA?
There are two or three areas where I think the agency can work with filmmakers. One of them is an area that is of great personal interest to me, coming out of country music and not-for-profit and [having] dealt with the commercial industry. I'd really be interested in how the agency can help strengthen and make more meaningful the relationship between artists and organizations and operating not-for-profits and those that are operating in a commercial environment. Obviously, there's a flow in the media and in the filmmaking area, probably in both directions, but I know there's a striving in many cases to leave the not-for-profit realm and connect with the larger budgets, the larger reach of the commercial industry.
I also think the area of film preservation is one where we can get together. I'm most familiar with the difficulties of preserving the master tapes of audio recording sessions. Way too many recordings are not in archives or even in corporate vaults but are really on the shelves of the homes of the independent record producers who developed certain projects. I'm confident that exactly the same thing pertains in media and in film whereby the independent producer has a wonderful project and yet the key raw material--and sometimes even most of the prints or duplicates--end up in their home or in a few boxes in the basement. I think that addressing issues of preservation of our cultural heritage through cooperative efforts and linking the not-for-profit, small independent company or individual, with the bigger firms that have archives and also have many problems with preservation could be an area where we would be willing to work with all aspects of the film industry, for-profit and not-for-profit.
There is also the matter of bringing the arts to young people. There is probably no art form, particularly if it is carried out using the most contemporary digital technology, that would have a more instant appeal and resonance with young beginners than film and media. I think that as the endowment begins more aggressively to work with the arts, to really create a better America for all American citizens, filmmaking should be right in the middle of that.
What you hope is that with digital technology coming along, it would first of all make it cheaper and easier for creative people to work and then maybe we would be able to get a system of distribution that would allow people to audition their creative work for audiences without as many layers and mediaries as exist now or existed in the past. [Hopefully] that same digital technology can help preserve historical work and make it available to young people so we can really have a generation of young people who have a substantially better media literacy than somebody from my generation had.