For a Few Dollars More

As technologies evolve and priorities shift, media nonprofits struggle to stay afloat

For the moment, the door is open at New York's Association for Independent Video and Filmmakers. But inside the Hudson Street loft space, the lights are dim, the front desk is empty, and the only person in sight is Lina Srivastava, the organization's interim executive director, who was hired in February to keep the 31-year-old nonprofit on life support. "The ultimate goal is to raise $75,000 to at least do a turnaround," she says, citing necessary upgrades like placing resource materials online for the organization's nearly 5,000 members. And if they don't find the needed donations? "We shut the doors," she says. "It's really that dire."

Founded—like many nonprofit organizations—during the public-funding and activist boom of the 1970s, the AIVF began as a place where indie filmmakers converged, screened work, and eventually doled out grants and campaigned for the creation of the Independent Television Service (ITVS), which went on to produce important documentaries like Black Is . . . Black Ain't, Two Towns of Jaspar, and The Weather Underground. Over the years, filmmakers like Martha Coolidge, Spike Lee, Todd Haynes, Miranda July, and Miguel Arteta have utilized the AIVF as a place to organize, network, and find financing. In a recent issue of AIVF's magazine, The Independent, Spike Lee recalled going to the organization's resource library as an NYU grad student, "trying to find the most obscure grants," he said. "AIVF does a lot of things, but for me, its best purpose was that it helped me find money."

Today, AIVF's resource library, closed until further notice, is the symbol of a bygone print era, and the organization's threatened extinction comes amid a flurry of problems slamming media nonprofits today, from changes in foundation and government support to bigger, slicker, and for-profit competitors. Even more damaging is a larger cultural shift from community media centers to the disparate poles of free-for-all websites and corporate conglomeration. "2006 will be the year the nonprofit media movement dies," Brian Newman, executive director of the arts funder National Video Resources, writes on his blog.

illustration: Shane Harrison

"I was definitely raising the crisis flag," Newman says of his post. "Yes, there are some success stories," he says, citing the Appalachian media collective Appalshop and San Francisco's forward-looking Bay Area Video Coalition. However, he adds, "we've been approached more than twice in the last year by groups in trouble inquiring about possible mergers."

In New York City, for instance, the 37-year-old Film/Video Arts has also found itself in "financial tough times," according to its website, and the Latin American Video Archives closed shop last year. Just last week, the city's Economic Development Corporation announced the formation of a new office devoted specifically to help with the challenges facing arts nonprofits today.

There are also rumblings of trouble at several organizations around the country: Boston's Film/Video Foundation collapsed in 2004, the South Carolina Arts Commission phased out its regional media center last year, and both San Francisco's storied Film Arts Foundation and Atlanta's IMAGE Film and Video Center are without executive directors.

"We're in a transition period," says Jack Walsh, of the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture, "and during a transition period, you have certain levels of consolidation." While Walsh says certain regional centers show strength, "the tragedy," he says, "is that AIVF is a national organization that is at risk. No one has the national perspective that they've had or the level of advocacy for filmmakers. It would be a major loss if it went under."

Like several sister organizations, AIVF's plight was exacerbated in the late 1990s after the largest funder in the field, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, pulled the plug on operational support. When Jonathan F. Fanton took over the Mac- Arthur Foundation in September 1999, "he had a very different view of grant-making," says Alice Myatt, formerly MacArthur's program officer for media. "I was never replaced by anyone who had a background in media."

But Myatt doesn't blame the philanthropic giants so much as current political conditions. "If one of the biggest threats to our democracy is the consolidation of the media, where do you allocate the limited money you have to make the greatest impact?" she asks. The answer is "media policy," she says, "inside and outside the Beltway."

NVR's Brian Newman agrees. "The foundation world is thinking how can we fund things that get rid of George Bush. They're shifting tactics, funding big social-change projects and studies, but that doesn't give you general operating support."

Rapidly changing new technologies have also impacted the nonprofit media dinosaurs. To be relevant to MySpace-age filmmakers, the '70s-era nonprofits need to adopt the tools of new media. But they can't upgrade without the funds and they can't get the funds without upgrading.

"People are too busy trying to keep the doors open to stop long enough to figure out how to be something else," says Eileen Newman, who was the executive director of Film/Video Arts for six years, until 2004. In the meantime, she adds, "People didn't need to come to us to learn Final Cut Pro. They could teach it to themselves from a book."

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