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R.I.P.: Film in the Cities will be mourned, but its death was no surprise

published on August 25, 1993
in City Pages

This month— five months after Yvette Nieves-Cruz was named executive director of Film in the Cities (FITC)— the FITC Board of Directors agreed to euthanize the ailing 23-year-old media arts center rather than prolong its fiscal pain. FITC, The grand daddy of media arts organizations, died with an annual budget hovering around $1 million, and a deficit of $360,000.

So who's left to answer for FITC's death? There's Rick Weise, FITC's former executive director who left the organization last year with a deficit that had been growing since 1988. There's Nieves-Cruz, who's determined "not to go into the future as the woman who closed Film in the Cities down." There's the Minnesota State Arts Board, who cut FITC's operating support at a crucial moment. And, of course, there's the legacy of Reagan-Bush economics, which shook arts funding from its foundations.

While all of these may have contributed to FITC's death to one extent or another, FITC may also have been an old horse that, having served its purpose, was ready for the glue factory. Their access equipment was falling apart, held together with duct tape and Crazy Glue, while high schools and colleges were beginning to fill FITC's shows by offering their own courses in video technology. And video cameras, once the toys of only the very rich, are now in the hands of 14 million home movie makers, reducing if not eliminating the need for FITC's equipment access program. As John Schott, executive director of the Independent Television Serve put it: "Much of what [FITC] was brought into the world to provide is no longer necessary."

Though FITC board member David Madson— who cast the only no vote in the board's July 27 decision to close— characterized that action as "hasty," his assessment seem naive. Sure, only five of 10 FITC board members voted to kill FITC— Laura Crosby, Judith Guest, John H. Stout, Kate Lehmann, and Kitty Eisele (Bruce Jenkins, Karen Heitoff, Christine Podas-Larson, and Tim Grady weren't present)— but it wasn't the first time the possibility of closing had been discussed. In November 1991 interim executive director Carolyn Bye suggested the same option. But the board dismissed it then, deciding instead to tighten its belt.

So what happened to FITC to bring the issue back to the table? To start with, from 1991 to 1993— a period when arts organizations had to think fast and move decisively to survive— FITC was virtually leaderless. FITC founding executive director Weise went on sabbatical in July 1991, promising to launch FITC into its next growth stage when he returned, despite its $290,000 operating deficit (up from $130,000 in 1988).

In Weise's absence, Carolyn Bye, a consultant who specializes in fiscal crisis management, became interim executive director from July to December 1991. Realizing FITC's fiscal ailments, she suggested FITC close, or trim its budget. The board chose the latter, and in November 1991, it told Weise. Weise said it was the board's action that led him to finally resign in August 1992. What took him so long to quit remains unclear, though some have suggested he was holding out for the $20,000 severance he got. Could the board have wanted him out so badly that it paid him to leave? We may never know. In December 1991 Bye stepped down and David Rogers-Tanner became interim executive director until Nieves-Cruz came on board. From 1991 to 1993, the FITC's deficit rose another $70,000 to a whopping $360,000.

After its first search for a permanent executive director failed, in November 1992 FITC looked again, this time turning up Nieves-Cruz. A respected independent film and video curator, arts administrator and consultant, Nieves-Cruz came to FITC via San Antonio, Texas, where she directed the San Antonio CineFestival, an international showcase of Latino film and video. When she became executive director in mid-March 1993, she knew of FITC's deficit and the board's desire to keep FITC within its means. "What I wasn't told is what an interim period could do [to staff morale and funders' confidence]," she said. "I came for a challenge and got a crisis."

Ruby Lerner, executive director of New York's Association of Independent Video and Film (AIVF) agreed. "She walked into a mess. Let's be honest about it," said Lerner. "She didn't create a $360,000 problem. She inherited it."

Nieves-Cruz is reservedly optimistic that FITC might have survived as an $800,000-a-year organization had the Minnesota State Arts Board funding remained. But that scenario never had a chance. On July 22, the arts board drove the final nail into the FITC coffin. FITC's single largest funder of general operating funds (funds used to pay the light bill and employee salaries) decided to chop FITC operating support from $82,000 to $15,000 for fiscal 1994 and 1995, leaving FITC limping along with just 80 percent of its general operating budget.

Before the arts board's decision, FITC also suffered a series of funding cuts in fiscal 1993. The Dayton Hudson Foundation sliced its grant from $50,000 to $35,000. And the National Endowment for the Arts left FITC $35,000 of its previous $52,000 grant. Both moves hurt FITC's general operating budget, but according to Lehmann, chair of FITC Finance Committee, those cuts came because FITC closed its film and photography exhibition programs.

However, FITC staffers and board members call the Minnesota State Arts Board's funding cut "unexpected." Madson said that she "saw it as the bullet that hit… It was a vote of no confidence that demoralized the staff and board at a very fragile period."

Robert Booker, assistant director of the Minnesota State Arts Board, said FITC should have seen the writing on the wall. According to Booker, the arts board determines grants by examining the artistic excellence and leadership, management and fiscal responsibility, and outreach and education programs of the applicant. Though Booker wouldn't say it, FITC evidently didn't measure up. Perhaps Weise's protracted resignation, the board's two-year search for strong leadership, combined with FITC growing deficit and its crumbling Equipment Access program earned FITC its funding cut.

Obviously not one to take responsibility for a mess he helped create, former executive director Weise says FITC was yet another casualty of Reagan-Bush economics. Reagan's cut to social service funding meant more corporations and private foundations had to pick up the slack, leaving less money for the arts; and in the '80s climate of hostile corporate takeovers, stockholders directed companies to trim funds for philanthropy that might be seized in takeovers. NEA funding decreased too. At a time of dwindling resources, arts organizations launched major endowment drives to stash money away in high-interest bank accounts, intending to live off the interest. Opting for another solution, Weise applied for cash reserves to offset FITC's deficit. Though the deficit was never retired, the strategy meant FITC always paid its bills on time. Yet, in the wake of growing deficit, it proved to be a short-sighted cure.

Whatever the causes of FITC's demise, it will surly be mourned. FITC was a great leveling field where amateurs and professionals alike worked side by side, sharing insight, excitement, and ideas about filmmaking and photography. Under one roof, young artists could acquire skills, borrow equipment, get funding and exhibit their final product to the public. It was the ultimate program, but one whose time may have come and gone.

According to Randy Adamsick, executive director of the Minnesota Film Board, the Twin Cities led the nation in advanced training in film and video ten years ago. But now, "we may be falling behind. What we're losing in the Film in the Cities program is national recognition and the educational quality to back it up." That might signal some loss of revenue for Minnesota, which benefits from the $155 million per year spent here by the film industry and the 5,000 full-time jobs it creates annually.

The creative community will likely miss FITC, too. "This is an example of the continuing and unequal struggle between the haves and the have-nots," says Gary Jenneke, former FITC screenwriting teacher. "I think the have-nots have just lost a valuable ally."

Indeed, FITC has raised many a budding filmmaker and photographer from obscurity to professional heights with its grants and fellowships. Dan Bergin, an independent filmmaker who recently received national funding to create a project for public television, first received an encouragement grant from FITC. So did Eric Mueller, who recently began production of his own feature film with national funding.

Though FITC is dead, many of its programs for artist grants and arts education are still intact. The Board of Directors has decided to transplant them to other, healthier arts institutions, perhaps Intermedia Arts and Independent Feature Projects North, two non-profits that encourage media artists. But even if other arts organizations agree to take FITC programs, the final decision still rests with funders. It may be a case of too little too late, but FITC's board of directors, its staff, and Nieves-Cruz should be commended for attempting to preserve some part of FITC, rather than scorned for pulling the plug.

On a national level, the shock of FITC closing is still reverberating through film circles. AIVF's Lerner says "It's tragic for people in the Twin Cities. It's tragic nationally. It's also tragic symbolically, and that, in some ways is most damaging… If one of the most significant organizations in our field can't survive, then it's hard not to feel your own morale kind of drop and really question the future of the field."

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david southgate
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