The Best Laid Plans ... Media Arts Group Rethinks Its Future

By Trend, David | Afterimage, May-June 1998 | Go to article overview

The Best Laid Plans ... Media Arts Group Rethinks Its Future


Trend, David, Afterimage


"I don't know if we're getting anything done here," remarked my friend from Wisconsin, "but I'm having one hell of a good time" After several days of film and video screenings, and nights of meanderings through obscure watering holes, my friend had the pallor of a veteran conventioneer. "Next time we shouldn't even try to do any business," he added.

The occasion for these remarks was the conferenee of the National Alliance of Media Arts Centers (NAMAC) held in New York. April 28-30. A series of meetings marked by almost continual disagreement and confusion, it sent more than one regional delegate rebounding into the bars of Soho. Yet in many ways the events of the three days were characteristic of NAMAC's larger structural difficulties, its problems with communication, and its lack of a coherent plan. In addition, the conference made evident the problems inherent in creating an organization of organizations for advocacy purposes, logical though the idea is.

NAMAC background

NAMAC officially emerged from a meeting held in Boulder, CO in May 1980 The only national group of media organizations, its incorporation followed seven years of preliminary meetings on both regional and national levels - funded in large part by the Media Program of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation. The idea, as articulated in a report co-authored by Robert Haller, NAMAC founding chairperson, and Virgil Grillo, then-Director of the Rocky Mountain Film Center, was that

all media centers in every part of the United States suffered from similar difficulties in areas of public visibility, funding, communications, and duplication of efforts. All centers, as well, suffer from the lack of national leadership - not leadership in the sense of a central director, but in the sense of national spokespersons and advocates.

Based on those concerns, NAMAC identified reasonable objectives: communication among media centers, mutual assistance and advocacy. But unfortunately, the organization's development has been hampered by certain problems, certainly not unique, that just don't go away - structural difficulties and unrealistic projections of what can be accomplished Now a coalition of 66 organizations with commitments to a democratic process, regional representation and ethnic and professional diversity. NAMAC has a large board that must deal with a wide variety of concerns. But the organization simply cannot afford to bring its 21 board members together very often to do the necessary planning In fact, between the 1980 Boulder conference and the 1982 conference, the directors met only twice, relying on an executive committee and conference calls for most decisions.

Another problem, really a symptom of the differences disguised by the term "media arts," is the amount NAMAC has sought to accomplish on limited resources Media centers do have a lot in common, but their emphasis and interests vary - between film and video, exhibition and production, regional or national audience, etc. Coming out of the 1980 conference were 17 distinct projects, ranging from a feasibility study for a media arts center computer network to model projects for touring exhibitions. At the beginning of the New York conference the shopping list was pared down to six items; by the end it was back up to 14.

All of NAMAC's activities have been attempted without a paid staff - a mistake almost everyone now admits. The burden of running the organization and executing most of its projects has been carried by Haller, who also directs Anthology Film Archives in New York City. Since NAMAC's founding, Haller has managed its business and correspondence, produced its monthly newsletter and, along with Robert Sitton of the Northwest Film Study Center in Portland, OR, has been an important figure in lobbying efforts in Washington on behalf of the media community. The natural consequence of Haller's activity and the difficulty of communication among board members has been to shift a certain control of NAMAC into his hands. …

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