Sponsorship – National Endowment of the Humanities: Despite cutbacks, the U.S. Government is still putting money into doc production

For many producers of documentaries, the grant application process at the U.S. National Endowment of the Humanities can be an onerous task, requiring, it seems, as much work as the proposed production itself. But, for the lucky 18 or so that...
June 1, 1998

For many producers of documentaries, the grant application process at the U.S. National Endowment of the Humanities can be an onerous task, requiring, it seems, as much work as the proposed production itself. But, for the lucky 18 or so that receive NEH backing for their projects each year, the endorsement is the influential trigger for other funding groups to ante up. That’s because any applicant who can make the grade at the NEH has often passed much more stringent tests than other funding organizations require.

Annually, about 80 NEH applications are vetted through a rigorous peer-review panel, which assesses the projects for scholarship, balance, national reach and likelihood of success. The five-member panel might include humanities scholars, museum curators and educators, media professionals, librarians, members of the boards and staffs of state humanities councils, and representatives of professional associations. Panelists also represent diverse regional and cultural backgrounds.

‘This is a passive process,’ remarks NEH spokesman Jim Turner about the organization’s objectives in fostering documentary production. ‘The ideas come to us. We don’t have a goal to create two Academy Award winners each year. We simply want to see excellent humanities programming on public tv.’

Among projects funded by the NEH have been the critically, academically and popularly lauded Ken Burns series on the U.S. civil war and the history of baseball. More recently, Minnesota public tv station KCPA produced Liberty, a civil-war program aired last fall, which included reenactment footage – a feature rarely okayed due to complications in ensuring historical accuracy.

The federally funded NEH was founded in 1965 during the Johnson era to balance the funding paid to research and science – especially the space race – with an investment in American culture. The largesse of the NEH has, therefore, a broad scope, which includes humanities-oriented projects such as exhibitions, lecture series and symposia, multimedia and radio, and tv docs.

Because of a move to shrink the size of government in the U.S., the NEH’s annual budget was cut, in 1995, from US$172 million to $110 million, where it has stayed since. But, says Turner, this has required certain funding programs to be pared back. For example, planning grants used to develop projects are no longer available.

However, documentaries, as part of the Public Programs Division, play a major role in fulfilling the NEH mission of encouraging thoughtful public participation in, and enjoyment of, the humanities. In that regard, Turner says the NEH wants documentary programming with a view to put contemporary society in perspective through the study of fields such as history, philosophy and literature.

Among the required submissions in a complete neh application is the narrative essay – a 20-odd-page document outlining the nature of the request, an introduction to the subject, the basis of the subject’s national appeal, fundraising strategies and the creative team.

The required appendices include resumes, reference letters, bibliographies, lists of related programs, descriptions of collections and archives on which the work is based, and supplementary catalogues, among others. The NEH requires 12 copies of completed applications.

Funding per documentary project runs from about US$200,000 to $800,000, to a maximum of 60% of the project budget. (A special and highly unusual competition to fund a millennium project resulted in US$1 million going to the New York Foundation for the Arts for The Crucible of the Millennium, which, in two parts, looks at the impact of the mid-millennium in 1500.)

In 1997, the NEH funded 18 docs, which shared US$4.8 million. Any U.S. non-profit organization or institution that has obtained (or is in the process of obtaining) tax-exempt status from the IRS is eligible for funding from the NEH’s Division of Public Programs.

The next application deadline is February 1999. The review process takes about six months from the submission of a final proposal to notification of its success.

About The Author
Jillian Morgan is the Associate Editor at Realscreen with a background in journalism and digital marketing. She joined the publication in 2019 after serving as the assistant editor to trade publications HPAC and On-Site. With a bachelor of journalism from the University of King's College in Halifax, she also works as a freelance writer and fact-checker.