The NEA's Oscar: Preserving the Past
Former NEA Chairman Frank Hodsoll shares the NEA's Oscar to President Ronald Reagan, spring 1985. Photo courtesy of Mr. Hodsoll
When Frank Hodsoll, NEA chairman from 1981-1989, began his work in film preservation, winning an Oscar was far from mind. He simply recognized that many old films were deteriorating with little hope of restoration, and felt that something should be done. During Hodsoll's tenure, the NEA partnered with the American Film Institute (AFI) to help to re-work AFI’s film catalogue, locating and acquiring old films in need of preservation. Hodsoll was shocked and pleased when he learned the NEA's film preservation work was being recognized with an Oscar.
On March 25, 1985, Chairman Hodsoll proudly accepted the NEA’s honorary Academy Award. The Oscar---which still has a place of honor in the current chairman's office---commemorated the Endowment’s 20th anniversary, and recognized the agency's “dedicated commitment to fostering artistic and creative activity and excellence in every area of the arts.” Highlighted below is my recent conversation with Hodsoll, which gives readers further insight into NEA’s work in film preservation and the significance of receiving such an honor.
NEA: During your time at the NEA, what sparked your interest in film and video preservation?
FRANK HODSOLL: When I got to the NEA, I began to initiate relationships with the entertainment industry because I thought we ought to have a stronger connection with the for-profit arts. Historically, most of the arts that have stood the test of time are effectively commercial. My feeling was that the NEA was there to help the arts reach their audiences, and I believed establishing these relationships would help us do so. The Oscar that we got came out of these relationships, with a specific concentration on preservation. We did most of our preservation work with the American Film Institute. If you go back in time to the 1920s and 1930s, filmmakers used Nitrate film. Many of these films had deteriorated, and in some cases, couldn't be restored at all. This seemed a great shame to me, so we put money into the AFI catalogue, along with several different enterprises that were technically capable of restoring films. It was very important to establish these relationships because not only was good art being preserved, but the entertainment industry could help get publicity for what the NEA was doing.
NEA: Can you talk about NEA’s collaboration with the American Film Institute?
HODSOLL: Long before we formed our partnership, AFI started a catalogue of film. The catalogue included films that were preserved, those that weren't preserved, and where the copies were that were useable. They abandoned the project some years before I got to the NEA, so there was no catalogue of where the films were, or what shape they were in. So we thought we ought to get that going again. We gave a fairly substantial amount of money to AFI to continue this work. At the time, these preservation grants were among our most substantial grants in the agency. Eventually, this led to identifying other technical enterprises that could take nitrate films and convert them into VHS and digital films so we would have more permanent access. The main goal was to complete the catalogue and to identify where many of these films were so that people could access them.
NEA: Why was re-focusing on film and video preservation important?
HODSOLL: When you consider books and paintings, there have been big efforts for quite some time to preserve the original documents or the original paintings. In a way, there is even an element of preservation in subsidizing symphony orchestras, even though it’s not called “preservation,” per se. They’re basically performing works from the past. The same goes for opera, Shakespeare, or musical theater. There’s an element of preservation in a great deal of what the Endowment does. There was a built-in infrastructure for doing that. At the time, that infrastructure didn't exist in film and television. I think it does today.
NEA: Why was receiving the Oscar important for the NEA?
HODSOLL: I think it brought the NEA to the attention of a much wider audience than what it normally had. In 1985, the Oscar Awards reached 50 million people on television. That’s a pretty large amount of exposure. I remember taking the Oscar over to President Reagan for a photo opp. He was delighted that the NEA---his NEA---had been recognized. What did that all do? It created a warm feeling in the administration that the NEA was a good thing. Many felt that the NEA getting recognized represented its constituents getting recognized. The Oscar also helped us reach the main players in the entertainment industry, who were able to help us with other things.
NEA: Can you talk about the experience of physically receiving the Oscar at the ceremony?
HODSOLL: Well, it was pretty glamorous! I'm sitting in my office here, and I still have a picture of me receiving the award. Glenn Close was the woman who introduced me. My wife has never gotten over that. She had a long chat with Cary Grant, and I got detailed advice form Gregory Peck on how to keep the Oscar from tarnishing. It was quite thrilling to be in that sort of glamorous company. When you're chairman of the NEA, you have opportunities for all kinds of thrills. The reaching of an audience that's much broader than the not-for-profit arts is the most important part of that.
NEA: The Oscar was awarded for a "dedicated commitment to fostering artistic and creative activity and excellence in every area of the arts." In what ways do you feel like the NEA has accomplished this?
HODSOLL: A vast majority of NEA grants go to help initiatives and organizations that would have great difficulty succeeding otherwise. I am firmly of the view that the cultural life of our country is important. In my own life, I would never have gotten as far as I did was it not for the fact that I had an enormous art and humanities background. The access of the American people to cultural expression---all of them, not just particularly well-off people---is very, very important. I will never forget a group the NEA brought in from an East L.A. high school. All of them were Latino and their first language was Spanish, and they did excerpts from Shakespeare’s Henry the V. They felt that it was so great that they could do this because they had joined the “big world,” as opposed to the world of just their neighborhood. Your neighbors are important, but the big world is important because you have to know how other people live, and the kinds of things that are on their minds. I think the Endowment has done a good job at helping make the arts more central to everybody's lives.
NEA: Upon leaving the NEA, what was your hope for the work you'd done?
HODSOLL: Aside from my work solely in film preservation, I'm very proud of the fact that most of the initiatives I started during my tenure continue. The Mayor’s Institute on City Design, an initiative that gathers mayors, designers, and city planners together, continues. A lot of the awards programs that we started, many of which had commercial elements to them, continue. A couple of these include the Jazz Master Fellowships and Heritage Awards. We asked Congress to legislate the National Medal of Arts to recognize our most consequential artists, which is still in place. The President's Committee for the Arts and Humanities continues. And of course, the basic programs that provide subsidy to music groups. I think there's a lot of continuity in what the Endowment has done.