Ken Burns, the best of PBS, looks to individual and foundation funding for future projects

Ken Burns, historian, film maker, story teller and recorder of people and events, has become something of an institution himself. His highly acclaimed body of work is gargantuan in scope and impact: The Civil War, Baseball, The War, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea; The West; Lewis & Clark. His films are sought out by teachers and by adults, whose history courses left them hungry for more. The films should be watched by more young people, who, studies show, believe the Americans and Germans fought together against the Russians in WWII.

During the 1980s, Burns met with President Ronald Reagan at a White House reception. The President enthusiastically encouraged his public- private funded Civil War series, noting that the government should prime the pump for projects like this but that the bulk of funding should be private. One wonders where Reagan would be today in the debate over PBS funding.

New England Council members got a sneak preview of “Prohibition” yesterday morning, Burns’ compelling new series that will air on PBS later this year. His planned projects stretch out to 1919 and include The Dust Bowl, The Roosevelts(Teddy, FDR and Eleanor), Vietnam, Country Music and two American biographies (Jackie Robinson and probably Ernest Hemingway). Burns is prolific, smart, and, as he displayed today, personally charming and articulate.

So, what was an intellectual, albeit a celebrity intellectual, doing in the midst of this gathering of corporate types? As Willy Sutton said in response to the question, “Why do you rob banks?” “Because that’s where the money is.” Burns’ remarkable films don’t come cheap. Projects in the pipeline will cost nearly $100 million. And they have to be supported not just by public dollars (e.g., public broadcasting, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities), but also by corporations and individuals, particularly individual foundations.

Bank of America is the sole corporate sponsor. Public funding is under attack, and foundations that have been traditional sources have been hit by the recession. So, while Burns has already raised some $70 million, he is casting his net wider and is looking to raise the rest. Hence, the formation of The Better Angels Society, dedicated to “helping Ken Burns tell America’s stories.” The Society is seeking “significant” philanthropic donations, as in $100,000-$1,000,000. (A spokesperson confirmed that they wouldn’t turn their backs on smaller amounts. More information is available on http://www.thebetterangelssociety.org.

Burns’ work is very important, enhancing the ability of a diverse culture to understand what we, whatever our background or political philosophy, have to bind us together. As one retired executive in the audience observed, he intends to stay healthy and take care of himself so he’s around in 2019 to witness the fruits of Ken Burns’ labors.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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