By Melissa Silverstein | Women and Hollywood March 30, 2012 at 12:52PM
I know a bit about Mary Pickford from reading Cari Beauchamp's biography of Frances Marion Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood. Suffice it to say she was a very important person in early Hollywood. She was one of the 36 founders of the Academy, and she was one of the founders of United Artists studio along with D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, and (her soon to be husband) Douglas Fairbanks. She was a leading actress in the silent era and a significant producer. She founded the Motion Picture Relief Fund that helped actors in need.
In 1958, she created the Mary Pickford Foundation to continue her charitable work which was varied but had a strong focus on helping people as they age. She died in 1979. The Foundation has continued her work and now has assets in excess of $17 million.
In 2002, the Foundation trustees who are all men and seem to have inherited their positions from family members (one current member's father was her lawyer and one member's uncle was her accountant), created the Mary Pickford Institute for Film Education to honor her legacy and make people aware of her pioneering work in Hollywood. The Foundation provided a significant amount of the Insititute's budget for a decade. Keith Lawrence, one of the Foundation's board members conceived the Institute and was also the CEO of the Institute (at $100,000 a year) until May of 2011 when he resigned.
That's when the trouble started.
All the info above is a lead up to the phone call I got this week from one of the staff members of the Institute calling to tell me that the Foundation has decided to defund the Institute completely. The staff is very confused by this change in direction. Several of the education programs have outside funding, but others including the archive, the research library, screenings and lectures will be greatly effected by the loss of funding.
I emailed the three men on the board earlier this week and asked some basic questions about this issue, but none have responded. To give them the benefit of doubt, foundations do change directions. That is their perogative. If you look at the foundation documents (which were sent to me by the staff) the focus is very wide and they can do many things with the funds and not raise any flags.
But this is the Mary Pickford Foundation and none of the MEN on the board are movie people. They also all make $60,000 a year for their 12 hours a week work and the staffers who work 40 or 50 hours a week make about the same. I know the staff has pleaded with them to no avail so now they are taking their issues to the media and the blogosphere.
Here's why I care about this. I care about this because Mary Pickford is a very important historical figure in Hollywood and it would be a huge shame if her legacy was erased. This would be another example of men erasing women's history. These board members need to come out from behind the screen and say what is going on, why they want to defund the Institute, and what they are going to be doing with the money in the future. They have a fiduciary responsibity to the public as board members of a foundation.