03/27/2012 02:57 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

After "The Artist" Wins Best Picture, Mary Pickford, Silent-Film Icon Orphaned by Parent Foundation

The Mary Pickford Institute for Film Education (MPI), a ten-year-running nonprofit organization that preserves the silent film legacy of producer/actress Mary Pickford and uses her example to teach young children about film history and socially conscious filmmaking, has had its funding yanked by its long-time supporter, the Mary Pickford Foundation, a charitable trust.

Mary Pickford (1892-1979), Hollywood's original "Artist," was the world's first movie superstar, known internationally as the original "America's Sweetheart." In a year when the neglected art of silent cinema has been placed on center stage, thanks to multiple Oscar-winning films like "The Artist" and "Hugo," it seems ironic that an organization founded by and dedicated to the legacy of one of the most important women in film history would decide to pull its funding for a non-profit that has been working specifically to preserve her legacy.

The Mary Pickford Institute was started as an independent 501(c)3 non-profit in 2002. Over the years its staff has developed curriculum, taught classes, maintained a free research library, produced film screenings with symphony orchestras and other live ensembles and restored Mary Pickford silent films for DVD release. Library curator Hugh Munro Neely has given dozens of free lectures and introduced screenings of many Mary Pickford films through the MPI legacy programs.


MPI has built a reputation for educational outreach to underserved and at-risk youth in Los Angeles with its signature enrichment program, the Mary Pickford Mobile Film Classroom (MFC). A production 'studio-on-wheels', the MFC travels throughout greater Los Angeles to bring digital media storytelling instruction to students, grades 3-12, who do not have access to technology at their school or home. MPI educational outreach programs incorporate film history into a curriculum that provides a bridge from early cinema to modern filmmaking.

"We've worked very hard for our namesake," says Hugh Munro Neely, Director of Archive, Library and Legacy for the Institute. "We can't understand why the Foundation has suddenly decided to switch directions and desert us."

The Mary Pickford Foundation has a three-man board of directors, and has assets reportedly in the neighborhood of 17 million dollars. The Foundation has not issued a formal public statement, but Gary Shoffner, secretary of the Foundation stated in an e-mail, "The primary expectation was that the Institute would become self-sustaining," writes Shoffner. "We are optimistic other organizations may be available to carry out some facets of our goals with substantially better resources, technology, archival capability and public access, but at less cost."

The Foundation has informed MPI staff that it will not permit the Institute to use its assets, including Mary Pickford's films, for screenings or for promotion of the Institute and that it wishes the MPI to remove references to Mary Pickford from its educational programs and from the Institute's name.

The Mary Pickford Institute was founded in 2002 for the purpose of preserving and promoting Mary Pickford's films, and her inspirational legacy as businesswoman, producer, actress, and philanthropist. The Institute's other goals include teaching film history and film making to Southern California children, particularly at-risk youth. The Institute currently maintains its free research library, which is open to the public, at 8885 Venice Blvd., Suite 203, Los Angeles 90034. The phone number is 310-287-3700. Appointments are available at convenient hours on most weekdays.

The Institute's educational programs receive limited funding from a variety of sources, and will be able to continue, with some difficulty, without the Foundation's help. However MPI's free research library, web site, and various outreach programs that provide screenings and lectures rely almost completely on the Foundation's funding. As of March 1, the Institute has had no money for salaries or the lease of its library space.

The Mary Pickford Foundation has received dozens of letters in support of MPI and the results of an Institute survey, conducted last year, found wide support for its programs and for the continuation of the Institute. But thus far, the Foundation has not budged from its stated desire not only to stop funding, but to effectively shut the Mary Pickford Institute down.

Manon Banta, Director of Education, states "We know our programs have value, and that Mary Pickford is an important role model. It's unfortunate that the actions of the Mary Pickford Foundation are taking place at this time in cinema history."

Contact for further information: Manon Banta at 323-459-2640 or email

Debra Levine is a Los Angeles-based arts journalist blogging about dance, film, music and urban culture on arts•meme.