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Fixing American Arts Philanthropy: 2. Don’t Sabotage Artistic Merit

Collapsing jenga tower
Photo CC by Michael Philips on Flickr

This is the second of my pieces on straightforward, practical ways that institutional arts funders can be more effective. Here, I want to discuss the challenges of evaluating applications in terms of their artistic merit. Naturally, if you’re going to the trouble of funding the arts, you may as well try to fund the good stuff. As such, most funders rightly place artistic merit near the top of their priorities—even programs not specifically aimed at merit usually have an indirect connection via arts education, underserved niches, emerging artists, etc. Given this focus, materials that demonstrate excellence in art making, such as work samples and press clippings, feature prominently in application guidelines.

But noble intentions aside, artistic merit is difficult to judge. It has a tendency to get overshadowed by more objective but less relevant criteria, often without anyone realizing it. When you set out to pick the best applicants, it’s unfortunately not enough to create fair guidelines and lock a bunch of arts professionals in a room. Read more ›

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Fixing American Arts Philanthropy: 1. Accept Fewer Applicants

a frantic crowd of people
Photo CC by Superleker on Flickr

There is never enough money in the arts. Equally problematic, the money we do have is not always used very efficiently. In the United States, most arts funding outside of ticket sales comes through philanthropy, whether by individual donors, private foundations, or nonprofit advocacy groups. While individual donors don’t usually have the clout to sway an entire sector, the larger arts funders can and do. As such, they shoulder greater responsibility for the financial inefficiencies that affect the arts—not out of malice, but simply because many a well-meaning initiative has relied on accepted wisdom that isn’t actually all that wise. Now, there are indisputably organizations conducting innovative work. But doing philanthropy well is really damn hard, and the bar could certainly stand to be raised.

Philanthropy is about 90% how and 10% what—it’s not enough to have an endowment and good intentions. Read more ›

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The score has got you by the short hairs

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
By Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When you think about it, the concept of music notation is pretty weird. Imagine if Andy Warhol had received commissions not for paintings, but rather for paint-by-number templates, to be realized by each art interpreter on their own canvases. Of course, we all know why music developed a notation system, but a recent email exchange with French composer Sasha Zamler-Carhart reminded me of the importance of not taking our practices for granted. Assumptions are baked into every aspect of music notation, often layered one on top of the other, and they color the kinds of music we can make.

Any notation system is about trade-offs: certain elements are emphasized over others for the sake of not overwhelming our human minds with their finite capacity for detail. After all, you could theoretically employ waveform print-outs as music notation, but that’s way too much detail to be useful in most performance contexts. Read more ›

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Sarah Kirsch sings Sensational Revolution in the Eckhardt-Gramatté Finals

Congratulations to soprano Sarah Kirsch, who has advanced to the finals won the first prize in Canada’s prestigious Eckhardt-Gramatté Competition, where she’s singing two movements from my piece Sensational Revolution in Medicine.

Check out the video of Sarah’s semifinal performance; Sensational Revolution closes the set, starting at 37:20. She’s prepared a fantastic interpretation, complete with faux Russian accent.

You can also tune in tomorrow, Sunday May 4, to watch the finals live. The performance starts at 1:30pm Central.

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No seriously, there’s no such thing as arts entrepreneurship

factory spewing music notes

Not everyone buys my claim that entrepreneurship is impossible in art, so I want to spill a few more pixels on this question. Whether or not you agree with me, you’ve got to admit that entrepreneurship hasn’t been a winning formula for artists as a whole—unsurprisingly so when you examine the fundamental characteristics of both disciplines. Art is infinitely scalable, communal, inherently subjective, and useless by design. Entrepreneurship is scarcity-based, individualistic, inherently objective, and pragmatic by design. Both are creative activities, but of opposite types.

When you look more closely you’ll notice that “art entrepreneurship” is and has always been about art technology, not art itself. Read more ›

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