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Fixing American Arts Philanthropy: 3. Fund Existing Needs, Not Make-Work Projects

Construction worker holding onto hooks
CC by "Christoph" on Flickr

A common complaint among grant recipients, both in the arts and more generally, is that too many funders only support “new capacity”: they aren’t willing to chip in towards general operating expenses or other core activities that require ongoing support. It’s not hard to see why this is. Overhead is not a particularly sexy thing to fund, it doesn’t produce flashy case studies to show off—and of course it’s much easier to fund one-off projects with finite bounds than ongoing programs that demand detailed auditing.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with project-based philanthropy when it’s one funding option among many, but it becomes problematic when it’s the only show in town. The imbalance fosters lopsided organizational growth. It encourages waste and misuse. It can even backfire financially, creating costs in excess of what recipients receive in funding. Read more ›

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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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