“Construction worker” by Christoph on 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. (more…)
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. (more…)
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. (more…)
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. (more…)
Violinist busking, photo CC by meltsley on Flickr
Periodically I see these memes on Facebook: “If surgeons were paid like musicians…,” or “Hire a plumber for the same service and we’ll play for half that.” I sympathize, but this is the wrong approach. Moral finger-wagging has never won any argument, ever, and if it were to work in music it would have decades ago. So how do we actually solve this problem of musicians’ lack of economic clout?
First, we need to understand what’s actually going on. The moralists cling to the delusion that it’s just a matter of education, but even musicians can’t decide what fair compensation is: I’ve had the exact same budget called “extravagant” by one jury panel and “overly ambitious” by another. And to throw salt on the wound, moralizing also hurts our collective bargaining power. Take the common story of the lowballing nightclub owner who gets chewed out by an indignant jobbing musician. The lecture doesn’t make the owner any less likely to lowball the next musician. In fact, it’s the opposite: you’ve just shown him that he has all the power in the relationship. (more…)