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Support for New Music – February 2016 Roundtable

On a recent trip to the Bay Area, New Music USA President and CEO Ed Harsh visited the Center for New Music as part of a roundtable discussion on “Support for New Music.”

Harsh joined fellow grantmakers Margot Melcon from the Zellerbach Family Foundation, and Dominique Pelletey from the San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music for a frank discussion with C4NM members. The table included independent artists, composers, and organization reps from groups including Kronos, Rova, and sfSound.

Our discussion began with a summary of New Music USA’s ambitions to support new music with a “three-legged stool”: money, information, and connectivity. This framework helps explain their unusual practice of hosting a webpage for all submitted projects, and requiring updates from funded projects. With a budget of just over $2 million, New Music USA is attempting to maximize the impact of its grantmaking process with these online efforts.

After brief summaries of Zellerbach’s Community Arts Program and SFFCM’s Musical Grant Program, the floor was opened for discussion of how the support mechanisms for new music could be improved.

Supporting Experimentation

Dan Becker, a composer, educator, and longtime catalyst in the Bay Area’s new music scene, immediately identified a need that’s not being met: supporting the incubation stage of a new work. Becker emphasized the experimental, and often collaborative, nature of that work. Both Harsh and Melcon agreed that as grantors are increasingly interested in measuring impact, and that funding for projects with undefined outcomes can often be difficult to find.

For musicians and experimentalists, this is a critical point that can’t be overstated: the expectations of funders, especially those who fund multiple genres, are often based around outcomes that don’t fit with the nature of new music work.

This reality is one of the enduring conditions in our cultural environment that makes places like the Center for New Music important. Only through collectivization of that developmental, experimental activity can we really make an argument for measurable results and get the resources we need to conduct that work, such as space, equipment, and platforms for collaboration and learning.

Geography of Creation

Composer-performer Stardust also identified a further challenge in the process of creation: collaborations, already tricky to discuss and define, often stretch across geographical boundaries. By contrast, many arts funders target their gifts within a local eco-system.

Stardust argued, and others agreed, that these stipulations are too restrictive, limiting support for the natural collaborations that help artists build on and grow their networks.

We’ve certainly seen evidence of this need at the Center. An artist’s social connections from prior experiences, whether in school or in a specific location, are often stronger than aesthetic ties. The relationships from those early stages are ones that endure through time, and frequently lead to new opportunities as peers move to new cities, and unlock new networks.

Becker summarized the tone of the conversation succinctly: “I wish there were funding to just CREATE.”

Cite Your Sources

Harsh pointed out that project-based funding and geographic restrictions often begin from the originating source themselves, whether it is a private philanthropist, or larger foundation whose funds are being re-granted through an organization like New Music USA. He shared examples such as endowed monies from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation designated for jazz, or opportunities supported by the Jerome Foundation for composers in Minnesota and New York.

Another issue we’ve observed at the Center is that the details of these funding opportunities are often stated deep within guidelines. By contrast, the evidence and branding offered by a foundation or grantmaker may not immediately make clear such priorities. For individual artists who do not devote time to researching grant opportunities, this can often lead to frustration and miscommunication. It’s a common pitfall, and a new challenge that our new music community must face and solve, by sharing information and providing regular feedback to our granting partners.

Adversity and Optimism

Some other challenges that the group identified were: finding resources for publicity, finding open-minded outlets of music journalism, and dealing with how the perception of a project and its artists can affect its level of support and success.

Despite all of this, Harsh struck an upbeat tone by noting that new music artists always find a way. Soprano Vanessa Langer echoed that sentiment by saying that yes, the DIY folks are alive and well. We certainly see that tenacity here at the Center. However, we’re also concerned about the implications of relying heavily on self-funding and bootstrapping initiatives. After all, if we depend on financial success in other industries (e.g. our dayjobs pay for our art), we simply import all of the inequities from those other economies into the realm of artistic creation.

Grantmakers often live and work behind veils of process that are necessary to ensure fairness. But when there’s a chance to lift the veils, it helps us face the system we’re in, and understand why it works the way it does. And in cases such as this forum, it can help us see what’s needed in order to make changes, to be effective, to be more inclusive, and work towards solutions that are urgent and important.

There is a movement afoot in the San Francisco arts community towards greater unity, and a stronger demand for systemic support. New music practitioners should learn from that cue: unless and until we can speak up with greater unity, we will not gain the power to change the systems that we feel are unjust or fail to support diversity, collaboration, and experimentalism.

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