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Money, Support, and the Voice of New Music

We have the opportunity to look beyond traditional funding models to keep our music fresh and authentic. How can each of us help to create a supportive community locally?

Written By

Christina Rusnak

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As a composer of new music, I sometimes feel “water, water everywhere, not a drop to drink” when it comes to resources. We hear about the recovery of the economy and “investment,” but in the field of new music, funds for our work and our organizations seem in short supply.

During fiscal year 2015, the National Endowment for the Arts gave 146 grants to music organizations or in support of programming for a total dollar amount of $3,777,500. That’s a lot of money, right? But the focus of these funds underwrite a wide variety of projects with relatively little dedicated to new music overall.

So how do we get our arms wrapped around the matter of money to support the creation, performance, and dissemination of new music? How do we, as individual performers, composers, and administrators help ourselves, and others, to support an infrastructure that enables new music to thrive? Is the new music community any better situated now than in 2000 when John Luther Adams lamented that new music needed a new model of funding?

Fifteen years ago, the funding options seemed straightforward, but limited:

  • Commissions
  • Grants
  • Foundations
  • Individual Donors
  • Prizes

While these are still significant sources of monetary support for the arts, we now have crowdfunding—a resource unimagined back then. Residencies have diversified from a solitary respite for composers to now include interactive work with scientist, doctors, and archeologists. I’m personally working with the Umatilla Tribe here in Oregon to connect our art and music with the restoration efforts of our state’s waterways and the traditions of First Foods.[1]

With the playing field reputedly leveling, the landscape becomes increasingly complex. Sitting in the trenches of new music, the struggle for funding still seems significant and intensely competitive. Former Koussevitzky foundation winner Jim Mobberley stated that without funding, his piece would not have happened. How many works or programmatically innovative projects slip through the cracks? What kind of support mechanisms do we need to ensure that new works are programmed and disseminated?

Moreover, as individual musicians and composers, most of us do not have the same funding choices as 501(c)(3) performing organizations. The biggest concern is continuing to put food on our tables while bringing to life compelling new music. I was inspired by Brian Chin’s article “On the Power of the Project-Based Life” in which he suggests that we think “of career as the sum of our daily practices and the thousands of individual projects we create along the way. These projects could be as simple as putting on a concert or building a teaching studio or as elaborate as building a business or working for a tech corporation.” The money earning and fundraising is part of our career, but it shouldn’t define us or our music. In addition to composing, I’ve worked as a new music curator for a museum, an executive director for an orchestra, and an arts consultant. I am currently working with a regional parks entity trying to bring music into our outdoor spaces.

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Read more new music and money coverage all this week on NewMusicBox.

We also need the means to support each other and the works we’re trying to produce. The dark truth is that much new music would not exist at all without a plethora of unpaid hours to make it happen! Synergetic partnerships can play an important role in fueling the creation of new works in such circumstances. So what opportunities are on the horizon to improve such activity? And what are the larger, underlying issues affecting all of us regarding money and support?

The reality that bites is that, externally to the field, people often think music creation is not a profession. A city that doesn’t blink at the six-figure cost of a highway, building, or park design cringes at commissioning a piece of new music for a fraction of that. I am fortunate to be involved with my state on a national initiative called Building Public Will[2], examining how to morph public perception of the arts from a “nice to have” to an integral foundation of our society that is critical to its thriving existence.

We all get caught up with the day-to-day in our own creative (and non-creative) caves. Sometimes, it’s tough just to remember to look up. How can each of us help to create a supportive community locally? Are there existing networks to do so, and do they still work, or are they outdated? If not, are there models, such as Seattle’s or Chicago’s, we can look to?

As we settle into the second decade of the 21st century, we have the opportunity to look beyond traditional funding models to keep our music fresh and authentic. A few months ago, a fellow composer and I talked about how we get commissions, marketing opportunities, etc. We all have the opportunity to share our journey and learn from each other. Most of my commissions have resulted from reaching out to people (organizations) and expressing the desire to compose a work about something that is meaningful to both of us.

Another choice is to build a diverse base of funding that may include sources outside of music to varying degrees, such as the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Department of Transportation, foundations for social welfare, or historic and preservation societies. I’ve been hired by the U.S. Forest Service, by a museum, and by Oregon State Parks. We all have social and political issues in our community we care about, and increasingly cities are looking to bring attention to and help solve these issues through the arts. Meeting with our civic leaders can lead to opportunities and partnerships with local agencies that others may not think of unless you bring it up.

I truly believe we are in an unparalleled golden age of new music. We have to come together to find equally innovative ways to bring this work forth.


1. A sample funding list can be found at

2. Oregon is one of the four initial states for the initiative. (Read more.)