Tag: funding

Trump Budget Proposal Eliminates NEA

Last night reactions to President Trump’s proposed budget began circulating, which includes a call for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

In response to the proposal, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) underlined that the “administration makes recommendations, but Congress does budgets.” Arts groups are urging their constituents to contact their representatives.

The NEA has made the following statement via its website:

Statement from National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Jane Chu

Today we learned that the President’s FY 2018 budget blueprint proposes the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts. We are disappointed because we see our funding actively making a difference with individuals of all ages in thousands of communities, large, small, urban and rural, and in every Congressional District in the nation.

We understand that the President’s budget request is a first step in a very long budget process; as part of that process we are working with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to prepare information they have requested. At this time, the NEA continues to operate as usual and will do so until a new budget is enacted by Congress.

We expect this news to be an active topic of discussion among individuals and organizations that advocate for the arts. As a federal government agency, the NEA cannot engage in advocacy, either directly or indirectly. We will, however, continue our practice of educating about the NEA’s vital role in serving our nation’s communities.

Winning the Lottery

Man Plays Lottery

Do you remember the thin envelope? Before email, the big turndown from arts funders meant finding the one-page rejection letter (“Thank you for your application…”) tucked between utility bills and fat envelopes stuffed with the false dream of unlimited credit, low APR, and a stiff yet faux credit card with your name embossed above a bunch of zeroes.

The F U File

Here’s why I miss the thin envelope. In the marvelous documentary Trimpin: The Sound of Invention, sound artist and sculptor Trimpin yanks out a coffin-length drawer from a filing cabinet to reveal “the Fuck You File.” I cheered and every other artist in the audience did too.

My F U File is merely four-inches thick, and I love it. It is a testament to my determination and effort to honor a saying from my late father, a professional musician for over forty years, “If you’re not getting rejected at least once a month, you’re not in the business.”

And not everyone should be in “the business.” If rejection really hurts, opt out. I did for a few years when I started taking this all too seriously. Now I savor every application.

The truth: No one cares who funded what after five years. Just about everyone I know at arts funding organizations is nobly selfless enough to accept that their hard work gradually fades from view as the artist’s work lives on.

Hurts So Good

Rejections can teach a crucial lesson: One rejection letter from a local arts commission had my typed name crossed out and first name handwritten by the director. That kind gesture taught me to address my dreams and ideas to actual people who wanted to help me instead of faceless panelists. Next year I got funded.

Rejections can teach a crucial lesson

The jewel of my F U File is a decade’s worth of annual project rejections, 1997 to 2007, from a single arts presenter who rebuffed my Favorite Intermissions project. Years later, I got to thank one of the panelists whose “no” amidst a chorus of rejection compelled me to refine my idea and make the project better with other collaborators. Loosened up by a bit of booze, he admitted, in the friendliest way possible, “We thought you were either a visionary or insane.” Both, I hope.

Three Kinds of Lottery Tickets

As I wrote in a previous post, the shortage of time, unpredictable nature of arts funding panels, and avalanche of applicants transforms almost every application into a kind of lottery ticket – one for which you distill endless hours of creative investigation, failure, and triumph. The lottery ticket must serve your art, so I suggest classifying applications as one of three types: peel, scratch, and scribble.

Just as the peel-away window lottery tickets are the easiest (no scraping mess, no penciling in numbers) to figure out, I treat these applications as an annual status report on the state of my art and condition of my ideas.

I re-draft my current artist statement and make sure to write texts I can use elsewhere as program notes. The more brilliant arts funding organizations deliberately design their questions to serve this purpose.

Scratching applications are business plans in disguise. Much more is demanded, such as a budget whose numbers must add up despite being destined to be wrong (panelists know that). You may be asked for a “vision statement” which seems redundant when you have already offered your “artist statement.” Treat your vision statement as if your project could write its own artist statement.

“Scribbler” in James Joyce’s stories not only describes hack writers (ahem) but also a pad on which to sketch and scrawl. Some requests-for-proposal and applications are so off-base or strange that they merit only the most scribbled, haphazard ideas.

the app[lication] becomes a place of liberation to promulgate your most brazen ideas

This is where the app becomes a place of liberation to promulgate your most brazen ideas. I still feel kinda bad for the hapless, conservative Washington D.C.-area think tank which received my idealistic proposal for using sound and listening to theorize a new form of “acousmatic governance.” But hey, they asked!

Draft number 23 (or an absurdly higher number) of that rejected proposal will soon be published as a book chapter.

Lotteries to Lose

Several years ago I was nominated for an award which bestows a hefty five-figure sum to artists in music, dance, and so on. Runners-up receive artist residencies and smaller fellowships. I’m an atheist, yet I thank God I did not win.

The winner that year was one of my idols, Butch Morris, a brilliant improviser, composer, and innovator of conduction. As a “winner,” I would have felt duly embarrassed, if not tainted and undeserving.

When I finally I met Butch, he cheerily told me that he’d been nominated for the same award many times. Then he challenged me: “But that shouldn’t matter to you. You’re going to keep creating anyway––no matter what, right?”


Money, Support, and the Voice of New Music

cash keyboard

cash keyboard

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.

Cash Week - sm

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 savvymusician.com.

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

Lessons from the Outside: A Venture Capital Firm for New Music

cash ideas

Cash Week - sm

One of the sessions I attended at the New Music Gathering in Baltimore this year covered commissioning new works. It was an engaging session to an overflow audience, and many interesting thoughts came out of it. But I want to focus on just one of them.

Among the attendees were new music champions Arlene and Larry Dunn. At one point, Arlene asked how audience members—not the performers or the show organizers or composers, etc., but the people who listen—can participate in the commissioning of new works.

This is a question that I think is worthy of deeper and ongoing consideration and exploration by anyone involved in building an audience or a scene. Many of the ways in which music is produced separate audiences from the opportunity to directly support the creation of new works. This is the case in popular music as well as other genres. There are organizations that collect money from audiences in order to produce and package music experiences, but few paths for direct participation by fans in the music’s invention.

Thinking about Arlene’s question, there are some popular platforms such as Kickstarter and Patreon. But anyone who has run a Kickstarter campaign can tell you that the work involved in successfully funding in this way can be exhausting. Moreover, there are questions about how sustainable Kickstarter might be. After all, how many times can an audience be tapped in this way each year, and how many times can the organizers expend the effort required?

Patreon sort of handles the sustainability side by being built with the idea of ongoing payments vs. Kickstarter’s one-time cash infusion model. But the Patreon subscription model doesn’t easily align with the commissioning of a single work. A work is more like a product, while Patreon is built to fund a process.


What if, in an effort to make a better answer for Arlene’s question, we examine potential futures that don’t exist right now but could? My Bonnie Jones Grant, which funds my music-making activity, involves helping organizations handle challenges strategically. Why not use some of the techniques from the business and finance world to see if we can come up with something?

Scenario Planning

One tool that is used by people who think deeply about business and the future is called scenario planning. It’s mostly just a serious term invented so that the guys and gals in suits don’t feel silly saying, “We’re doing some daydreaming over here during our corporate retreat.” While a little more rigorous than plain old daydreaming, it’s not terribly daunting either.

Ultimately, it’s a game that goes more or less like this: Identify some variables that you suspect are important, get some understanding of what influences those variables, outline several possibilities for what the future might look like based on what you understand of the variables, build a set of plans so that your organization is prepared to deal with this potential future reality. Bonus points are awarded for any data or existing models/behaviors from other fields that can be applied to any of these steps.

Also, it’s one of those hippie games that doesn’t have a winner. It’s either fun and productive or it isn’t. (I suppose some people do win if the future they identify comes to pass and, because they’ve played this game, they are prepared for it.)

Most importantly, this is a game anyone can play and there are no single right answers. We could all play this game and come up with a wide variety of very creative answers to Arlene’s question. And it’s a question that anyone who makes music should be happy to answer: how can audiences directly support the creation of new work?

An Example

I’ll run through my own short version of scenario planning on this so long as you all agree to remember that this will be just one potential solution. You may come up with something equally or more viable if you play this game as well.

Variables that I suspect are important in examining the future of funding new works are: Desire of audiences to participate at all, desire of audiences to participate directly, desire of audiences to feel a part of the process/some ownership. There are other variables as well that, for the sake of not boring people, I’m not going to get into in this piece.

Is there anything we can observe that points at these variables? Well, there’s the existence of Kickstarter and Patreon, two platforms with active users facilitating the creation of new work through direct participation. There are also commissioning clubs, which serve as an example of audience members self-organizing to fund the production of new work.

We also have Arlene’s question, a sign that there is someone who is interested in these things but wants to be closer to the generative side of the equation. She doesn’t necessarily want to wait for a composer, performer, or presenter to start the process.

Other things we can observe are that there are many boards for arts organizations which contain people who may have similar motives and desires to those expressed by Arlene.

In terms of trends, many pixels have been darkened in an effort to inform us that millennials are particularly interested in social action and direct participation. Perhaps the Kickstarters and Patreons of today are really just the tip of an iceberg for activating this generation as they move into positions of greater authority and influence.

But Kickstarter and Patreon rely on producers to initiate the commissioning activity. And commissioning clubs may lack some of the formalized structure necessary for larger scale and longevity. Are there other existing models where non-producers fund people/organizations to produce something?

cash ideas

Yes, of course. This is how many businesses are created. A group of investors pool some money together and provide it to a business so the business can make something (more money, usually). There are several different ways this happens. There are models where lots of people put in money and don’t think about it while a manager invests it (i.e. low/non-existent participation from the people putting up the money). And there are models where the people who put money in are very, very involved, sometimes selecting and altering the management of a company for example.

What’s useful about examining how business funds creation is that it provides a currently functioning model in which money is already flowing for the development of new things. It also shows that there are several ways this can be done for low-involvement and high-involvement.

Perhaps there’s a future in which someone like Arlene becomes an investor in a fund that is actively pursuing the creation of new works. It could likely work in a way similar to existing venture capital funds. Perhaps there are a handful of managers that seek out and vet potential projects.

We could go further with this analogy, I suppose. Venture capital isn’t a grant. The investment is expected to return something to the investors. So there’s ownership. Perhaps there is some exchange of ownership of the musical product that is funded which is transferred to the investors. Just as in business today, this sort of arrangement would not be acceptable for everyone. But for some, it might.

I discussed this idea, just as a thought exercise, with a composer friend of mine: considering that many startups receive significant investment and aren’t actually expected to profit for some time, what if music had that same luxury? What if our hypothetical venture capital for new music was putting up a million bucks for the creation of a new work with the idea that creators would make something worth more than a million bucks over the next few years?

Thinking in this way broadens the scope of what we’re doing as music makers beyond a single premiere presented to a handful of friends, or even a large audience. It asks us to consider greater potential for what we’re doing, which is good.

I’ll call this my potential future for Arlene’s question: Groups of audience members who collectively organize to fund the creation of new music. Each group has an agreement amongst itself regarding the kinds of things it funds and the kind of ownership stake it asks in the resulting work. There would likely be an ecosystem of groups like this catering to different audience members’ interests and skills.

There are benefits in this approach beyond money. For example, since the people participating in our potential music venture capital fund have a stake in the success of the work, they may be more willing or able to provide non-tangible assets: making crucial introductions, facilitating access to rehearsal/launch/performance spaces, and media connections. (The breathless coverage of technology startups is largely a function of the venture funding mechanism in common use in that industry.)

There is also benefit to the participants in the venture fund. Meeting and working together for vetting and successful launch of music projects allows for a deeper and richer interaction among capable people. There can also be value in gaining skill at identifying and incubating emerging projects.

For the greater new music scene there are benefits as well. Any new music venture firm that becomes capable of supporting the launch of several projects will likely come to the conclusion that they can improve the chances of success by providing physical space for the development of multiple projects, much like co-working spaces in business. There are probably several things like this which would benefit from the pooled resources of the fund. In addition, increased interaction between music makers on several different projects may also improve chances of success.

A successful venture firm of this sort could alter the geography of the new music scene as well. Silicon Valley is the site of the startup economy because that is where the venture capital resides. Originally, it was less expensive than existing business centers like New York. Put several new music venture organizations with rehearsal/development spaces in a place outside the traditional centers of operation, and the geography of innovation within the field will tilt as well.

It is these larger issues, like geography of innovation, which will likely attract a new audience to the concept and to the music. It is common for smaller second- and third-tier cities to try to develop innovation centers or business incubators. The ability to influence the generation of a new industry would be attractive to individuals who are looking for the benefits of an increase in the number of innovative thinkers and creators in their town.

Certainly the whole “innovative music makers are going to make your town awesome” line of thinking isn’t completely obvious to everyone. But it’s obvious to enough. The success of Austin as both a music city and a technology city is well known and studied in civic policy circles, for example. There is a conference called Music Cities that is focused on precisely these kinds of issues.

What sort of things would need to be in place for this kind of thing to occur in new music? First up would likely be a collection of investors in a position to invest without significant anxiety over losing their investment. These people already exist, it’s just that they are captured more by business venture capital at the moment.

Creators would have to develop broader visions for their work, which includes functional revenue streams. The stereotype is that musicians only care about “The Art,” but I know enough musicians to know the stereotype is not entirely true. Even beyond that, in business it is extremely common to have a partnership in which one of the partners is the product/creative person and the other is the operations/business person. Some venture capitalists won’t invest unless there are at least two people for this very reason.

In other words, creative teams and projects may need to expand their individual capabilities or take on additional team members to fill this need. So perhaps another sign of the potential future outlined above would be noticeable leadership positions in ensembles and composer teams that consider deeply issues of revenue stream generation. I’ve read at least one recent article promoting retiring the myth of the solitary genius composer, so perhaps there is movement in this direction already.

Just One Potential Future

The idea of a venture capital model for the creation of new works is just one possible answer for Arlene’s question at the New Music Gathering. Hopefully enough readers are now so outraged by this idea that some will take up the task of creating a different potential future and sharing it with us. Or perhaps some people will get to work assembling the first version of this new way to create new music.


Gahlord Dewald

Gahlord Dewald
Photo by Mira Steinzor


Gahlord Dewald is a musician specializing in acoustic, electric, and synthetic bass frequencies. He is currently commissioning new works for solo double bass with or without electronics. He delights in sharing new music with small audiences in Burlington, Vermont, where he lives. You can learn more about his work at gahlorddewald.com.

MacArthur’s Creative and Effective Institutions and Bielecki Foundation Awards Announced

MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions
MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions

The Chicago Jazz Philharmonic and eighth blackbird among those to receive MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions

Fourteen Chicago arts organizations have been named as recipients of the MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions, which recognizes “exceptional nonprofit organizations that are engaged in the foundation’s core fields of work and helps ensure their long-term sustainability.” The award, presented annually since 2006 to organizations around the world that demonstrate exceptional creativity and effectiveness, provides each organization with $200,000 to $1 million, depending on the size of its budget.

In the area of music, the 2016 recipients are:

This year’s recipients are drawn exclusively from Chicago’s arts and culture community in order to strengthen the city’s vibrant cultural life and underscore the foundation’s commitment to its hometown.

The foundation does not seek or accept nominations for these awards.

Learn more about these and other MacArthur projects.


Ingrid Laubrock and Pauline Oliveros

Ingrid Laubrock and Pauline Oliveros

The Robert D. Bielecki Foundation has presented Pauline Oliveros with a grant of $10,000 towards the completion of “Deep Listening — The Story of Pauline Oliveros” and a $3,000 grant to Ingrid Laubrock in support of her Fall 2016 Intakt Records release.

The Bielecki Foundation seeks to enrich fine art culture while expanding opportunities for individual artist development and audience cultivation. They provide funding to emerging, under-recognized, and deserving artists and organizations across the United States and internationally. There is no application process.

Learn more about Oliveros, Laubrock, and their funded projects.

Adams’s Become Ocean Inspires Taylor Swift to Make $50K Gift

become ocean

The New York Times reports that Taylor Swift has made a $50,000 donation to the Seattle Symphony, inspired by their Grammy-winning recording of John Luther Adams’s Become Ocean.

“Ms. Swift, one of today’s most popular and powerful pop stars, praised the recording of Mr. Adams’s large-scale, hypnotic, environmentally aware “Become Ocean” in a letter she wrote to the orchestra’s music director, Ludovic Morlot.

‘I was thrilled to hear that Taylor was moved by ‘Become Ocean,’ like all of us at the Seattle Symphony,” Mr. Morlot said in a statement. “This is a powerful piece with a unique soundscape. We’re especially thankful that she wishes to support our musicians, and that she shares our belief that all people should be able to experience symphonic music.'”

Her gift will support education programs and the musicians’ pension fund.

Swift previously gave $100,000 to the Nashville Symphony.

New Music USA Awards $287,050 to 54 Projects

New Music USA project grants 4

New Music USA has announced its fourth round of project grants awards, totaling $287,050 in funding to support artistic work involving a wide range of new American music. The 54 awarded projects include concerts and recordings, as well as dance, film, theater, opera, and more—all involving contemporary music as an essential element. Awarded projects from all four rounds can be discovered, explored, and followed by the public via media-rich project pages.

New Music USA President and CEO Ed Harsh commented, “We intend our support of new music to go beyond just money. We want to give our colleagues in the field powerful tools to build community around their work, to the benefit of all.”

During this round, an additional $30,000 over the program’s original budget was made available through the actions of a developing national network of individual new music enthusiasts. This additional investment adds support to projects chosen for funding as part of our grant program’s panel process. The network was piloted and convened by New Music USA over the past year, and it is designed to connect and engage individuals from across the United States to advocate for and empower the new music field.

In response to feedback from artists who were surveyed last summer following the two inaugural rounds of the program, the fourth round continued to include a special focus on requests of $3,000 and below. Approximately 44% of grants awarded were in this category. The next round of project grants will open for requests in September 2015 and decisions will be announced in early 2016. Including the awards announced today, New Music USA’s project grants program, launched in October 2013, has now distributed $1,219,300 in support of 233 projects.

More information about New Music USA’s project grants is available on New Music USA’s website.

(–from the press release)

New Foundation Will Support Performance and Commissioning of American Music

Amy Wurtz

Amy Wurtz

Chicago Classical Review founder Lawrence A. Johnson has announced the creation of American Music Project, a nonprofit organization focused on supporting performances of American classical music and the commissioning of new work. The foundation’s first announced commission is Amy Wurtz’s Piano Quintet.
A post on Chicago Classical Review offered further background:

As a “facilitator and encourager of American music,” Johnson said the foundation will fund musical organizations, orchestras, opera companies, chamber ensembles and presenters who take on American repertory for events starting in the fall of 2015. They can submit proposals for American projects and, if they meet the foundation’s criteria, will receive financial support.
“If, for example, somebody wants to put on a festival of American string quartets, or a cycle of American symphonies, we would provide a check to underwrite some of it,” said Johnson.
He hopes to give music organizations room to challenge current conventional wisdom about what kinds of classical music audiences will pay to hear. He said the American Music Project wants to step in where presenters may feel constrained by their budgets and by the risks associated with selling too few tickets to a concert with less-familiar American repertory.

According to the project’s website, the “interim goal for the first year is to raise $500,000 from individuals and foundations with an ultimate aim of creating a standing endowment of $1 million.”

The foundation will officially launch with a concert of American music performed by the Chicago Q Ensemble in Chicago’s Ganz Hall on October 5. Wurtz will join the ensemble at the piano for the performance of her piece.

Who is Creative Placemaking? New Music, Integrity, and Community

Who Is Creative Placemaking?

Billboard graffiti spotted on North Avenue in Station North, Baltimore. Photo by Molly Sheridan

The living, breathing practice of new music brings together many diverse and symbiotic stakeholders. They range from performing artists to composers, from presenting organizations to scholars, and from technical crews to administrators, all striving to create contemporary aural art that challenges, enlivens, and illuminates our human experience. Yet at the end of each day, there is a dirty little secret that each career shares. No matter the specialty, all participants aspire to eat, pay their bills, and enjoy some security and comfort from the labor of bringing new music into our world. This, of course, requires cold hard cash and conversations about funding are rarely pleasant ones. Money from advocacy organizations is in short supply and involves immense competition nationwide. When I see the phrase “many fine projects go unfunded” in grant guidelines, it takes on the ring of gallows humor.

In the past four years, however, a new cash spigot has been cranked open for contemporary arts funding across the nation. Titled “creative placemaking,” this approach purports to culturally and economically reinvigorate American “places” of all stripes, rescuing them from their derelict status through the arts. If current arts policy trends continue, then new music’s institutional vibrancy might depend on how it fits into this rubric, interfacing with communities on levels rarely considered in the past such as neighborhood pride, commercial impact, and livability. But new music should be wary of the covenant that creative placemaking offers, both to artists and audiences, while not losing sight of how the music of our time truly does change our thinking about places and the people in them.

The Dynamics of Place and New Music

The groundwork for thinking about place enjoys a breadth and depth from disciplines as diverse as ecology, geography, history, sociology, political science, anthropology, and philosophy. There are now musical perspectives being added to the fray, ranging from musicologists such as Holly Watkins to composers like Chris Kallmyer writing for NewMusicBox.[1] I tend to think of places as locations—with boundaries that range from fuzzy to rigid, and from vast to confined—imbued with cultural and social energy, both locked up in our memories and being constantly reimagined. But as American philosopher Ed Casey argues, places are things that individuals and collectives are able to experience in real time.[2] Only through the experimentation wrapped up in our daily tests and trials are places altered in substantial ways.[3] By this measure, few human activities empower us to experiment in and with places more than the arts, and in particular, newly wrought pieces and works. Newness is confrontational, newness is the unexpected variable, newness celebrates dynamic, living places: we stumble across new art, often unexpectedly, and discover parts of ourselves yet unknown. Not many would find this idea contentious, but here is the rub: how each contemporary art sub-discipline recasts place(s) in our imagination is another matter entirely.

Paintings, sculptures, photographs, buildings, urban grids, and maps—the list goes on—each organize our world in a way that focuses, endures, and reinterprets. People congregate around buildings, they linger in the aura of sculptures, they frame photos for their intimate living spaces. But what about a new piece of music? How does the music of our time—so fleeting, so temporal, yet so drastic—initiate a change in one’s sense of place, especially through a commission and/or a world premiere? I think new music has a place problem for a number of reasons, stemming in large part from its transitory nature.
First, new music idioms often exemplify styles, technical grammars, or an individual composer’s ethos far more than they center our thinking on a particular city, street corner, building, or even a site in nature. For instance, consider: if a newly composed piece by a native of Provo, Utah, is crafted to memorialize everything she adores about her beloved hometown, how might a listener draw a distinction between it and the aural profile of any other mid-sized American city (even with program notes in tow)? How is Provo-ness truly “made” in a notated or aural setting, as opposed to or separate from Sioux Falls, South Dakota-ness? This is no mockery of Provo’s desirability, but rather a claim that new music artifice and architecture fogs the engrossing idiosyncrasies of particular places, rendering them untranslatable in a listener’s engagement. Similarly, let us ponder the example of a new work for percussion ensemble earning wide acclaim: Augusta Read Thomas’s quartet Resounding Earth for pan-Asian bells and other metal resonators. While the work was conceived and largely composed in Chicago, I think concertgoers are much more likely to experience this piece as a diverse way to play with the possibilities of percussion arrays, rather than, say, connect it as a postmodern commentary between the Windy City and Bangkok, Thailand. New music is deeply cosmopolitan, a jumble of cross-conversations in different shapes, sizes, and sound worlds all fixated on how to add clever new tools to the composition workbench. The where, the place, is simply ancillary.

Second, as delighted as many new music specialists are to discredit or dethrone the Western canon of the past 300 years, perhaps a baby has been thrown out with the bathwater: the canon’s affection for place in the historical imagination. Even the most progressive among us still speak about the Western canon in a way that relies on places and their positions in time, frozen if only for a moment: the two Viennese schools with their transformed complexions; Ives’s idyllic Connecticut; Monteverdi in Venice; and so on. New music simply does not encapsulate places and their epochs as intimately as its earlier, canon-bound brethren. Listening to a piece of electronic music from the mid-1980s by Xenakis, my heart does not wander to IRCAM. When I sit in the audience for a graduate student composition concert, my ears do not perk up because, despite the disparate geographic origins of the composers, all of these works were newly written in Cincinnati and I can hear that plainly. Even watching a production of Kaija Saariaho’s opera L’Amour de loin, I am not transported to romanticized scenes of medieval France or other exotic locales conjured by the troubadour poetry that Saariaho and her librettist drew from.

Third, we must consider how the lifeblood of new music—world premieres, sometimes commissioned, sometimes not—alter the dynamics of place. World premieres have had the power to color or disrupt our sense of place, such as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in the Vienna of 1824, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in the Paris of 1913, Barber’s Adagio for Strings over NBC radio in 1938, or even John Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls in the New York City of 2002. Yet such monumental unveilings are few and far between. The majority of pieces that receive a world premiere, often regardless of a composer’s fame and a commission, are never performed again. When we think of a new music world premiere changing a place, we must acknowledge that it likely only has one chance to do so, like a blaze that burns quick and bright before exhausting its fuel. Another hypothetical: does a work written in a log cabin in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, have much to say about the distinctive qualities outside the hall of its birth in, say, Gainesville, Florida? Such pieces are vagrants, effortlessly being uprooted and transplanted from their birth locales into countless other neighborhood spaces hundreds if not thousands of miles away. Indeed, if nothing is lost from a work’s effectiveness when it is inserted into the context of a radically new place, one begins to wonder whether there was anything grounding the piece at its point of origin. This is unlike contemporary trends in other mediums that lean towards the hyper-local. For instance, a mural on a highway overpass, or on the side of a derelict factory, gives voice to the hopes, aspirations, or tough luck of that place, in that moment of the place’s memorialization.
However, I think the music of our time has two yet unmentioned assets that stir us to ponder places. First, new music never sits still, new music is nimble. A great many contemporary art mediums and their works that celebrate place(s) are purposefully designed to be walked past, congregated around, or remain passively integrated with our daily routine, from building facades to oblique outdoor sculptures. But I think, to their detriment, they often acquire a leering sort of quality—like gargoyles on the side of a cathedral, inert, mute, and unmovable—as people, ideas, trends, and indeed, the places themselves, dynamically shift around them. One phrase of Ed Casey’s that particularly struck me is that “places not only are, they happen.”[4] New music, at its core, sidesteps and subverts grand displays and unchanging monuments. New music happens. This idea is akin to earlier exhortations about how people fundamentally experiment with or “try out” places. Musical premieres in particular are experimental events with dangerous flirtations: they are born, flicker briefly and provocatively, and then extinguish themselves, with a reckless disregard for your desire that they might linger longer (or in some unlucky cases, end sooner). Creators, performers, and listeners are beckoned like moths to that flame of a musical premiere in a way which asks us to try out the world, to try out places old and new when time is of the essence.

Second, new music happens and changes place(s) through the collaborative breadth and depth of the individuals and groups that come together to realize it. This is a glorification of process, not product. New music highlights the fact that places are more than just brick and mortar, and indeed, the people who invest themselves in the curation of beautiful, frightening, and provocative things alter a place’s complexion far more than items plastered or girded onto our landscape. For instance, almost every world premiere requires demanding conversations involving compromise, sacrifice, and contested artistic integrity, with bargains struck amongst the creator(s), interpreter(s), and the technical conditions of the performance setting. This is the reciprocal cultivation of artists-in-communities, as well as artist communities themselves. One result of these immersive, sometimes exhaustive collaborative endeavors is that talents are honed which can then be re-inserted into countless other places that crave new and adventurous arts.

A great example of this is Omaha Under the Radar, a contemporary arts festival co-founded by soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett that launched for the first time from July 10-13, 2014. After making the rounds of the Chicago and New York new music circles, DeBoer Bartlett transitioned back to the region of her birth and brought her artistic and organizational acumen in tow. Omaha Under the Radar performances will take place in venues as varied as bohemian bars, art galleries, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and a rock club, with an emphasis on Omaha interpreters performing the works of Omaha creators. In conversation, DeBoer Bartlett made clear that artistic homogeneity is a nigh impossible feat in Omaha: the scene is simply too small to remain cloistered within new music, as happened when she gigged in Chicago and New York. Rather than performing to the same 40 new music specialists (“big music scenes are just small towns”), she now challenges stagnant presumptions hand-in-hand with theater, dance, jazz, and visual artists. But, she insisted, her artistic poise in Omaha is largely thanks to her earlier pilgrimages to the larger new music meccas. If the vagrancy of new music works prove detrimental to their impact on places, then the opposite holds true for composers and performers: it is precisely their nomad status that gives rise to places as conglomerates of adroit people, rather than as graveyards for piles of material objects.

Under the Radar Omaha

Omaha Under the Radar
Photo by Karjaka Studios

With a deeper understanding of new music’s diverse dynamic involving place, it is now time to pull apart how these ideas relate to or diverge from creative placemaking as an arts strategy, a regime with the potential to either transform or starve the long-standing institutions of new music.

Creative Placemaking as Musical Policy and Practice

“Creative placemaking” was originally coined in a white paper for The Mayors’ Institute on City Design, a leadership forum jointly brought about by the United States Conference of Mayors, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the American Architectural Foundation in 2010. Authored by Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, creative placemaking’s intellectual inspiration is the New Urbanism that professes to prioritize mixed-income, pedestrian-focused city experiences with diverse economic, social, and political interactions brought about by close human proximity. Creative placemaking’s adaptation of New Urbanist principles in the white paper harnesses a glossy vocabulary for characterizing the importance of the arts:

“[T]hese…locales [chosen as incubators for creative placemaking] foster entrepreneurs and cultural industries that generate jobs and income, spin off new products and services, and attract and retain unrelated businesses and skilled workers…. Instead of a single arts center or a cluster of large arts and cultural institutions, contemporary creative placemaking envisions a more decentralized portfolio of spaces acting as creative crucibles…. arts and culture exist cheek-by-jowl with private sector export and retail businesses and mixed-income housing, often occupying buildings and lots that had been vacant and under-used….”

Although “placemaking” itself is hardly novel, the prescriptions present in Markusen and Nicodemus’s white paper initiated a re-alignment of the funding landscape for the arts across America. The NEA began an entirely new grantmaking program titled “Our Town,” centered on the creative placemaking enterprise with awards ranging from $25,000 to $200,000. Most significantly, a new collaborative umbrella organization christened “ArtPlace America” emerged in 2011. ArtPlace America pools the resources and capacities from a “who’s who” of six banks, eight federal agencies, and 14 of the great American mega-foundations. With the most recent awards ranging from $33,000 to $750,000, and a ballpark median of $280,000, ArtPlace America commands the attention (and salivation) of culture institutions across the nation. In my resident state of Connecticut, the Connecticut Office of the Arts adopted creative placemaking wholesale in their competitive grantmaking. This is the first state in America to undergo such an arts funding gestalt shift towards creative placemaking, and will likely not be the last.
ArtPlace America
On the national level, in a noisy and competitive marketplace of disciplines, institutions, and projects, this situation is hardly rosy for new music. As part of ArtPlace America’s most recent grant awards for 2013-2014, no organizations or projects with formal commitments to new classical, jazz, or experimental music, American or otherwise, were selected. This is not to say that creative placemaking organizations like ArtPlace America snub new music in its entirety, but of the 134 grants made so far in ArtPlace America’s first three years, I only identify three that grapple with any music in a tangible way: Community MusicWorks in Providence, Rhode Island, to draw resources to the impoverished West End; the Memphis Music Magnet to revitalize the Soulsville, USA neighborhood of Memphis; and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Center to encourage economic growth in the Tremé neighborhood.

As the arts funding puzzle shifts dramatically under the rubric of creative placemaking—from symphony orchestras to dance companies, and from museums to arts councils—the programs, services, and fundamental kind of art being made will necessarily change to enhance an organization’s competitiveness. This is not a situation that new music stakeholders should take lightly. While there is much to conceptually celebrate in the mixed-use landscape trumpeted by creative placemaking, we must interrogate the desired outcomes of this initiative. Creative placemaking’s ideal ends are not experimentalism, artistic integrity, arts education, I think, or even arts accessibility. The advancement of arts concerns (the arts qua arts) are mere means at various segments in the creative placemaking food chain: the ultimate aim of this policy project is robust economic growth. The language trumpeted by ArtPlace America, in particular, heralds an uneasy sheen of neoliberal corporatism and, in places previously abandoned by economic opportunity, the threat of creeping gentrification. Creative placemaking’s loudest selling points in the literature include “increased economic performance,” “captur[ing] new revenue,” and “creat[ing] a place where business wants to be,” a nomenclature that yokes artistic activity as a mechanism for the growth of capital. Notice, the three previous music examples within ArtPlace America’s grant portfolio all function as magnets for industry and investment, rather than herald any intrinsic meaningfulness for artistry.

My reservations about creative placemaking are hardly isolated. Ian Moss and Roberto Bedoya independently describe how creative placemaking projects, even in light of their slippery relationship with measurable outcomes, deserve the scrutiny of other neighborhood uplift crusades: do they initiate displacement as the community becomes “more desirable,” property values increase, and long-time residents—the very people whose cultural backgrounds creative placemaking purports to celebrate—depart or are marginalized en masse? Moss loosely characterizes this phenomenon as the “Arts Colonization Process” wherein the artists flock, a hip reputation follows, and there goes the neighborhood. Megan Wilson’s superb recent analysis of ArtPlace America’s 5M Project gone awry in the SoMA neighborhood of San Francisco reinforces and fleshes out many apprehensions, particularly regarding how the perennial funding desperation faced by city agencies and community arts organizations pushes them towards Faustian bargains they might not otherwise entertain.

This trial for the artistic purposefulness of new music, compelling institutions and creators to bend their objectives and voices to suit the narrow financial framework of those with creative placemaking purse-strings, is born out through two specific examples. The first is an artist collective specializing in composer and performer role-switching workshops, located in an up-and-coming American city and anonymous here for their protection. Through a local family foundation focused on creative placemaking strategies, they receive funding and access to a rehearsal and performance space on one floor of a formerly deserted downtown office building. But the stipulations of the grant bind and inhibit far more than they inspire, or, in the words of the collective’s artistic director, “lots of grants [in this city] are for work being done in unconventional spaces, but they’re unconventional because they suck.” The director bemoaned the lack of a suitable theater or hall for concerts, where good recordings can be obtained and artistic and production facilities are in place. In this instance, a new music organization that was lucky enough to capture creative placemaking largess had to substantially adjust its core capacities and institutional image to meet the dictates of its benefactor.
The second example comes from new music group Clocks in Motion, based in Madison, Wisconsin. Clocks in Motion is comprised of current and former students from the University of Wisconsin at Madison School of Music, cobbling together financial resources from a wide variety of piecemeal sources. The ensemble conducts aggressive outreach work, such as performing accessible and engaging new music for the “at risk” children of the after-school Allied Neighborhood Center and instructing young students in composition, culminating in the ensemble’s premiere of their works. But will the outreach, accessibility, and learning project of ensembles like Clocks in Motion be stymied as resources are shunted away from such endeavors, towards those that lay the foundation for commerce as conceived by creative placemaking? Despite the inventive nature of their engagement activities, Clocks in Motion simply does not fit the parameters prescribed as “proper” creative placemaking: they do not generate desire for new investments of capital, they do not foster pedestrian activity or the spontaneous gathering of people, and they do not perform or rehearse in some token light-industrial site. But how can you tell them they do not change the place they call home?

Clocks in Motion's education work

Clocks in Motion’s education work


What are we left with? First, while this article is not a call to arms, I think we as new music acolytes must make the case, both publicly and privately, that the music of our time can and does color the complexion of places, both for ourselves and for citizens from all walks of life. The mechanisms for change may involve the seductiveness of world premieres, the collaborative skill-building that grows reciprocal artist communities, or countless other avenues I did not enumerate. But just because our art is not planted on soil, bolted to concrete, slathered on a surface, or able to collect dust and grime, that does not mean it lacks the power to shape memories and imaginations about the locations close to our hearts.

Second, creative placemaking in its current outlook is unimpressed by new music’s efficacy as a mercantile powerhouse and, as a result, devalues its presence in the palette of contemporary arts practices presently available. Whether these decisions are deliberate individual acts by well-meaning grant panelists with a checklist in front of them, or the result of some collective unconscious, I would rather not speculate. But in practice, creative placemaking sets up a sieve that new music tends to slide right through, owing largely to new music’s fixation on technique, its disconnect from a historical imagination or canon, and the ephemeral nature of world premieres.

Third, I am not advocating for a wholesale rejection of the creative placemaking project, but rather, a cautious negotiation of how, when, and where new music creators, performers, and institutions sign on the dotted line for funding and logistical support. There is a very tangible risk (one faced by all non-profits and artists, to some degree) that new music will bend to the wind and adjust its creative potential to suit where the money happens to be flowing. Program choices, the sizes and types of ensembles being formed, the complexion of music being composed, the locales in which works are performed, education design, the conversations through which we engage our communities: these all stand to be yoked to creative placemaking if resource desperation takes hold.

Finally, the demonstrated risk of gentrification through creative placemaking, and this initiative’s overt wealth-accumulation project—with vague or nonexistent guidelines on how to grow such wealth in an equitable manner—means that there must be a social justice component to how new music interfaces with creative placemaking. This is surely the case in the locations where creative placemaking is deliberately having a disproportionate impact, such as up-and-coming cities seeking to raise their national profiles (Omaha, Madison, Kansas City, etc.) or ones that are on the mend from deindustrialization (Detroit, Pittsburgh, etc.). From Omaha Under the Radar and Clocks in Motion, to the anonymous artist collective and countless others, new music will have an integral role to play in the recovery and celebration of these communities if we continue to shout, loudly and bravely, about how this art we have dedicated our lives to engages with both the least and most comfortable among us, and gives new voice to the vitality of the places we invest in and call home.


1. Holly Watkins, “Musical Ecologies of Place and Placelessness,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 64, 2 (2011): 404-408 and Andrew Leyshon, David Matless, and George Revill, “Introduction: Music, Space, and the Production of Place,” in The Place of Music, edited by Andrew Leyshon, David Matless, and George Revill (Oxford: The Guilford Press, 1998).

2. Edward Casey, Getting Back Into Place: Toward a Renewed Understanding of the Place-World, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993) p. 24.

3. Ibid, pp. 30-31

4. Edward Casey, “How to Get from Space to Place in a Fairly Short Stretch of Time: Phenomenological Prolegomena” in Senses of Place, edited by Steven Feld and Keith Basso (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 1997) p. 27.
Additional Works Cited
Leyshon, Andrew, David Matless, and George Revill. “Introduction: Music, Space, and the Production of Place.” In The Place of Music, edited by Andrew Leyshon, David Matless, and George Revill, 1-30. Oxford: The Guilford Press, 1998.

New Music USA’s Project Grants Are Now Open

NMUSA Project Grants

New Music USA’s model project gallery

Get ready to get creative. As announced last May, New Music USA (publisher of NewMusicBox) has reconfigured five of its funding programs into a single stream of support for new music, and you can now apply by creating a project. Individual performers, composers, organizations, presenters, and other artists can all request funding on behalf of their projects simply and at no cost. The first deadline is November 4.

The new system boasts a streamlined process for applicants, designed to allow music makers to showcase their work and ask for the support they need in a succinct and efficient manner. No more mailing (sorry, USPS) hard copies of media and commitment letters! Work samples can be shared through services such as Vimeo, YouTube, and SoundCloud; collaborators can confirm their commitments with the click of a button. Funded projects will be showcased on New Music USA’s website and will be easily shared among patrons and fans.
Explore New Music USA’s project gallery, and read through the complete guidelines now on New Music USA.