In the eyes of most Americans, I’m destined to go straight hell when I die, maybe even sooner. Fortunately, I don’t believe in things like an afterlife. Regardless, I’m stuck living in a society that largely frowns upon my beliefs, politics, the way I live, my friends, job, artistic work, and even the person I love most dearly. Needless to say, last night’s announcement to escalate the war in Iraq is totally depressing me. So, to cheer myself up, I’m going to concentrate on something that very few in Congress concern themselves with: arts funding. Sure, I wish the $380 billion price-tag-and-rising for the War on Terror had been put towards something like universal healthcare, but screw it. I’m going to be just as selfish as every other American out there and rant about stuff that affects me, me, me. Arts funding—ahem, I mean doling out money to composers, and maybe a few sound artists—is bogged down by rigid guidelines. Grants, commissions, and residencies usually fall short of supporting everything a composer needs. Here’s a few things I think need to be changed:
1. Travel grants need to be more flexible. Europeans (and even Canadians) have it easy on this front. With a simple letter from a presenter, a composer’s local consulate will usually throw some cash at them. Things are a little trickier here in the good ol’ US of A. I remember applying for a travel grant through the now-defunct organization Arts International. I wasn’t looking for a free vacation to Germany. I really felt it was important that I be there for the rehearsals because my piece had a very loose score that could be interpreted any number of ways. After submitting all the necessary materials, I learned that they wouldn’t fund me because the performance was part of a festival— “We don’t do festivals.” I tried to counter with the fact that this performance was also part of their regular concert series, but to no avail. Sure, there are programs out there that fund a composer’s travel expenses, but you must apply at the very least eight months prior to hopping on that plane. Add to this a two-month review process, and who knows if you’ll ever get to leave the ground in the end? Travel grants need to be less restrictive, have fewer guidelines, easier applications, and shorter turnaround when it comes to decision-making.
2. Too many grant programs require education components and community outreach. Hey, that’s great, if that’s something you like to do. Those of us who don’t have any experience doing something like that make something up on the application and jump through the hoops when the money comes through. I think it would serve communities better if you just send out those composers who want to interface with the community, which is not to say that you should only fund those who are so obliged. If you want to fund music, then fund music, not some half-baked outreach idea proposed by a composer with no clue and even less desire to carry it out.
3. Residency programs are a great escape from the pressures of the “real” world, but while you’re away the earth doesn’t stop rotating. The mortgage is still due, as is the electric bill. Yes, free room and board is great, but some extra cash to take care of the financial obligations at home would be a godsend. Granted, some residencies do include stipends, but they are the exception, not the rule. And while I understand the huge amount of generosity in running a residency program, the few places that actually require the artists to pay for their visit seem to me a bit too prohibitive to younger, emerging artists and those without wealthy spouses.
4. Reading sessions are another great opportunity. However, I’m not about to write a piece of music that I don’t have the resources to get performed. Naturally, I’ve never written an orchestral piece. I’m certainly not going to write one in order to submit an application for it to be read. The larger, most established reading programs should adopt an auxiliary program where composers can pre-apply to the regular reading session based on the applicant’s recent music—which may or may not include an orchestra piece—and then give them a year or two to compose a new piece for the orchestra to read. Luckily, the Brooklyn Philharmonic has initiated a mentorship program for composers that have little or no experience writing for orchestra. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
And don’t even get me started on those projects where funders more or less dictate the artistic impetus behind the proposed work. I know, I know. I’m sounding like a self-entitled brat expecting free handouts. But let me reiterate, that big huge sum of money—$1,547.30 of my own tax dollars so far, according to the National Priorities Project—is just fueling more bloodshed, while fattening the pockets of Halliburton executives. Imagine if we put a line item in the budget of, say, 1% to fund the arts. This sort of escalation might actually strengthen our culture and enlighten citizens to the larger world around us. Besides, to the best of my knowledge, my music hasn’t killed anybody yet.