On the Money: New Music Funding in the United States

“When the Ford Foundation began a program in the arts in 1957, one of its principal purposes, as defined by W. McNeil Lowry, its first director, was ‘interposing in a tradition’–interposing on behalf of American music and musicians.” So says the Ford Foundation’s Sharps and Flats: A Report on Ford Foundation Assistance to American Music (1980).

The initiative began in 1957 with commissions, awarded through the American Music Center according to the choice of concert soloists. Each work was to be performed by three orchestras with the same soloist, and the Foundation paid for the commissions, the soloists’ fees, and extra rehearsal time for the orchestra. A round of fifteen commissions came in 1962 for solo and chamber works, again with three performances required. In 1969, 16 young performers got to commission solo, chamber, or concerto works. These isolated rounds of commissions generated models for commissioning support, as well as a number of strong works including Elliott Carter‘s Piano Concerto, Milton Babbitt‘s Philomel as well as works by William Schuman, Lukas Foss, and others.

Ford made a major pitch for American opera as well, initially by sponsoring entire spring seasons of American works at the New York City Opera in 1958, 1959, and 1960. In 1959, Ford offered commissioning money, and funds to produce new works, to City Opera, the Metropolitan, Chicago, and San Francisco. Over ten years, 22 works were commissioned, of which 16 were produced, including Robert Ward‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Crucible and Hugo Weisgall‘s Six Characters in Search of an Author. Subsequent opera grants have gone to lengthen seasons, expand repertoire, or build cash reserves.

Another early initiative with long-term impact was the Composers in Public Schools program, created by composer Norman Dello Joio. Between 1959 and 1968, 73 composers served community residencies based in school systems. Young composers like Philip Glass, William Bolcom, Richard Wernick, and Peter Schickele gained versatility and rapport with the public by writing for school bands and community events. This is a model that would resurface in many later programs of Meet The Composer and American Composers Forum. After 1968, the focus shifted to training teachers to deal with contemporary music themselves, an initiative called the Contemporary Music Project and administered by Music Educators National Conference. Under the direction of composer Grant Beglarian, CMP evolved into a set of regional Institutes for Music in Contemporary Education promoting a notion of Comprehensive Musicianship to conservatories and colleges. Further Ford grants in the 1970s supported music education demonstration projects in Iowa and Iceland, by which time composer participation had entirely vanished.

Ford made its single largest set of arts grants in 1965 to the 61 largest orchestra in America to extend orchestra seasons, raise salaries, and increase educational activities. Most of the money went into endowment to create long-term support, and had to be matched. Insofar as this strengthened orchestras–the number with 52-week contracts went from 2 to 16 as a result, it has arguably created more scope for new music.

Ford also led the way in supporting recording of new works. For new works with a publisher, the Foundation would provide for studio recording costs, reasoning that works available on record would fare better as publications. As many as 318 works by 170 living composers were recorded and published under the program, with 25 record companies and 53 publishers participating.

In the 1990s, the Ford Foundation, like many others, sought to bring its arts support more nearly in line with overall foundation aims. Internationalism became its organizing principle, with funds going to organizations like Meet The Composer and Arts International to promote cross-fertilization among creative artists in the U.S. and regions where Ford operates: Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Ford also offered commissioning and production money to performing arts centers to producing new international collaborations. As in its earlier efforts, Ford’s strategy is to create a rich “ecosystem” by supporting work at various levels so that international collaboration can develop in a number of ways.

The Ford Foundation has always exerted a powerful influence on other foundations. Its early commissioning and residency programs spawned the whole field of foundation and service-organization programs. How its new focus may influence the broader field remains to be seen.

From On the Money: New Music Funding in the United States
by Theodore Wiprud
© 2000 NewMusicBox