Monarchies may have had their generous patrons of the arts, but America’s tradition of private contribution is without peer in the world. Individuals contributed over 83% of all charitable funds in this country in 1999, according to Giving USA. While 43% of that went to religious organizations, 5% went to the arts – amounting to almost $10 billion, many times the contribution from foundation, corporate, and government sources.
Yet the federal government has a vital role in private largesse. Charitable contributions became deductible in 1917, just four years after the personal income tax was imposed. Today that deductibility amounts to at least $2 billion in foregone revenue each year. It is the tax code that makes philanthropy possible for tens of millions of middle-class Americans.
In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville observed the necessary preference of the useful over the beautiful in nascent American society. But over the next fifty years the first American fortunes were amassed and philanthropy followed close behind, benefiting the arts as well as social causes. Steel baron Andrew Carnegie made a big splash with his Music Hall, completed in 1891, but already Jeanette M. Thurber, the wife of a New York grocery tycoon, had been busy founding performing groups. In the last decade of the century, she took on the development of an American style of composition as her life’s cause.
Another successful grocer’s daughter, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, of Chicago, became the international symbol of private patronage as she commissioned, supported, and presented almost every important American and European composer (and many more besides) of the first half of the twentieth century, as part of bringing new recognition to chamber music.
Francis Goelet, scion of a real estate and business family, took on the patron’s mantle for the second half of the century. Focusing his energies on the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, the American Composers Orchestra, and New World Records, he sponsored well over 100 major commissions.
Other than Betty Freeman, who has been supporting new music initiatices both in the United States and abroad for almost 40 years and is still going strong, no one has yet emerged as the new century’s great patron of music. But patrons come in medium and small sizes too. Many composers find one or two patrons capable of commissioning them from time to time.
Some performers regularly commission new works, though few pay for them personally. Worldwide Concurrent Commissions and Premieres is an innovative and successful effort by saxophonist Ken Radnofsky that pools performer contributions to commission music for all to perform.
The Minnesota Commissioning Club, similarly, pools resources of a handful of music lovers. Founded among friends by Linda Hoeschler, now Executive Director of the American Composers Forum, it is a model worth replicating. And the People’s Commissioning Fund of Bang On A Can now takes patronage down to the $5 level.
And let us not forget the infrastructure in which composers function: the orchestras, ensembles, opera companies, local concert series, places of worship, and school music programs that depend on the ongoing support of countless individuals. No question about it: individual giving forms the backbone and the cutting edge of support for new music in America.
From On the Money: New Music Funding in the United States
by Theodore Wiprud
© 2000 NewMusicBox