On the Money: New Music Funding in the United States

Created in 1965 with a budget of just $8 million, the National Endowment for the Arts quickly grew to be a major source of support for new music and all the arts. President Nixon repeatedly doubled its budget, reaching $40 million in 1970. President Carter pushed it up to $149 million, its highest level in inflation-adjusted dollars.

In its full form, the NEA was a national caretaker for all the arts. Through its peer review process, it tracked the progress of the hundreds of performing and presenting institutions that blossomed in the 1970s and it supported and encouraged them with modest operating grants. The arts, including new music, became much more decentralized as federal money attracted local money in areas formerly without major cultural institutions. The music program always had the largest budget, and a great deal of that went to orchestras, which proliferated wildly. Operating support also went to service organizations like the American Music Center and the American Symphony Orchestra League, in turn supporting their work with composers.

The NEA began commissioning music in the 1980s, using a consortium model probably borrowed from the Ford Foundation. In 1988, this program was moved to Meet The Composer, where the NEA’s ongoing $200,00 annual commitment was augmented with $500,000 more per year from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund.

In those years the Endowment awarded artist fellowships, which were like a national lottery in which typically 20-30 composers would receive about $10,000. A half-dozen more fellowships were set aside for jazz composers. The Endowment also supported Meet The Composer’s Orchestra Residencies Program sponsoring 29 composers in residencies of two to four years with major orchestras. And the Endowment directly supported a half-dozen short-term composer residencies with orchestras, choruses, operas, or ensembles.

The paradigm of growth began to change with the election of President Reagan. A 50% cut was proposed in 1981, but bitterly fought by the arts community. Reagan formed the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities to examine the issue. Following the Committee’s endorsement of the Endowment, and lobbying by NEA Chairman Frank Hodsoll, the cut sustained was only 10%. (The President’s Committee exists to this day, providing thoughtful and influential reports.) By 1984, the NEA budget had crept back up nearly to its former level.

It was 1989 when the “culture wars” began over exhibits of photography by Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe. The initial Congressional response was measured: a mere $45,000 cut representing the offending grants. Then Senator Jesse Helms introduced an amendment to the appropriation defining the content of works not to be supported by the Endowment, and all hell broke loose. The final compromise left the question of obscenity to the courts, increased to 35% the portion of NEA funds going directly to the state arts councils, and introduced lay people to the peer-review panels.

During this period new music was never the subject of controversy, but composers began to fear the worst. And when the worst came, it affected new music as much as any other field. Opponents to federal funding for the arts had discovered the political effectiveness of denouncing allegedly obscene art, and with the election of a Republican majority led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the prospect of the Endowment not being reauthorized at all became very real. In the great struggle of 1995, the best compromise available was a 40% cut, which took the 1996 budget down to $99 million, where it has remained ever since. And despite the plain fact that offending art works had always been associated with grants to institutions, Congress required that fellowships to individual artists be terminated (with the exceptions of American Jazz Masters, the National Heritage Awards in the folk arts, and Literary Fellows.)

Despite the draconian times, the Endowment has managed to maintain significant support to new music. Chairman Jane Alexander completely reorganized the agency in 1996, ending general operating support to organizations in favor of support to specific projects. While this move ended the NEA’s role of benevolent overseer to the national arts community, it probably spurred application for projects involving new music. The Creation and Presentation area now looks for innovative projects; many opera companies, orchestras, arts presenters, and ensembles send their commissioning projects, or productions of new works, and receive support.

The Endowment also renewed its $200,000 annual commitment to Meet The Composer’s commissioning program, renamed Commissioning Music/USA, so that direct support to composers would not die with the fellowship program. In addition it continued supporting Meet The Composer’s New Residencies, which salaries composers in three-year community-based residencies all over the country. And among the NEA’s major Millennium Grants is Continental Harmony, a community residency program of the American Composers Forum. With composers writing music for communities in all fifty states, Continental Harmony perfectly fits the NEA’s fin-de-siècle populist image.

In the last years of the century, the drive to cut the NEA ran out of steam. The Endowment staff learned to cope with reduced resources and now dares to look forward to growth. The agency is no longer the granddaddy of arts funders, but instead, another project supporter like the foundations. At the same time its mission has added the keyword “diversity” to the original notion of “excellence,” an evolution that has widened its political base but made it less essential to the older institutions it was originally established to nurture. The NEA is still the flagship government arts supporter, but it wields a small fraction of government arts funds, most of which now exist at the state and local levels.

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