On the Money: New Music Funding in the United States

America’s first big foundations were created in the second decade of the twentieth century from the steel, oil, and banking fortunes of Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Russell Sage. Their chief aim was to ameliorate the living and economic conditions of immigrants and the poor.

It was only in 1957 – at the midpoint of foundations’ history to date – that the Ford Foundation initiated a systematic approach to nurturing the arts in America. The cause of American music and American musicians was at the forefront of Ford’s concerns: one of its first arts grants was to the American Music Center, $210,000 in 1957 for a series of orchestral consortium commissions and performances.

Two funds had already been established at the Library of Congress, setting an example of public-private partnership in commissioning music: the Coolidge Foundation in 1924 and the Koussevitzky Fund in 1943. Other significant bequests specifically for new music include the Alice M. Ditson Fund, the Virgil Thomson Foundation, and the Aaron Copland Fund for Music.

But it was the Ford program that spurred other large and small foundations to musical action. Today, a large proportion of foundations support the arts in various ways. Arts giving is a relatively small but healthy portion of the $22.8 billion foundations gave in 1999, a figure that has been rising sharply with the economic expansion.

Direct support to individual artists – including commissions or fellowships for composers – is rare among foundations. Early on foundations were “criticized for allowing committees of composers to award commissions,” according to a Ford Foundation report. “Too often the composers anointed their friends and disciples, who created what has come to be known as ‘foundation music’,” which is to say, music without a public. Brave exceptions to this general rule today include the Jerome Foundation and the McKnight Foundation, both located in Minnesota and both willing to entrust funds directly to composers.

But in general, foundations have channeled their support for new music through arts organizations like orchestras, opera companies, chamber groups, and arts presenters, and through the local and national composer service organizations.

In the 1980s the Rockefeller Foundation led several important initiatives for contemporary music, chiefly the Meet The Composer Orchestra Residencies Program and the creation of New World Records. The Pew Charitable Trusts emerged as a major arts donor at about the same time. In addition to support through Meet the Composer, Pew created a fellowship program that has spawned several imitators.

Throughout the 1990s, the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund was the largest private donor to the arts. Its contributions helped build an infrastructure of support for contemporary artists of all kinds, supporting long-term ventures like the Meet The Composer Commissioning Program, the National Jazz Network, and the National Performance Network. In the late 1990s Lila Wallace changed its focus from developing the future of the art forms, to developing the future audience, and began investing its considerable resources in audience development projects.

Unfortunately, few other national foundations have shown consistent support for music, new or old. Others that have given support for performance or service organizations include the Andrew Mellon Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the Helen F. Whitaker Fund. Some states are rich in regional foundations that are creative in supporting contemporary music, like California with the Irvine and Packard Foundations, among others. New York City is very fortunate in the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust‘s commissioning program (which is one of the largest in the country), its recording program, and its general operating support to organizations (all restricted to New York City).

During the 1990s, attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts generated first concern among foundations that supported the arts, and finally action. When most NEA fellowships were terminated by Congress, a consortium of foundations formed a new agency, the Creative Capital Foundation, to support individual artists including composers. CCF made its first round of grants in 1999.

Also during the 1990s the trend toward a wider definition of culture took hold. Foundations, along with universities and arts service organizations, made a concerted effort to address the needs of artistic expression beyond the European-American tradition, meaning serious attempts to fund jazz and folk-based musics from every part of the world.

Among several enormous new foundations to spring up at the very end of the century, only the Doris Duke Foundation shows major interest in music, fulfilling its namesake’s passion for jazz. Most of the Silicon Valley fortunes that are ripening into foundations have aims in education, health, and access to high technology. The first exception: Paul Allen, Microsoft co-founder, who put $240 million into the Experience Music Project, a high-tech experiential museum of rock-and-roll.

Foundation assets continue to grow at a fast pace. Though foundation priorities can show considerable swing, it’s a safe bet that support for contemporary music in its many forms will continue to grow too.

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