On funding

no_dollar_sign-290x290The relationship between artists and arts funders seems ever more complicated. It seems to me that most funders (trusts, public sector funders, private sponsors) lack the energy, time or knowledge to vet funding applications in the arts on the basis of merit or quality. The problem is compounded in music as few people making decisions about musical projects can read a score well enough to judge its merits. Instead, these days funders decide in advance who or what they want to fund, and artists have to somehow find a way to thread their artistic vision through the hole in someone else’s needle.

Take for instance a new and worthy scheme for supporting repeat performances of new musical work- it’s a wonderful idea, but the scheme has already decided which pieces by which composers they will fund. What if one wants to support one of the composers in the scheme, but the selected works are not programmable for that organization but others would be? What if a performing organization or artist thinks there are, dare I say it, better or more deserving composers not on the list? A project whose laudable goal is expanding the repertoire becomes self-limiting both in terms of the composers and works which could benefit from its support, but also limits which organization’s skills, talents and networks the funding organization can benefit from.

Has it always been thus? Why do some artists and composers become “fundable” and others, equally deserving, not? I fear it has far too much to do with the clique-ish and tribal nature of the arts. If you’re in the club, you’re in the club. If you’re not, you’re not, and you’re probably not going to be. There are many great, great artists in the club, but also plenty whose last ten projects were stinkers, but they’re still fundable because of something they did (or someone they knew) in 1974.

In an industry that seems to be crying out for innovation, an industry that oozes group-think on an industrial scale, why is it so hard make the case that something genuinely new is a good idea worth funding? Rather than subsidize the 1 percent of artists who have already made it, why not invest more in identifying extraordinary talents who have not yet had their time in the sun? It seems that we’ve reached the point where there is almost no mechanism by which a credible artist or organization can make the case from scratch that a given project is worth funding solely on merit. When you’ve reached the point at which one can only fund projects  and people who are already funded, or duplicate work already being done, or commission composers/authors/artists who are already being supported, the phrase “creative industries” starts to sound ever more oxymoronic. Industry is about mass production, about churning out consumer-ready content, whether it’s cars or ten minute concert openers with catchy titles. What is creative about that? It seems our funding paradigm has actually forced us into a consumerist, semi-oligarchical business model in the arts.

Where there is money, there will always be politics, but surely there ought to be some scope for more transparency and more peer review of funding applications?

Meanwhile, I know that the best way to look after my own orchestra and the artists I want to support is to focus on making me and the orchestra fit the “who we want to fund” box. We’re very lucky that some of what we want to do is what people want to fund, and some people want to fund us because of who we are. Bless everyone of our supporters for everything they do to help make the music possible. But how do we develop new ideas, how to we find new audiences, how do we support new voices if they’re not already on the who/what lists?

What do you think?

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

17 comments on “On funding”

  1. Paul via CB

    An interesting perspective. In my experience with Chamber Cartel here in Atlanta, we have struggled to get funding to perform recently composed works, but have had much more success commissioning new works. Since I’m not personally involved in the commissioning process, I don’t know if we focus on established composers or actively seek out new ones. I do know we have performed works by an incredibly wide variety of composers in the last five years.

    Getting funding for the community band is an entirely different approach. We are actively seeking operating funds rather than commissioning funds. Rarely do we get asked about the composers we play. We get asked, almost exclusively, about the target audience. The more minorities we say we can reach, the more funding we receive from government grants. As a result, we have played in quite a few places we would not normally have performed and have exposed quite a few people to a genre and composers they may not have heard. That is another way to say that sometimes the exposure to new composers can come from a different approach.

  2. Jo via FB

    Since every time I look for funding I’m told to ‘just get a grant’ or ‘just get a job and fund it yourself,’……actually, I think I’m going to stop right there.

  3. Robin via FB

    Another good post Ken, thank you. This sums up my feelings and experience very well. It’s a deeply frustrating business – ie current, UK music funding – with a lot of hoop-jumping, a massive paper-trail (often to no end), and so many examples of emperor’s new clothes that it becomes insulting to the intelligence. I sometimes wonder if we don’t need a shake up in ACE at all, but a radical, entirely new business model

  4. Tom via FB

    I share all these frustrations and observe that all too often, and old school tie (or University tie) seems to make all the difference. However I console myself by reading Mozart’s letters, as he probably had it worse than the rest of us put together…. Having said that, I wonder if I could even afford a pauper’s grave in my part of London now!

  5. Jason via FB

    Read your blog and your frustrations are deeply shared. The agendas are set it seems almost arbitrarily but I suspect there is wheeling and dealing going on in the background between ACE and larger music organisations than yours or mine or Robin’s. Mix into this a degree of london centric thinking and you have the outcome. Indeed the front of the document you refer has a piccy of the Aurora Orchestra whose offices happen to be in the same corridor as London Sinfonietta, OAE and Orchestras Live. This particular blend I think will probably never change. I’m not touting conspiracy by the way just that ACE look after their major investments first and facilitate those organisations first. On that particular list is Tippett The Rose Lake. I would love to programme that in Bath for obvious reasons but the finance being offered would never cover anything like enough rehearsal time let alone anything else. So that work could only be taken on by an ensemble that could provide the additional subsidy to do that. So it is what it is I think. I know lets all rent a hot desk at Kings Place😎

  6. Rod via FB

    Ken Woods said: “It seems to me that most funders (trusts, public sector funders, private sponsors) lack the energy, time or knowledge to vet funding applications in the arts on the basis of merit or quality”. The problem Ken is that valuations in general are subjective. There is no such thing as objective evaluation merit or quality, especially in the field of music. In disciplines where you have measurable data, perhaps, but even then, consumers rarely just purchase what is objectively good for them. Considering this, one can safely assume that arts funders are indeed funding what they believe has merit, or quality. How they measure and reach those conclusions is obviously different from how you do it. https://wiki.mises.org/wiki/Subjective_theory_of_value

  7. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Rod. I actually fundamentally disagree with you when you say “There is no such thing as objective evaluation merit or quality, especially in the field of music.” I would contend really great art has intrinsic value which is absolute, and can’t be changed or diminished based on what people believe about it. Bach is Bach- it was Bach in 1800 when it was very unfashionable and it’s Bach now, and it’s great. A kilogram has a mass of a kilogram, even if you put it in zero gravity and change the perceived weight of it. The St Matthew Passion is a great work because of what is intrinsically in the score. We may struggle to articulate why, people may not want to admit it, people may not like it, but it’s a great work. Artistic quality can take many forms, and some are harder to measure than others- just as it’s harder to measure a kilogram of nitrogen than a kilogram of lead. But one can measure the weight of a gas- you just need special skills and infrastructure. Evaluating art is even harder and by nature more imprecise becuase art works on us- it’s hard/impossible to remain objective, but the quality of the art is absolute and intrinsic, and it’s well worth the effort to understand that value as accurately as we can. Throwing our hands up in the air and saying “it’s all a matter of taste” I reject absolutely. Hope all is well with you- hopefully there will be another Niagaran hang out in our future one of these days!

  8. Joesphe via FB

    Ken Woods , it seems like this attitude (There is no such thing as objective evaluation merit or quality, especially in the field of music) is as dangerous as it is foolish. I agree with your response, absolutely. Unfortunately it is this attitude which I fear has been a driving force, rather than a symptom, of the alarming lack of quality among modern composers. Craftsmanship and a healthy regard for aesthetics have waned, and the idea that ‘anyone can compose/create/write’ obfuscates the necessity for diligent–and often rather boring–meticulousness in the creative process. This is done under the guise of ‘inspiration,’ often argued as being ‘groundbreaking’ or ‘revolutionary’ or ‘unique’–and therefore, it is reasoned, impossible to regard ‘objectively.’ One of the fundamental principles of classicism (and Classicism) is ‘good taste.’ This is not that same sort of taste which gives itself over to whims of fashion or prostrates itself in voguish and provocative poses: it is that sort of taste which the senses, aesthetic and intellectual, must regard with great care. This sense of good taste knows the difference between that which shocks and that which provokes; that which is sexual and that which is erotic; that which is learned (too often spoken with an accent) and that which is wise. And, of course–that which is clever and begs for attention, and that which is profound and invites a discussion. But how do we insist that our leaders learn these distinctions, and how do we encourage our colleagues to hold fast to them?

  9. Kenneth Woods

    Joseph- I actually also don’t quite agree with you! I’m not sure aesthetics have anything at all to do with the quality of a work of art. Aesthetics are an extrinsic quality of the work- they belong to the viewer, or the creator, but not the work of art itself. Ultimately, the value of the work of art is the work of art itself, not what we think of it. There are plenty of examples of composers underestimating their own pieces. And certainly, taste is just as fleeting a concept, and ultimately meaningless. One generations good taste is another’s straight jacket. Taste is subjective and subject to change. Would Mozart have accepted Schumann’s idea of good taste? Probably not. I do, however, completely share your skepticism of putting novelty at the forefront of what new music is about. What could be less interesting about a work of art than it’s relative newness…

  10. Rod via FB

    Ken Woods, thank you for your detailed response and your kind wishes. Even if I agreed with that everyone must like Bach, valuations against scarce resources, like money and time, require an ordinal classification. If a kid has $0.99, and she needs to choose between buying a tract of st. Matthew passion on iTunes, or buying a track of a rapper, a choice has to be made, and it is a matter of taste, whether you like it or not only one of the two artist’s will get funded.

  11. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Rod! I absolutely don’t expect that everyone like Bach. My point is that it doesn’t matter at all if ANYONE likes Bach- it’s great art. A majority of Americans don’t accept the theory of evolution, but it is a proven scientific fact. In earlier times, 99% of the human race thought the Earth was flat- they were wrong, the Earth was round. Some part (by no means all!) of the funding system for the arts ought to take a more objective approach-rather than saying “will people like this” or “who else is programming this composer” they should say “is this good music.” There are people out there who can recognize the difference between quality and crap with remarkable consistency. We need more of them involved in the decision making process. Your kid with 99 cents shouldn’t have to make those choices, any more than a student should decide what the teacher is going to teach them….

  12. Ben via FB

    Having just been turned down for funding for the most wooly of reasons, I don’t think this can possibly be too negative!!!

  13. Gary via FB

    Ken Woods but the decision makers at the time of Bach would probably have chosen Telemann. In the 1820s the Viennese rated Hummel on a par with Beethoven – and Schubert was barely known outside of his own circle. Without the benefit of historical perspective I would argue that it’s very difficult to be completely objective about the aesthetic merit of any or the arts. Only about 15 years ago Classical Music ran an article equating Blur with Beethoven…

  14. Kenneth Woods

    Of course its difficult- it is in the sciences, too. It’s very hard to know which research will be most important in 50 years, but one should certainly make the effort, rather than just saying “what is the most popular kind of science we can fund” or “what kind of science are my school buddies from Cambridge doing these days”. Beethoven and Mozart both knew their JS Bach backwards at a time when Bach’s music was completely unfashionable, so there are always people who can see substance in art when others have missed the point.

  15. Peter

    Well – all funding systems are flawed, and the greater the demands made on them, the more they need to find ways to exclude applicants. However, a wild card element would be very creative – allocating say 10% to people or organisations who have never been funded before. But whatever you do, over time, people work out the system and you soon find that everyone is hailing their latest discovery and the usual suspects are queuing up, because they are smart and professional in their approach. Creative impulses should ideally be independent of the funding system, and we have to hope that, if an impulse is genuine, whatever its form or aesthetic background, it will find its way into the world.

    It is true that funding applications are becoming more and more rigorous and quasi-objective in how they are scored. This is in the interests of fairness and being able to demonstrate how a decision has been made. (Litigiousness and political accountability encourage this.) Any system will inevitably be imperfect, and you would hope, now and again, someone in high places still has the capacity to sense a whiff of potential which is not immediately obvious in a routine application, but which nevertheless arouses interest intuitively.

    There again, how much great art and music ever came from a public grant awarded on a competitive basis? Not much. Subsidy should be about putting in place the infrastructure end ecology for good work, rather than interfering in the creative process.

  16. Peter Sheeran

    My experience is that if you know the right people you are more likely to get the support – no matter what the project. That does not apply to everything, but it does apply to far too much. You either know these people or you build from the base (a slow process)

  17. Philip Amos

    An exceptionally fine post, Kenneth. I should it nigh impossible for British music lovers and musicians to read it without thinking of the British Arts Council. Not long ago they created a furore by incomprehensible decisions to fund this orchestra or this opera company but not that one and less money for that one. If they have criteria for this, God alone knows what they are. But, as a Londoner now living in Canada, I must think the Canada Council far worse, precisely because they do have known criteria. It is mighty difficult for academic researchers, artistic companies, or individual artists to function in Canada without funds from the CC. And the CC dictates what you may or may not get funding for. They announce that preference is now given to academic research if the resulting book is written by two academics, not one. It should be in the area of social history, not diplomatic, political, etc. They make it known that in the coming year, if an artist or artistic company wants funding, the project they submit had better involve a minority of some sort or other. I must say that Canada in general is not what people in other countries seem to think it is, and in this case, we have a typical example of one massive and frightening problem: The CC’s stranglehold on the country’s cultural and intellectual endeavours. It is hugely refreshing to occasionally meet someone who simply will not submit to this and manages to get funding from elsewhere, very difficult, or just go it completely alone. I only say here what every academic or artist in Canada knows only too well.

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