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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

50 million dollar fantasy

The $850 billion economic stimulus package being proposed by the Obama Administration includes a one-time $50 million budget item to enhance the National Endowment for the Arts (or NEA). $50 million sounds like a lot of money, but that’s only .0000588 percent of the total stimulus plan, and it will likely be distributed among the 50 states by the NEA.

According to a population estimate for today provided by the US Census, there are 305,694,610 residents in the United States.

Doing some quick math, that amounts to a gross benefit of only 16 cents per citizen for the additional funding by the National Endowment for the Arts.

The proposal to spend 50 million on the arts appears to be very controversial, and I’m pessimistic that this line-item will survive the X-acto knife of Republican members of Congress.

But for the moment, let’s be optimistic and assume that the 50 million for the arts component will pass. How should it be distributed? Given my bias, I think it should largely be awarded to composers and to support performances of their music. It’s long over due, and time that composers for once earned the lion’s share of the blueberry pie. Yes we can!

This would certainly stimulate the economy. For every dollar spent on a new musical work, many individuals in the food chain will directly or indirectly benefit: from music copyists to the performing musicians to the recording engineers to the concert hall proprietors. And after the curtain goes down, it’s not uncommon that after paying all of the bills, that the composer will have little if anything left over. It injects cash into the economy rapidly and broadly.

But how should we specifically distribute the 50 million dollars? Should five composers be commissioned to write five operas limited to a budget of approximately 10 million dollars each? (Not an unreasonable estimate). Or perhaps we should commission just one composer to write a massive work of monumental proportion - a "put a man on the moon"-sized musical work that unequivocally represents the superiority of American musical culture and sends a strong signal to the world. It would have to be worthy of the NEA's slogan: "A Great Nation Deserves Great Art." Of course such a massive project would be awarded to someone rather well-known, and I don’t think that I would make the short list.

On the other extreme, the National Endowment for the Arts could go broad, subsidizing 50 million American composers with a check of $1 each. Perhaps I would make that short list, but even that would be uncertain given my track record. It's hard to calculate the odds, since there is no good way of estimating the number of people residing in the United States who consider themselves composers. But I know that the number is very large, and by some estimates counts into the millions.

It is true that there are at present some music-related grants at the National Endowment for the Arts available for the asking. The American Masterpieces: Chamber Music Project (CFDA No. 45.024 2009 NEA01AMCM 7314800) is one such example. According to the grant program description, it is intended “to acquaint Americans with the best of their cultural and artistic legacy by sponsoring performances, exhibitions, tours, and educational programs across all art forms that will reach large and small communities in all 50 states.”

The NEA project was designed to “celebrate the extraordinary and rich evolution of chamber music in the United States.” The good news is that grants are available for chamber music performances in conjunction with educational activities that will highlight specific repertoire by American composers. Projects may be initiated by eligible organizations of all sizes, genres, and aesthetics such ensembles, presenters, festivals, colleges and universities. BTW, the NEA has defined chamber music as encompassing “music for traditional ensembles such as string quartets and trios, as well as compositions for mixed ensembles, traditional and indigenous instruments, and jazz.”

But the bad news is that commissions and premiere performances are not eligible. Only Nonprofit, tax-exempt 501(c)(3), U.S. organizations; units of state or local government; or federally recognized tribal communities or tribes may apply. Grant require a non federal match of at least 1 to 1.

Back to reality.