A winding path through institutional, government and private icons

A Guide to Financing Your Artistic Vision

You decided pretty early on in your conservatory days that a typical classical music career wasn’t for you. Now your string-fusion ensemble, festival or great new music gadget is starting to explode! You want to take it to the next level, but you are up against the same issue every entrepreneur or innovator faces: funding.

“When I was at Juilliard there were so many people starting their own organizations – it’s definitely become the way of the future,” says composer Paola Prestini, head of Brooklyn, N.Y.’s National Sawdust, an artist-led “incubator” for musical work. “Small organizations can remain flexible to the needs of the artists.”

…all it takes is a little creativity to tap into a world of resources that is richer and more eclectic than ever before.

Prestini and others working outside typical classical music career channels love the freedom of creating their own musical entity but acknowledge they miss the predictable income that might come with a full-time gig like an orchestra chair position. Still, she and others who have successfully built careers outside the traditional venues say all it takes is a little creativity to tap into a world of resources that is richer and more eclectic than ever before.

No doubt about it: Government funding, particularly for the individual artist or ensemble, has shrunk in recent decades. But “there are different pots of funding. A lot of corporations are really looking to fund innovative works,” Prestini observes. “I think it’s an exciting time.”

“I loved playing orchestral music, but as a job, it wasn’t everything for me,” says Melissa Snoza, executive director and founding member of Chicago’s innovative Fifth House Ensemble, now in its 10th year. A veteran of orchestra positions as a flutist with Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and Civic Orchestra of Chicago, Snoza and some of her Civic Orchestra colleagues found themselves inspired by community outreach that led to performing in nontraditional spaces.

“It was one of the first times I was playing for people who weren’t my musical peers and evaluators,” Snoza says. “I also felt that the decisions that we made as an ensemble made a huge difference in terms of the kind of light bulbs we saw going off for the audience.”

The light bulb went off for Snoza, too: It became her mission to inhabit the nontraditional space, reinventing chamber music for new audiences. In a decade, she and fellow founding members have built a successful nonprofit with an annual operating budget of $400,000 and the offshoot fresh inc, a two-week festival and workshop designed for musicians with similar entrepreneurial goals.

If you think raising money is dirty business, get over it. “Beethoven had to do this, too. Look it up.”

Snoza’s first piece of advice won’t take two weeks to read but could take some time for many musicians to internalize: If you think raising money is dirty business, get over it. “Beethoven had to do this, too. Look it up,” she says bluntly.

Before beginning your list of possible funding sources, Snoza and others suggest refining your mission statement. Whether you are a musician fresh out of (or still in) school or an established artist seeking to enhance your career with a new ensemble, pursuing dollars is a lot easier if you know your goals and how to communicate them to others.

John Forsyte is president of Pacific Symphony Orchestra based in California’s Orange County, where many orchestra members play with other ensembles as an adjunct to their orchestra career. He says the musician looking to build an ensemble or solo entity outside of an orchestra must identify and articulate how the objective is different from the pack.

“Are they serving the community in a specific way? How are they doing it differently or more effectively?” Forsyte says. “You can’t simply be creating more, but better.

“The key is [asking yourself] what your identity is in the art form,” Forsyte adds. “If they don’t have that very clear in their minds, it’s very difficult to promote their project.” Preparing that mission statement might be easier if you are a traditional string quartet performing the classical canon. On the other hand, you might just stand out with a new music ensemble that comprises a bassoon, a piccolo, a soprano and an electric guitar.

Another internal hurdle before the “ask”: Stop thinking of your fellow musicians as competitors. Mark Clague, associate professor of musicology and director of entrepreneurship and career services at the University of Michigan, says it can be tough for a musician whose education has been geared toward gladiatorial competition for an orchestra seat. Clague and others suggest that building the nontraditional career means seeing your peers as a resource – make friends, connect through social media, go to their concerts. If they are successfully doing what you want to do, buy them a cup of coffee, and ask them how they did it. “Find your tribe,” says Clague.

OK, friendly extroverted musician, you are now ready to examine possible funding resources in these possible categories: earned income, government support (city, state, county, regional and/or federal) and private donations (individuals, organizations, foundations). The “tribe” of musical entrepreneurs interviewed for this story are full of solid advice on how to leverage those resources to their best advantage, often depending on how advanced you are in your musical career.

40 percent of the NEA’s current annual appropriation of $146 million goes to support state arts institutions, many of which offer individual artists grants for the solo player or the ensemble…

For the newcomer, government support can be hard nut to crack. For even the most established nonprofit institutions, government funding usually represents 10 percent or less of a total operating budget. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) no longer provides individual artists grants with the exception of literary fellowships. Although there exists a handful of project-based grants available to ensembles at the federal level, only nonprofits that have achieved 501 c 3 status can apply.

But good news: 40 percent of the NEA’s current annual appropriation of $146 million goes to support state arts institutions, many of which offer individual artists grants for the solo player or the ensemble, although most states also require 501 c 3 status to apply. And even if you have not yet achieved 501 c 3 status or do not aspire to that model, representatives of state arts agencies suggest connecting with your state to find out about a whole range of resources, including artist rosters and umbrella organizations with which you or your group might connect. (A hint from several professionals and funders: If you are hoping to get gigs from being on such a roster, make sure you can sight read.)

Michael Lange, executive director of the Wyoming Arts Council, suggests not limiting yourself to arts support organizations when mining the possibilities. As an example, he cites a group of visual artists who got funding for a pop-up gallery via the Main Street Alliance in Laramie, Wyo., a nonprofit with the mission of downtown preservation. The same can apply for musician. An alternative performance space might fall under the auspices, of say, a department of parks and recreation, not an arts council. A city department of tourism might get a request from outside the U.S. to recommend a musical entity to tour their country.

Individuals, corporations and foundations are traditional avenues of funding, but there’s a chance to think outside the box when it comes to making new connections. Nashville’s year-old chatterbird alt-classical ensemble, is doing just that.

Chatterbird achieved 501 c 3 status just a couple of months ago and survives on a modest $17,000 budget. Flutist and artistic director Celine Thackston says that the commercial capital of country music can be a tough town for a nonprofit, but they’ve tapped into unusual funding sources including a grant from the Danielle Rose Paikin Foundation.

“We connected with them through a friend,” says Thackston. “She was a young woman who was a banjo player and an ethnomusicologist who was killed by a drunk driver. Her mother established this foundation in her memory. They just liked what we were doing musically.”

…some ensembles choose to establish organizations
with a structure that includes both for-profit and nonprofit arms to be able to both fundraise and perform for professional fees.

Across the board, musicians say that establishing a new musical entity requires identifying multiple revenue streams. For this reason, some ensembles choose to establish organizations with a structure that includes both for-profit and nonprofit arms to be able to both fundraise and perform for professional fees. Snoza says Fifth House began with such a dual structure but has since dissolved its for-profit (LLC) arm.

Los Angeles-based Calder Quartet, founded in 1998, maintains a nonprofit component to serve the group’s commissioning, recording and educational goals. Violinist Andrew Bulbrook says the group has received project-based grants from the NEA and receives government funding indirectly, in that they are often paid to perform by institutions that receive government support.

Whether developing a nonprofit or a business model, Bulbrook advises musicians forging careers outside the orchestra to expect to devote a lot of time to administrative tasks. And, for those trained to see the orchestra seat as a single goal, get used to the feeling that you are forever seeking the next job.

“The horizon is always out there,” Bulbrook says. “You have to have an entrepreneurial sense about what you are doing, and in that state of mind you are always hungry. You are always looking for the next thing. But it can be really great.”

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Diane Haithman

After two decades covering Hollywood and the arts as a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, L.A.-based writer Diane Haithman continues to explore both fine arts and pop culture in an eclectic freelance career. …more 

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