Size Matters.

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Last week, the Wall Street Journal published an article by Larry Blumenthal, celebrating Jazz at Lincoln Center’s fifth season in Rose Hall and evaluating J@LC’s impact on the New York jazz scene. Chris Rich, at Brilliant Corners, posted this characteristically acerbic response. Couched in Rich’s flame-thrower language, however, was an idea that I think deserves further exploration.  About J@LC’s $38 million budget, Rich writes:

“Most musicians I know who actually keep the parasite afflicted idiom alive and healthy are quite thrilled to do a gig for 600 bucks a person. That is good money, so 38 million is more than fifty thousand gig units.  You could buy an instrument for every poor kid in LA, New York City, Chicago and New Orleans who wants one and probably have enough change to pay their tuition at Julliard.”

This is the common complaint against J@LC — that all that money could be better spent if it was dispersed through the jazz community, rather than consolidated at one institution.  There are a few other institutions that give artistic grants for jazz, such as the NEA and the MacArthur Foundation, and these spread wealth out into the community. But their grants tend to be huge lump sums to established artists, and thus prosperity is not so widely shared. Besides, there weren’t even any musicians listed among this year’s recipients of the MacArthur “Genius” Grants.  This kind of top-down support is good, but it is not enough to maintain the grassroots of a community. What might an alternative look like?

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Microfinance has been a growing trend over the past few years. The concept is simple: organizations such as Kiva, or institutions like Grameen Bank, offer small loans to impoverished people with minimal collateral, and the loans allow the people to buy small things, such as a water pump, or a plow, or dairy cow, which in turn help those people lift themselves out of poverty. Muhammed Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for his work. While microfinance was initially based around the lending and repayment of loans, the same type of miniaturization could apply to charitable grant making.

There are some organizations already pursuing this approach in the arts, but they are small, and not focused on jazz. Society6 offers both monetary and opportunity grants, but they are mostly for visual artists and designers. Fractured Atlas offers microgrants that are available to musicians, but they are only for skill development, such as attending workshops and conventions. Actual artistic projects are not funded by these grants. My idea is for an organization that is giving grants expressly for the creation of artistic work.

The MacArthur Foundation gives away about 4-6% of the value of its endowment annually. This is typical of major endowments; they hope to earn 10-11%, spend half of the earnings, and reinvest the other half. So let’s imagine a foundation with an endowment of 1 million dollars. This foundation could easily give away $50,000 a year, in the form of fifty $1000 grants. For most young and struggling jazz musicians, $1000 is a lot of money.  That’s money that could be spent making a recording, or putting together a large ensemble project, or going on tour. Now imagine an institution the size of J@LC. Their annual budget of $38 million would allow for 1,900 microgrants of $1000. Of course, $38 million is only J@LC’s operating budget; the actual value of their assets is reported to be over $200 million. But it’s best not to think about that.

Now, I’m not suggesting that J@LC be razed. I agree with Dave Douglas’s assertion that on the whole, they probably do more good than harm. But I am surprised that there does not seem to be any major jazz organization pursuing a contrasting, bottom-up approach to institutional jazz. Why might this be?

The most obvious problem, I suspect, is fundraising. We must give credit where it is due: J@LC does an incredible job finding donors. I don’t think it is fair to say that J@LC hogs all the jazz funding, shutting out everyone else – it isn’t as if all that money was just sitting in a pile, waiting to be claimed by some lucky jazz musician. J@LC works hard to pry that money from donors, and they use the size and prestige of their institution as leverage. In return, donors like to see what they get for their money, whether it’s a named chair in Rose Hall, or just the feeling that they helped pay for a brick of the building. However, the tangible results of microgrants would be less visible. It’s hard enough getting donors for a new institution, so the temptation would be to use the money for one big thing to garner publicity, rather than spending it on many small things that might go unnoticed. Perhaps if the grants were focused in a small enough region, there would be a noticeable blossoming of artistic activity, which could then be publicized and sold as a media-worthy story.

What are some other structural obstacles to such an organization? Would taxes make such small grants pointless? Would the administrative task of overseeing so many grant applications be too much? I really don’t know much about this stuff, so please comment if you have any thoughts!

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Published in: on October 1, 2009 at 4:41 am  Comments (5)  

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Great stuff. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

  2. INTERESTING !!!!! I APPRECIATED READING THIS ARTICLE, AND THIS TOPIC SHOULD BE EXPLORED, AND PRESENTED IN AS MANY WAYS AS POSSIBLE. !!

  3. This reminds me of my favorite Dave Attell line – “They have a new reality show to find the best boxer. We already have something like that. It’s called boxing.”

    We already have a system of microfinance for jazz musicians. It’s called going to see a show.

  4. Great idea! My suggestion is that a group of music educators in jazz approach the J@LC for “seed” money to start a subsidiary that gives microgrants of the kind you’re talking about. The bureaucratic mechanism is already in place. It’s cheaper and more effective than reinventing the wheel. And, doing it through a consortium of educators would lend it legitimacy – deserved or not.

  5. Unbelievable that Wynton took a Lincoln Navigator from NYC to Banff! He could have taken a compact car instead and used the extra gas money to, I don’t know…make a microgrant? Or he could just give a shit about the planet. I hate to pile on just because it’s Wynton, but seriously…touring in a gas-guzzling luxury vehicle is going to alienate you from jazz musicians like all hell, and he has to know that by this time. It seems, then, that Chris Rich is correct in lumping him in with “looters” and the “two-tiered society.”


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