Wild Children of the Arts

Artists Without Organizations


I have a special place in my heart for independent artists, and I’m proud to count myself as one of them. Individual artists enjoy an expansive creative freedom. We’re the wild flowers of the arts garden, and we do things a bit differently, including exploring new business models for producing work.

Let’s look back at funding for individual artists. In the early 1990s, because of controversial subject matter, the performing artists known as the NEA Four (Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck and Holly Hughes) lost their NEA grants. In litigation that spanned several years and advanced to the US Supreme Court, the artists recovered their funding, but the NEA individual performing artist grants collapsed in a fervor of controversy (the NEA’s individual literary fellowships endure).

The Guggenheim Fellowships, Creative Capital and the Multi-Arts Project Fund are among several remaining nationallevel funding sources for individual performing artists, but there are scant few local and regional grants open to individual performing artists, particularly unclassifiable collaborative teams, and interpretive artists such as classical musicians and theater artists.

Many granting bodies prohibit funding to individuals, encouraging (often expecting) artists to form nonprofit organizations to further their creative endeavors. Birthing a nonprofit organization is admirable, hugely challenging, and may ultimately benefit the founding artists, however, a nascent organization’s maintenance is an art itself, outside its mission.

The demands of building and tending to a board of directors and fostering the committee decision making process are substantial. Some organizations are blessed with engaged and experienced board members, others struggle with apathetic or over-involved members pressuring artistic decisions. For many artists who lead nonprofits, organizational obligations dominate their time and overshadow their creative work.

Violinist Pei-Ju Wu and cellist Patrick Moore of the Quartus Chamber Players.

There are nimbler models for art-making and new options for funding creative work. Questioning the arts business status quo is essential, especially now when arts funding is precarious. As arts business practices continue to shift in favor of what works for artists, partnerships are emerging, like the union between Fractured Atlas, an arts service organization, and Indie Go-Go, an online fundraising tool. Their combined services offer artists the benefits of operating under the umbrella of a nonprofit, effectively reinventing the patron system for the 21st century. A re-birth of the passionate individual donor, one who directly funds artists, is proving to be a lifeline to the arts.

Commitment to an independent aesthetic, coupled with a rare freedom to reinvent oneself in an ever-morphing artistic process, is the hallmark of an artist operating outside the confines of an organization.

I started producing my own work by deconstructing obscure opera works and re-imagining art song theater. Now, I’m creating original, collaborative music theater pieces, and producing recording and video projects. I may have been able to transform as quickly under a nonprofit, but as an independent artist, I simply remain true to my creative vision, and that’s the artist’s task. Kindred spirit, composer George Heathco, a Da Camera Houston Young Artist Program alum, also fuses his creative impulse with a unique freedom. His music is a bold synthesis of contemporary concert music, rock, jazz, and pop genres, and he asserts his indie business practices as unabashedly.

“As a young composer, I’m at a stage where I’m discovering just how okay it is to write music however I want, for whomever I want,” says Heathco. “The biggest trick is learning to be crafty towards balancing artistic integrity with a shrewd business sense.”

Many Houston performing artists choose to create work individually, or in small ensembles, without nonprofit designation. Their work tends to be project driven, with all funds raised directly advancing the artistic work. Counted among these artists are classical musicians, Quartus Chamber Players, a string ensemble dedicated to sharing chamber music through concerts and educational programming; a bevy of composers including Chris Becker and Dominick DiOrio; and contemporary choreographers Becky Valls and Toni Valle.

“I’m able to spend 75 percent of my time in the creative process and 25 percent raising funds for the current project, rather than 75 percent running a nonprofit and 25 percent in the creative process,” says Valle. Her unwavering devotion to her craft dictates the business model best suited to the art, not the other way around.

Individual donors inherently embrace the nurturing personal relationship between artist and audience; many granting institutions, quite frankly, do not — perhaps the question is, do we value the creative work of individual performing artists or do we solely value established organizations? Why invest in artistic legacy over innovative project? A healthy cultural ecosystem calls for a myriad of strategies to cultivate artistic work.

Picture a culture is which established arts organizations exist alongside, perhaps even embrace individual artists and small, lithe, fast-to-respond-to-marketdemands ensembles, each contributing to a rich, artistic spectrum.


Misha Penton is a classical singer, new opera-music performer, theater artist, and general shaker-upper. www.mishapenton.com