A Letter to Your Institution

Arts institutions are under pressure to get with the times. The political and social movements of the last several years have accelerated the need for systemic change in classical music, and while many organizations are onboard with the idea of change, the process of enacting it has at times been messy, rushed, and even harmful to the artists and communities involved. It’s true that we have seen an increase in opportunities for minority creators, but many of these opportunities have not been given the proper time or consideration to make them a positive experience, which places artists in an unfair situation where they must consider giving up a major commission in the name of self-preservation.

So here is a template designed for minority creators who have to run from a project like the lead character of a Jordan Peele film. Inspired by actual events.

Dear [Executive and Artistic Team of Prestigious Arts Institution]:

Thank you for organizing yesterday’s meeting and providing a space for everyone to share their thinking, progress, and/or process as it relates to this project. While I am grateful for the opportunity to further understand peers and colleagues, I left the meeting with a number of concerns and some discomfort.

When we had our introductory meeting, I made it very clear that I could not compose a single note until I had communication with/approval from [name of minority victim]’s family, that they understood the work we are doing on behalf of their relative, and that we had their blessing and even input on the commissioned piece. I believed this was understood and we were all in agreement that this was how we would proceed. I’ve continued to express this position through emails, and reiterated it again in yesterday’s meeting. However, it does not seem that there has been any success in connecting with this family or community.

Yesterday, after hearing that the majority of the compositions for this project have already been completed, I was honestly baffled. It became clear to me that the other composers have not engaged in the type of trust and relationship building that I strongly believe is necessary for this type of work. And while I understand that everyone has different processes, I cannot understand how [prestigious arts institution] could allow this to happen and accept these scores.

Everything feels rushed and deadline driven, leading me to believe that [prestigious arts institution] is more interested in capitalizing on this moment, rather than giving this project the time it deserves, giving these people the respect they deserve, and giving young composers the opportunity to do their best work. Yes, the moment is now, but the moment has always been. The moment is always. The work needs care, thoughtfulness, and time – not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s in the best interest of all parties and the quality and legitimacy of the art. I also feel the need to express that this happens to [minority] artists and [minority] stories far too often. If an institution is going to take the position of an ally, then the institution has to make a respectful investment in handling our stories.

[Minority victim A’s relative] and [minority victim B’s relative] have recently claimed that civil rights activists, attorneys, and organizations are exploiting their cases and loved ones. They have publicly asked famed activists to step down and “stop monopolizing and capitalizing” on their “fight for justice and human rights.” Have there been any [prestigious arts institution] discussions about this, considering the nature of this project? Was there an awareness that this has been happening? I have wondered why our meetings aren’t centered on these conversations, rather than videos, recordings, branding, timelines, etc. If these relatives are taking issue with people and organizations whose primary mission is civil rights, how can we be confident that they will support an arts institution like [prestigious arts institution] and early-career composers taking on the stories of their loved ones?

Yesterday [prestigious arts institution’s street-cred person] shared that a decision has been made to center this project on “[last-minute positive spin].” This pivot feels appropriate and inspiring. Now is the time for everyone to start writing and convening together about what ‘[last minute positive spin]’ looks like, and how we represent that sentiment while honoring these people. But… this is a recent development and the majority of the music has already been written… The order feels disjointed to me. Also, to use “[last minute positive spin]” as the guiding light for a project responding to [hot and tragic social issue of the moment] feels incongruent.

Lastly, I am concerned about the curation of this project. The other composers and myself have two things in common: we are all [minority group] and have a geographical connection to the locales where the [hot and tragic social issue of the moment] took place. After learning more about everyone and hearing them speak, it’s extremely evident that our experiences, aesthetics, approaches, and points of view are vastly disparate. Of course it is possible to have a group of people with these contrasts come together and make beautiful, strong work, but there has to be a cohesive thread that is deeper than demographics. And again, there has to be an investment of time so a group like this has the opportunity to learn from one another and exchange ideas – this is in the best interest of the work.

The artistic leadership has made it very clear that this has been a huge learning process, and I appreciate the willingness to be open in learning and the honesty in that. However, considering my position and concerns above, I do not think that I am a good fit for this project and need to rescind my acceptance of this commission. It is unfortunate, but I sincerely hope that this project evolves responsibly, achieves success, and is a positive experience for the composers, families, and communities involved.



I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, and is made possible thanks to generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF.

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