Wednesday, October 01, 2008


I've spent the past week or so interviewing people somehow connected to the Intel Science Talent Search, the Davidson Fellowships and other competitions. What's fascinating to me is how these high-profile, big money contests, and the rising competitiveness of college admissions, are spawning high school research programs. These programs give students the time, support, and skills necessary to do graduate level science research. (For one example see the Baltimore Ingenuity Project here). Students then enter their results in these contests.

Obviously, recognition is a big part of the lure. Even before students won tens of thousands of dollars in these competitions, lots of people entered (the old Westinghouse Science Talent Search prizes were quite a bit smaller than the current levels). But money is part of it. What gets rewarded gets done.

Is that bribing? Maybe. But I prefer to think of it as more of a retroactive patronage type concept.

You can't go visit museums without hearing about the old patron systems in Renaissance Italy. The Medicis had their favorite artists, as did the popes. They gave these artists commissions, supported them financially, and hence inspired some of the greatest works in western art. In the purest form of patronage, patrons give support to creative types not in recognition of some particular work (as the Intel competition does), but because you expect there will be future great work (though the two are always intertwined; people are judged on their portfolios).

I've become involved with this on a very small scale of late. My choir, the Young New Yorkers' Chorus, sponsors an annual Competition for Young Composers. We solicit applications from all over the country. People submit previously composed choral works. We then choose three composers we think can do a great job and commission new works from them. We premiere these works in New York each spring, and give cash prizes (for the entry form, see here).

We've realized that it doesn't take much money to create great works of art. We also realize that we can fill an important niche. Student composers write works for classes. "Grown up" composers are more established in their careers and often have contracts with music publishers and big choruses or orchestras. But younger artists are trying to take risks, and often have less of an established market. They are trying to get on the map. They need patronage for that space between academics and the commercial market.

As a plus for us, when these composers hit it big (and they will) we will be known as the chorus that premiered their early works.

I've been trying to think about how good patronage programs would work in other fields. The MacArthur grants are obviously a good example -- $500,000 to do whatever you'd like. There are prizes for young economists doing good work early in their careers. Certain gallery owners nurture young artists. But it's probably an aspect of talent development that could use more cash, attention, and creativity.

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