A Foundation Goes All-In On Classical Music Education for Underrepresented Communities

A little over two years ago, the William Penn Foundation announced funding cuts to Philadelphia's dance organizations. And while the reaction among the dance community was understandably swift and strident—"It's like cutting off the legs and cutting out the heart," said choreographer and dancer Melanie Stewart—the cuts also underscored the degree to which an entire city's arts sector can be reliant on a single funder.

Fortunately, the pendulum sometimes swings both ways. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation recently made an unprecedented $2.5 million multi-year grant to the Philadelphia Music Alliance for Youth (PMAY)—a consortium of music education organizations serving students all over Greater Philadelphia.

Overnight, the grantmaker has become one of the preeminent funders of the city's music organizations. Its goal: Remove barriers to music mastery for young instrumental musicians from underrepresented communities.  

To that end, the grant will prepare the most committed young musicians in the area, ensuring that they possess the "necessary skills and talents to excel in conservatory, college, or university settings." The newly funded program—known as the "PMAY Artists' Initiative"—will start this spring with musician recruitment, and the first group of around 75 student participants will be chosen by the summer. Each student will benefit from tailored plans to set them up for future successes as they pursue future music schooling.

Add it all up, and the gift is classic Mellon. The grantmaker is deeply committed not only to the preservation and reinvention of classical music, but also to the idea of creating a career roadmap for aspiring performers. 

The gift also dovetails with Mellon's goal of boosting diversity in the classical sphere. African-Americans, for example, make up 43.4 percent of Philadelphia's population, and when viewed through this lens, the gift bears a striking resemblance to Mellon's recent gift to the Memphis Symphony Orchestra (MSO) to develop a "musician diversity fellowship program." 

We've seen Mellon award classical-focused grants to individual symphonies and organizations before, but never on this scale. Indeed, according to Christopher Spangler, a spokesman from PMAY member Settlement Music School, Philadelphia is the "first city in the nation to receive funding at this level" from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support the future of young musicians.

I'll let Maud Lyon, president of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, have the last word: "This transformative grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is a strategic, long-term investment that ensures that talented young musicians, regardless of their resources or background, will have access to the incredible array of arts education opportunities that these organizations provide."