Back in 1997, long before he threatened to eliminate federal funding for the arts, Donald Trump was a mere real estate tycoon in New York City.
It was also in 1997, in that very same city, that VH1's Save the Music Foundation opened its doors. Its mission was timely then and it's timely now: To restore music education in America's public schools.
The foundation's 20-year journey illustrates how larger political dynamics can shape a grantmaker's mission and force it to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances.
The foundation develops strategic partnerships with school districts to build sustainable instrumental music programs by providing grants of brand-new musical instruments—much like the Fender Music Foundation—to public elementary and middle schools. This commitment to connecting teachers and students at a personal level hasn't changed all that much in 20 years, and rightfully so—the strategy works.
Save the Music has restored music programs in more than 2,000 public schools in 247 school districts, giving three million children "the tools and confidence to excel in academics and in life" since its inception.
Given this success and the ever-growing body of data pointing to the benefits of arts education, one could be forgiven for thinking the tide had turned. As my piece "Music Education on the Upswing" argued, it seemed that funders reached a kind of inflection point. No one was disputing the value of music education. It was "settled law." Rather, the open question was how foundations would to support it moving forward.
What a difference a proposed discretionary budget makes.
Donald Trump's proposed elimination of federal funding for the arts has triggered a broader conversation around the value of the arts. Now funders face a renewed sense of urgency, and the Save the Music Foundation is no exception. As this Huffington Post piece suggests, the foundation realizes it needs to take its message to the people on a far broader scale.
According to Trell Thomas, the Director of Communications and Talent Relations, the foundation recently launched Play It Forward, a year-long awareness campaign to celebrate 20 years of impacting communities through the restoration of school music programs.
Play it Forward's Share Your Music Moment contest asks students to share a "music moment." According to its site, "This could be you singing the National Anthem at field day, playing a solo in your jazz band, or dancing to your favorite song." A jury will select a winner who will attend a studio session in Los Angeles with award winning producer and artist DJ Mustard.
This crowdsourced approach borrows heavily from programs like the Knight Arts Challenge, and that, of course, is no coincidence. When it comes to promoting arts appreciation, it takes a village. "We keep the cycle going and spread our kindness on to one or more people," the Play it Forward site says, "continuously improving each other’s situation."
The foundation is also entering its third year partnering with Toyota for the national music festival activation and social media campaign #ToyotaGiving. For this program, artists and music fans participate at key music festivals to raise awareness for music education and grants are presented to deserving schools.
But the foundation's digital outreach ultimately plays second fiddle—pun intended—to its strategy of identifying and funding schools in greatest need of music education. Here's Thomas:
We invest in schools like these to provide access where there normally would be none. We wouldn’t ask a child to bring in a desk and chair when learning mathematics, so now that music education is recognized as a part of a well-rounded education, we should not expect children to bring in instruments or even a music teacher when learning music.
Back in 2015, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, which rolled back much of No Child Left Behind. Thomas' quote echoes the new act's stipulation that music education is a "part of well-rounded education." That's progress!
But that was also two years ago. Proponents of music education are now faced with a far different philanthropic and political landscape. Will the Trump Administration turn back the clock? It's certainly possible.
"There have been a lot of strides in music education and moments where we have been able to celebrate victories," Thomas said. "But the fact is that there is still a lot of work to be done."