I've had the honour over the past few weeks - through my work here at TDJ and through my work with the Toronto Arts Council - to sit on various panels making decisions about grants and awards. I say honour because the decisions made by the various panels had a direct impact on the pocket books of the applicants - a task not to be taken lightly.
I've been with Toronto Downtown Jazz for five years now, and have sat on the Toronto Arts Council Music Committee for three years (I think). It's fair to say I've developed certain biases; it's perhaps a bit too easy for me to have preconceived notions about the style and quality of certain submissions to the festival, for example. Which is why I'm always grateful for the opportunity to sit around a table with other musicians/music community stakeholders.
At the festival, artistic decisions are somewhat black and white: do they meet the artistic standards we like to see on our stages? Can we afford the fee? Will they sell tickets? Will their music resonate with the audience? Too many "no"s will disqualify an artist from contention. When giving out awards and grants, however, the criteria changes (as it should). Questions about audience reach and ticket sales diminish in importance (usually, though it depends on the grant/award); it is primarily artistic quality that comes into play, then come questions about whether the applicant meets the guidelines of the grant and whether the grant/award will make a difference.
As a result, the discussion around the grant or award table is a bit more complicated. Is the artist's output up to snuff? Is the artist doing something the panel considers interesting? What will the artist do with the award/grant - more of the same, or something unique and creative? And this question, which I often forget to consider: if I was travelling somewhere overseas and this particular artist was there performing under the banner of Toronto music, would I be proud of the product?
Inevitably, the discussion is fascinating, often challenging me to think about music and musicians in different ways. Sometimes things get tense; other times the discussion is surprisingly unanimous. And almost always, the panel makes a decision I had not, at the outset, expected. And for that I'm thankful - as I've said before, if I ever get to the point where I think I know everything about everything, it's time for me to get out of the game.
(Plus - sometimes real gems come up. For example - on one recent occasion, one of the panelists, in describing someone who is a bit left-of-center, suggested he was "like a 33 1/3 record whose hole was not quite in the middle." Brilliant,)
I've developed a new level of respect for the many colleagues in the arts world with whom I've sat at these tables. Even if I don't necessarily see eye-to-eye with them all about what makes good music, or who is ultimately deserving of a particular award, they always speak from a place of deep knowledge about and passion for the art…and just the right amount of humour.
When recently has your mind been changed - on a topic musical or other - thanks to a passionate discussion with a peer?