In 1961, Betty Freeman received a letter asking if she would contribute $100 to help with the legal defense for the composer La Monte Young; he had been arrested on a freeway in Connecticut with marijuana in his car. Her response to this request not only led to her becoming the single most important patron of late twentieth-century music, it also set the tone for how she supported composers, or Music People, as she grouped them in the photographs of friends and colleagues that she began taking in 1973 while helping with the documentary The Dreamer That Remains: A Portrait of Harry Partch (1974), which she also funded. Freeman knew and admired Partch’s music, and immediately offered help when she met him in 1964: “At the time he was so poor, he had been living in his car for six weeks. I couldn’t not help him and just let him die. And so I did what I could to keep him going for the last 10 years of his life.”  Partch’s final completed work—he died in 1974—was the soundtrack to the documentary they worked on together.

Film stills from “BETTY FREEMAN: A Life for the Unknown”, 2005

She began supporting John Cage in similar circumstances when they met in 1965: “With Cage, I gave him a substantial grant every year from 1965 to when he died in 1994 [Ed Note: Cage actually died in 1992]. He had no furniture, no suit of clothes except an extra pair of blue jeans.” Rather than ending the grant when Cage died in 1992, she continued it, sending it instead to his long-term partner, the choreographer, Merce Cunningham. In the documentary celebrating her contribution to music, Betty Freeman: A Life for the Unknown (2005) by Paul Fenkart, Steve Reich tells a similar story:

“She heard a recording I guess of a piece called Come Out, a tape piece, and she said I think you’re doing some really wonderful work and I’d like to help you, I’d like to help with anything you need help with, and I just couldn’t believe it, it was like an angel from heaven knocking at your door. […] She’s been responsible for a lot of important music and just for keeping people going you know it isn’t just, well I’ve commissioned your piece and goodbye. I’m going to help you out because I believe in you. She did that for John Cage, she did that for me, she’s done it for John Adams and she’s done it for other people and that’s very unique.”

Anyone who has ever tried to tailor their work to fit a standard funding application will immediately recognize just how special this is, but Freeman’s approach started out relatively conventionally; her parents were also philanthropists and she was already an established art collector by the time she received the request to help La Monte Young. Her art collection reflected a similar aesthetic to the music she loved and supported, and was equally contemporary. She was particularly fond of Dan Flavin’s sculptures but perhaps the most famous work in her collection was David Hockney’s painting Beverley Hills Housewife (1967), in which she appears on her patio in a floor-length pink dress. She and Hockney met through a mutual friend shortly after he moved to California; he had initially asked to paint her swimming pool. But from the early 60s, it was music and music people that stole her heart.

Film stills from “BETTY FREEMAN: A Life for the Unknown”, 2005

In the many obituaries that appeared in newspapers around the world 10 years ago commemorating her life and achievements, Freeman is repeatedly described as a “modern-day Medici,” a “Maecenas,” or “the world’s most generous and enthusiastic patron of new music.” They list the extensive number of grants she gave and composers she supported: 413 grants to 81 artists over almost five decades. The list of composers reads like a who’s who of contemporary music: Harrison Birtwistle, Kaija Saariaho, Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, Philip Glass, Lou Harrison, Conlon Nancarrow, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, James Tenney, Virgil Thomson, and Thea Musgrave. Most of these accounts of her life also note that, while you may have heard of the music she supported, you’ve probably never heard of her. While other female American patrons of the arts like Peggy Guggenheim and Gertrude Stein have become familiar names, Freeman has not. But all three of these women encouraged, supported or collected, and promoted dialogues about the arts, all three even produced books that documented their endeavors.

The difference between Freeman’s book Music People (2003) and the autobiographies of Guggenheim and Stein illustrates the real difference in her approach: from the first grants she gave in the 1960s, Freeman’s focus was always the people she supported above anything else. Having experienced both worlds, she felt that supporting visual art and music held different attractions, and while the former was based on “money, prestige, and power,” the latter was based on “passion and intelligence.” As Steve Reich also observed, “when you collect art, you collect something that you own and you can sell it, you know, but when you support musicians you get nothing, you do it because you love it.” Freeman was somewhat critical of benefactors with this mentality: “So many people with means have a kind of museum mentality… Patrons like to see their names on walls, so it’s often easy to get support for putting up some new edifice. My passion is for the music and the composers.”

Beverly Hills Housewife, David Hockney, 1967

Freeman’s criticism of this approach is prescient; the naming of wings and buildings is becoming even more common and raises many questions. When the extension to London’s Tate Modern opened in the summer of 2016, it was called the Switch House, but less than a year later was renamed the Blavatnik Building after Sir Leonard Blavatnik who contributed a significant amount to its funding. In October of 2018, the original Boiler House building of the gallery was renamed the Natalie Bell building for a year as part of a commission by Tania Bruguera, after which it will revert back to being the Boiler House. Natalie Bell is a community activist based in Bankside next to Tate Modern, she was nominated by her neighbors. The recent controversy surrounding the Sackler Trust also suggests that we need to look again at these relationships.

Freeman eschewed these classic and somewhat problematic models of patronage. So much so that the title of Hockney’s famous painting of her begins to sound less ironic as a description of a woman who, according to Mark Swed of The Los Angeles Times, rarely gave large commissions so that she could share what she had with more people, and often flew coach and stayed in modest hotels so that the money might be used for music instead. Following a conversation with another LA music critic, Alan Rich, about how to find other young composers to support, she opened up her home to new music throughout the 1980s, hosting regular Musicales, large musical salons for about 100 guests that usually paired a well-known with an unknown composer. Performances took place in her living room, designed, like the rest of her home, by the former head of Knoll Textiles, Eszter Haraszty, which combined bold colors and floral prints with Freeman’s extensive art collection. The performances were followed by pasta made by her second husband, the artist, Franco Assetto, who was far less keen on new music than Freeman, and convinced everyone came for his pasta, not the music. The Musicales ended when he died in 1991.

Film stills from “BETTY FREEMAN: A Life for the Unknown”, 2005

Although some of the traditional elements of the roles overlap, Betty Freeman was neither a stereotypical housewife nor a stereotypical patron of the arts. She was a woman guided by her own intelligence, taste, and determination. This is reflected in a home that could contain both colorful floral prints and minimal art, and in an approach to supporting creativity that turns its back on the traditional models of focusing on works, buildings, and audiences and instead revolves around the support of the person creating by asking the same simple question: ‘what do you need,’ and repeating it, and the support, over decades or a lifetime, rather than moving on to the next big thing. She quietly and confidently did exactly what she wanted to in the way that she wanted to, and in so doing, she invented a model of patronage that was modest, nurturing, and thoughtful, that was geared to life-long friendships and relationships rather than the bombastic approach that is more common today.

Not having heard of Betty Freeman is part of why what she did was so very special, but ten years after her death, her example feels even more relevant. As Harrison Birtwistle put it: “When you say we need people like Betty Freeman, there is no one like Betty Freeman.” A firm believer in engaging with the contemporary, trying to recreate what she did and apply it to the present wouldn’t be a fitting way to pay tribute to her, but finding simple,sensible, long-term, nurturing ways of supporting the creators of culture rather than building buildings and cajoling audiences into liking what they don’t, just might.