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Show Me the Money


In the face of daunting financial challenges, artists are interfacing directly with the people who matter most: you. But how does that affect their art?

“Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” —Bertolt Brecht

In the age-old circle-dance of art and patronage, February 2012 was a historic month. Not because President Obama bestowed the National Endowment for the Arts awards on Feb. 13; despite the presence of Al Pacino and Mel Tillis, honored among others as artists who have “significantly enriched the cultural life of our nation,” it was business as usual at the annual White House ceremony.

The truly auspicious moment—the groundbreaking first—happened three days earlier in a narrow, brick-walled office in New York’s Lower East Side. On Feb. 9, the three-year-old startup Kickstarter, which facilitates crowd funding of creative projects over the Internet, completed its first-ever million-dollar campaign: More than 12,000 people contributed to the development of a new type of iPhone dock from Portland-based company Elevation Lab. Less than 24 hours later, Kickstarter logged a groundbreaking second, when a computer game designed by a company in San Francisco racked up $1 million in contributions the first day of its campaign. Two weeks later, Kickstarter saw its third million-dollar campaign, this one led by an author raising funds to publish his web comic in book form.

With more than $150 million projected to fund thousands of projects on Kickstarter this year, co-founder Yancey Strickler made a bold comparison during a February interview with web-news site Talking Points Memo: “It is probable Kickstarter will distribute more money this year than the NEA.”

“But maybe it shouldn’t be that way,” he continued. “Maybe there’s a reason for the state to strongly support the arts.”

Americans have rarely come close to agreement about the role of art in society, let alone how to fund it. But a growing consensus in the media and the general public contends that crowd funding is a democratizing force, a peer-to-peer system of market-driven benevolence far more fair and efficient than the traditional, top-down model of government and foundation support.

For better or worse, the rise of networked culture over the past decade has changed the way artists approach their art. Crowd funding further clouds the issue. More than pure creative talent, marketing and promotion skills are part of a successful crowd funding campaign: Those who can sell their work before it’s even made are the ones that receive the most funding. Kickstarter and other websites like ArtistShare, Indiegogo, RocketHub and USA Projects have proven successful in funneling money towards certain types of creative projects. But their swift and sudden success also raises serious questions about artists and patrons, their motives, their responsibilities, their expectations. And, as old as figures charcoaled onto a cave wall, the heaviest question of them all: What is art?

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Seattle hip-hop duo Blue Scholars has always battled for independence—in its socialist-leaning lyrics, its commitment to direct fan interaction and in the way it does business. Since forming in 2002, George Quibuyen and Alexei Saba Mohajerjasbi, aka MC Geologic and DJ/producer Sabzi, have made three full-length albums, each released and distributed through a different, though essentially, DIY method. Their 2004 debut was self-funded and self-released to modest success. In 2007, they formed their own label and paired with established indie label Rawkus Records to distribute their second album. Released last summer, album number three, Cinemetropolis, was paid for entirely through a Kickstarter campaign.

The band initially asked for $25,000 for the recording and mixing of the album and the revamping of its website. For a $10 contribution, patrons received an advance digital copy of the album; for $30, a vinyl copy. Four people put in $350, earning digital, CD and vinyl copies of the album, plus an invite to a VIP meet-and-greet with the band, tickets to the release show and a shout-out in the album liner notes. As per Kickstarter policy, if the campaign didn’t reach its $25,000 goal, all funds would be returned to contributors and the band would be back at square one.

“We’ve always been experimental with our releases, the most important thing being retaining as much freedom and control as possible,” says Geologic. “Kickstarter was almost a no-brainer, especially given some of the other options put on our plate.”

By the close of its 40-day campaign, the band reeled in around $62,000 in pledges from more than 2,200 backers. The extra funds allowed them to not only produce Cinemetropolis, but also a series of high-quality music videos with a handful of Northwest filmmakers. Which is where the band began running into some “not-so-bright spots.”

“It’s a blessing [Kickstarter] is so visible and transparent,” Geo says. “And on the other hand it’s visible and transparent, so everyone we were working with on a contract basis realized there was a bigger budget for this project. So the quotes from people we were working with went up dramatically.”

There were fees levied by Kickstarter—5 percent of the total money raised—and Amazon, who supplies credit card processing, and Federal income tax. A significant number of pledges that came in were eventually rejected for invalid credit card info. “When you add up those costs and taxes, the total was significantly lower than the public believes you make,” Geo says. In the end, the band banked around $50,000 of the $62,000 raised. 

Then there was order fulfillment. The band promised to have vinyl ready by a specific release date, but after a couple of test pressings arrived in unacceptable quality, production was delayed. The band left for tour without pre-ordered vinyl and had a hard time fulfilling orders in large quantities while they were on the road. Fans were vocal about wanting what they paid for. “We had to learn quickly that you have to have the machinery to make it run efficiently—the customer service aspect of things we completely underestimated,” Geo says. “When someone else is shipping your shit, they have to deal with the glitches.

“Then there was the whole debate of, ‘If you’re doing so well in your career, why do you need to do this? Why are you passing around the collection hat?’” he continues. “We anticipated that, actually, which is why we communicated as best we could that nobody is donating anything without getting something in return. It’s a glorified CD order and we need your funds to make this happen.”

Blue Scholars’ crowd funding venture played out like a cross between Amazon and Facebook—a way to simultaneously reach fans and fulfill online orders. And in the end it was a less than ideal approach. With that fact in mind, Geo says the band would think twice before using Kickstarter again.

“I still like the basic idea of crowd funding, or getting preorders from people who want to help fund something and would get something extra in return,” he says. “But Kickstarter itself—I’d want to look at different crowd funding options that aren’t so attached to one specific service.” 

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Crowd funding dates back at least to the 1780s, when Mozart played a series of “subscription concerts,” performances for a select group of supporters who paid in advance for the privilege of witnessing the composer premiere new works. Mozart was enjoying the creative peak of his career at the time, and though the subscription format was risky, Vienna’s noble class gladly bought in. It turned out to be a far more reliable strategy than the traditional system of commission-seeking and patronage.

There have been plenty of other examples since, but the web-based approach creates a new world. As a shrinking economy limits the traditionally rich field of private and public donations, and greater access to production tools expands artistic activity, the web connects it all at an ever-increasing rate. The digital age has spawned an almost miraculous convergence of necessity and technology.  

With Kickstarter, any project can qualify for a campaign, as long as it’s based in the U.S. and falls under the rubric of “Art, Comics, Dance, Design, Fashion, Film, Food, Games, Music, Photography, Publishing, Technology, and Theater.” USA Projects is far more selective—and more likely to yield a successful campaign. It’s the online crowd-funding offshoot of United States Artists, a nonprofit arts philanthropy organization founded in Los Angeles in 2005. USA Projects requires that artists are “accomplished” and active with one of dozens of arts organizations across the country accredited by USA Projects. The 394 projects funded since USA Projects’ launch in 2010 is dwarfed by the thousands funded in Kickstarter’s three years of operation. But thanks to its scrutiny of project viability, USA Projects’ success rate is vastly higher at 74 percent compared to Kickstarter’s 44 percent.

“Their approach to growth is different,” says dancer and filmmaker Dayna Hanson, who recently completed two USA Projects campaigns. “USA Projects want to vet every artist. They’re trying to create a community that grows at a controlled pace. They want to see a trajectory that doesn’t flatten out because it’s too wide open, too available too quickly. They also, from what I can tell, envision a more powerful, stable growth pattern over time. It seems like those things are tied together.”

The biggest distinction between the two platforms is the nature of the projects they facilitate. Thirteen of the 15 highest-grossing campaigns on Kickstarter are for some type of consumer item—predominantly electronic gadgets like iPhone docks, e-tablet styluses, Bluetooth speakers and espresso machines that fall under the site’s “Design” or “Technology” categories. This stuff wouldn’t make the cut at USA Projects, where traditional fine art disciplines are the norm. Which is why Hanson posted her hybrid dance/film project on USA Projects, where she raised $25,000 in two separate, successful campaigns.

Hanson was one of a dozen Seattle artists gathered on a cold February evening at the Canoe Social Club, a storefront clubhouse for artists on Capitol Hill, to hear a presentation by John Spokes, director of development for USA Projects. Aside from being predominantly female, the crowd was diverse: Canoe host and scenic designer Jennifer Zeyl, a young songwriter, a pair of theatre students, a Georgetown furniture maker with his toddling daughter, an installation artist, a member of the board of directors of dance organization zoe|juniper.

Spokes’ dark slacks, silk tie and vibrating, belt-clipped iPhone belied his background as the founder of a public theatre in Minneapolis. He pointed to “post-Katrina micro-philanthropy”—in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, he said, individual donors gave directly to people in New Orleans rather than aid organizations—as an early and effective example of online crowd funding.

“This tool continues along that course and makes available an option for philanthropy,” he said of USA Projects. “It’s not the only option. But there’s a group of people that really want their money to go directly into the hands of artists. And this revolutionizes that. It’s the fastest, quickest way to do that.” Further justifying USA Projects’ direct-to-artists approach, Spokes cited a 2003 Urban Institute study, which determined that 96 percent of Americans value art in their communities and lives, but only 27 percent value artists themselves. (That same study also found that of the full-time artists polled, they averaged an annual income of $5,000 each from their artistic endeavors.) USA Projects, he said, allows people to “invest in America’s finest artists and illuminate the value of artists in the community.”

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The perks awarded by successful campaigns in both USA Projects and Kickstarter—like the VIP meet-and-greet offered by the Blue Scholars—are another modern, materialist twist to this story. Patronage used to be about contributing to the common good (and maybe gaining status in doing so). Is altruism less true if it isn’t its own reward?

“You shouldn’t have to say, ‘I’m so sorry I make art and you’re giving me money to make it—lemme also give you a foot rub,’” says Jennifer Zeyl. “That idea devalues the art you’re trying to do in the first place.”

More importantly, says Seattle filmmaker Krk Nordenstrom, is acknowledgement from peers and colleagues, whether it’s on Kickstarter’s very visible donors page or social media. Networking is how a community-based economy begins.

Since joining Kickstarter in 2010, Nordenstrom’s funded a slew of other artists’ campaigns—25 in all. Almost every one is a Seattle-based film project, ranging from comical shorts to music videos to feature-length dramas. The 40-year-old Capitol Hill-dweller gives what he can, mostly modest amounts in the $5 to $20 range. Last year, Nordenstrom launched a Kickstarter campaign of his own and raised more than $5,000 for a documentary about Seattle band Kultur Shock.

“In all honesty, I haven’t seen any reciprocation from the projects I’ve sponsored,” Nordenstrom says. “That’s not the reason I do it.

“I’ve chosen to live and work as a filmmaker and editor in Seattle,” he continues. “I don’t want to move to Portland or LA. I want to live here and stay in my field. By helping other filmmakers get their features made, their short films made, that puts more spotlight on our city and hopefully brings more work to town.”

Nordenstrom has chosen wisely. The first project he supported, a locally produced feature called The Off Hours, was lauded at last year’s Sundance Festival. Its principal creatives, including director Megan Griffiths and producers Lynn Shelton and Lacey Leavitt, continue to rack up high-profile directorial and production jobs, both in LA and locally, quantifiably adding to Seattle’s economy.

“If they can continue making films, my buddies in makeup and location management will continue getting work,” Nortdenstrom says. “We don’t have the most proactive film incentives in this state. This is one little way to keep the filmmaking economy going.”

There are other ways, too—more traditional ones that carry on despite  a crippled economy and public ambivalence towards the arts. In early March, the Washington State Legislature overwhelmingly approved a bill that offers tax incentives to in-state film productions. The Seattle Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs will disburse $1.6 million in funds to 128 local artists and arts organizations this year. Likewise, longstanding funding organizations like the Seattle Foundation, one of the nation’s oldest and largest philanthropic nonprofits, continue to funnel private donations to arts and other community organizations.

“The key is, there’s never enough funding for anything,” says Seattle Foundation grantmaking officer Jessica Case. “So it’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and. You can have multiple opportunities to find funding. It’s all about getting the work done as a benefit to the community.”

Case admires the personal connection fostered by crowd funding, long absent in the mystifying miasma of institutional funding. That, along with the lower dollar amounts typically donated via Kickstarter, are ideas she hopes the Seattle Foundation will pick up on.

“Let’s make it easy on people, let’s remove the barriers to people finding out about issues and organizations they care about,” she says. “There are certainly challenges in terms of the recession’s impact on the arts and in government funding, but in terms of the opportunities out there, it’s a good time for funding.”

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In a couple short years, Kickstarter will likely look much different than it does now. Users might push off from the artistic ideals with which it was ostensibly launched and morph it into a micro-venture-capitalist’s Amazon.com that cranks out crowd funded digi-widgets at a discount rate to early buyers. At the other end of the spectrum, niche crowd funding tools like USA Projects will continue to channel funding to classical, esoteric artistic endeavors that only a rare few will experience.

“I don’t limit art to fine art and things that aren’t usable,” Zeyl says. “There are people who don’t need a painting over their couch.  The creative class has a lot to contribute, and that’s what these funding sites are for. Someone who’s designing their own docks for an iPod isn’t an artist looking to patent something, they’re designers looking for funding. If you make a better product than Apple, then good on you. You’re figuring it out. That seems a creative project to me.”

This, then, is the ideal scenario: The proliferation of crowd funding will establish a brand-new middle ground for arts appreciation in America, and it will establish a new, self-supporting creative middle class.

“Potentially, [crowd funding] could infuse the art world and the broader community of artists with a different set of tools for generating interest in their work, and shift perception in a much broader way as to the value of art in our culture,” Hanson says. “It could demonstrate to a broader population that hey, we all value this stuff and look how much better our society can be with a thriving arts landscape.”

The uncertainly of digital culture is both the anxiety and the opportunity of our age. For now, crowd funding coexists with traditional funding to give creative, motivated people access to much-needed dollars. Like Case says, there’s never enough funding for anything. Except, apparently, an ever-increasing stockpile of gadgets, doodads and knickknacks.

The redefinition of consumer-item-as-art increases the opportunity for art, in whatever form, to enter our everyday lives. But it also leaves less space in the public consciousness—not to mention the public pocketbook—for the tried-and-true artistic investments that result in the excitement of the soul rather than a piece of plastic on your desk. Historically, you can’t take a masterpiece home with you. When salesmanship takes precedent over artistry, art suffers.

We’ve long accepted art and commerce as necessary, contentious bedfellows. Today, the difference—and the danger—is scale. Last month, after two years of existence, USA Projects, the platform that hinges on artistic integrity, reached $2 million in total funds raised. Kickstarter hit that amount in two days—and media around the world took note. Kickstarter makes its impact via sheer volume—in dollars raised, ventures launched, total backers. Its runaway success suggests commerce is the true arbiter of art, while USA Projects artists—the wielders of the hammer in Brecht’s metaphor—produce art for a very limited audience. Apparently, in a web-enabled, democratic-capitalist America, common good is no longer common or good enough.

Illustration by Shawn Wolfe.

See more in the April 2012 issue   →