The Dangers of Crowd Funding Art

“Mercy of the Crowd(Funding),” with a work by Aram Bartholl from Art Micro Patronage being projected (Photo by author)

San Francisco’s contingent of Artstech Meetup and the Emerging Arts Professionals‘ most recent event, Mercy of the Crowd(Funding), was hosted at the Grey Area Foundation For the Arts in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. The event started off with a rather uninteresting musical performance by Alex Kane, whose musical career began with a successful Kickstarter campaign. Kane was then joined by John Spokes of USA Projects, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping provide funds to individual artists, and Eleanor Hanson Wise of the Present Group, which is also known for its side project, Art Micro Patronage — both groups explore new ways to fund artist projects through subscriptions, donations, and other unorthodox strategies. The event was moderated by Stacy Bond of Sonic SF, a San Francisco-based radio show.

Over the course of the panel, the usual topics were discussed. Kickstarter, which has helped to successfully fund over 75,000 creative projects and awarded $337 million in total funding with a 43.8% success rate (as cited here), was unfortunately the major theme of the night. A Kickstarter project’s success is determined so often simply by who a project founder’s friends are, and how much money they can bug them for. “No matter who you are, whether institution or artist, your most captivated audience are your friends and followers already,” Spokes said. For USA Projects, at least, “only 5% of your campaign will come from sources you didn’t know about.”

The panel skirted around the discomfort of hounding friends for money, many of whom are probably as broke as the originating artist. Most artists are probably already familiar with the discomfort of have 10-plus friends asking you for money while you yourself are looking for something resembling steady work. Jason Eppink did a fantastic parody of this whole process with a mock-Kickstarter project, “Help Me Fund My Friends’ Kickstarter Campaigns!” (seen below) Commodifying our friendships felt more and more like a real danger the longer this talk went on.

Jason Eppink, “Help Me Fund My Friends’ Kickstarter Campaigns!” (2011) (Screencap by author)

I was much more excited by the Present Group’s work, and their ongoing attempt to actually build sustainable models for artistic practice. I worry that the Kickstarter model works only for larger, more spectacular projects. In an art world increasingly dominated by stunts by well-funded artists, I fear for the health of more subtler work.

Also, Kickstarter doesn’t offer a way of maintaining a consistent practice over a long period. How do you fund web-based works, which are notoriously impossible to sell? The Present Group didn’t solve this problem, but it had some interesting ideas. Art Micro Patronage presents a series of online shows with a finite viewing period, with each work displayed offering a button to donate directly to that work and the artist. The site, like The Present Group itself, has a membership special, offering a means for long-term commitment to the work, and more access to future projects by the artist.

Certainly, funding from smaller pockets for smaller projects is on the rise. Spokes said that 90% of donations to USA Projects now are made by individuals, speculating that one unanticipated consequence of Hurricane Katrina and the resulting confusion of the distribution of charity funding was that donors wanted to make sure their money was going as directly as possible to the people. This makes using crowd funding for smaller institutions or individual projects look more attractive, and more efficient.

Use of platforms that help democratically fund projects, which range from Kickstarter, and IndieGoGo, to Sunday Soup, The Present Group, Art in a Box, and more, is definitely on the rise. Their positive impact and the good created by crowd-funding is undeniable. The next challenge, however, seems to be to find ways to make that funding sustainable over the long term, keeping quality high and avoiding the commodification of friends into funders.

What strategies could be used to accomplish that goal? Crowd-funding is currently all about short-term reward; we gain prizes for donating to successful projects, generating buzz, and driving more donations. Might it be possible to invest in an artist or creator on a long-term basis, netting rewards or dividends as a stock investor would, based on impact rather than popularity? It might be about shifting the incentives for supporting creativity and finding ways to avoid or eliminate Kickstarter burnout. However it happens, I’m excited for the future of community-supported art.

Artstech Meetup and the Emerging Arts Professionals’ Mercy of the Crowd(Funding) took place on October 25 at the Grey Area Foundation For the Arts (923 Market St, Ste 200, Tenderloin, San Francisco).

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