Last April, an article appeared in the Seattle weekly The Stranger that caught my eye with the provocative title ‘Could Kickstarter Be Evil?’ The very next day, Steve Lambert, an artist I’ve known for a while, posed a provocative question through facebook: ‘Crowdfunding: how artists help support right-wing tax cuts. Discuss.’ As an arts funder myself I am always interested in new ways of supporting artists, but was feeling some ambivalence about the steep rise in crowdfunding platforms. As an entry into this subject I gathered a few people with experience in crowdfunding together to see what this new strategy looks like from their persepctives. – Holly Unruh, UCIRA
UCIRA: Steve, I contacted you about this topic after you made the observation that crowdfunding essentially equates to artists support for right wing tax cuts. Can you expand on this idea a bit?
Steve: In George H. W. Bush’s 1989 presidential campaign he began using the phrase ‘the thousand points of light.’ In his inauguration speech he explained the thousand points of light are ‘all the community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the Nation, doing good. [?] The old ideas are new again because they are not old, they are timeless: duty, sacrifice, commitment, and a patriotism that finds its expression in taking part and pitching in.’
Well that sounds good. It means community and supporting each other, I am for that. But I’d argue George H. W. Bush didn’t mean it exactly like I do. When George H.W. Bush talked about a thousand points of light, it led directly into talk about ‘balancing’ the federal budget – or, to cut to the chase, continuing the Reagan administration’s policy of smaller government. The idea being: when we cut government spending, everything will be just fine because all those wonderful community organizations and charitable people, the thousand points of light, will sweep in. Government programs aren’t needed because volunteers will do the work.
This brings me to my fear: how is what the right wing dreamed of years ago different than what we celebrate as crowd-funding today? The NEA hasn’t funded individual artists since the early 1990s and state art budgets are getting cut in record numbers to record lows. Kansas recently cut its arts funding entirely. On the other hand, Kickstarter has moved $60,000,000 for over 10,000 projects since it’s launch just a few years ago.
As someone who’s personally created various crowd-funding strategies and campaigns, I know from experience this support comes primarily from our own networks. While we individually route our money (perhaps losing some to Amazon.com along the way) to help support each other, public funding could use one dollar per taxpayer to each year quintuple the amount Kickstarter has distributed since it began. Even more if we taxed corporations at the rate we did a few decades ago. Don’t we all agree this form of ‘crowd-sourcing’ is less of a burden on our already strained communities and a better use of our state funds?
We’re artists. We’re independent, creative, and resourceful. When we see a problem, we find ways to solve it. But instead of using our skills to engage power and secure public funding of the arts for now and the future, we’ve accepted the right-wing paradigm and started working within it.
And we’ve done a great job. Crowdfunding is remarkable in solving short term problems: artists need to get paid, our culture needs (and clearly wants) these projects to exist, we want to participate in a community. But how are we solving our long term problems – our government should truly be a representation, a reflection of us as a people and support culture instead of conflict, artists instead of bankers – when looking at the much bigger picture, is crowdfunding exacerbating those long-term problems and enabling us to move government further from our ideals?
As crowdfunding solves the short term problem so well, does it pacify our outrage at the defunding of the arts and culture? After all, my project still got funded, so what does it matter where the money came from?? Does it stall our ability to envision improvements to public funding? Looking at the WPA or the NEA, these models had benefits and flaws. Instead of looking at the advantages of crowdfunding and other innovations to improve current and past models of public funding, I think most people may, more or less, accept the extreme right position that these past efforts are only failures to be abandoned.
UCIRA: It does of course seem interesting that so many crowdfunding platforms for the arts have come online in the last two years just as arguments over government support for the arts have again heated up (i.e. recent threats to/cuts from the NEA budget, as well as total elimination of funding for the Kansas arts commission, for instance). Does the emergence of new mechanisms for private support for the arts necessarily have to be linked to this re-emergent neoliberal dialogue or can we think about it differently?
Steve: Well of course, you could argue both ways.
If one said ‘crowd-funding shouldn’t be paralleled with public funding, it democratizes philanthropy and makes it accessible to all instead of isolated to the ultra wealthy’ they’d be partially right. It does do that. There are many lenses to view crowd-funding:
• As a streamlined and democratic update to private philanthropy and foundations
• Pre-sales of market goods (i.e. a DVD of my band, a limited edition print of my photography) that allows the creator to gauge the market before beginning a project
• An innovation that better connects audiences to the process throughout a project’s life
If the arts were better funded publicly (and I mean qualitatively and quantitatively) we wouldn’t see private crowd funding emerge with such popularity. If the innovation that’s happening with even the concept of websites like Indie-go-go, Kickstarter, Eventful, and Artists Share happened in public art commissions, perhaps we wouldn’t be where we are. There is definitely a link.
More than this, I’ve heard arts administrators say candidly ‘we lost funding for that program, so instead we’re going to do a crowdfunding thing.’ When the NEA stopped funding individual artists the Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital stepped in to give individual artists grants at the national level. More recently, after cutting the Kansas state arts budget to zero this year, to take its place the Governor established a private foundation to fund the arts. Conscious and not, there is a direct connection between the neoliberal agenda and the privatization of arts funding.
Certainly the core of crowdfunding is not new. Artists are resourceful by nature and we tend to support each other. Lots of people understand art’s tangible and intangible value and are willing to chip in and support us in our efforts. I remember being a student in community college and unable to afford Super 8 film to make my final film project. I wrote to family and relatives and asked for help and their small contributions of $5 to $100 allowed me to make a film I am still proud of. 15 years later we funded the $18,000 New York Times Special Edition a similar way. It works, it always has, though it works more efficiently than just a couple years ago.
A healthy culture has opportunities for artists from a variety of sources; private support, foundations, the commercial art world, and public funding. None of these pieces are new, but the shift in balance is. The defunding of arts programs at this level is new, and the shift from public to private funding is new. We’re moving out of balance.
For some perspective, imagine if we crowdfunded wars. ‘C’mon everyone, If we can hit 1.25 trillion dollars we can invade Iraq and Afghanistan!’ If you believe the government represents the people when spending trillions on nuclear weapons, the military, and international intelligence, but barely funding the arts, then great. For the rest of us, I can’t emphasize how important it is to remember: we don’t need to make these cuts to culture. Our country is overflowing with wealth and abundance, it’s just being withheld by the ultra-rich thanks to changes in our tax structure designed by the extreme right. (And paying for wars, of course.) When we accept the notion that ‘austerity’ is necessary, accept privatization as a solution, and abandon a long-term vision we play right into Grover Norquist’s bathtub fantasies.
Every organization working to solve the short term problem of lack of funding also has a duty to dedicate some energy to long-term thinking, innovation, and advocacy that will reinstate that funding.