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 perspectives. – Holly Unruh, UCIRA
UCIRA: Thuy, you come to this question from an organizational perspective, as a Senior Program Officer for United States Artists. Can you tell me some more about how your organization decided to enter the crowdfunding field?
Thuy: United States Artists (USA) was founded in 2006 with a mission to invest in America’s finest artists and illuminate the value of artists to society. USA operates from the premise that art can be the impetus for building enormous stores of social, political, and economic capital in the 21st century. It also affirms that individual artists are an important cultural resource and recognizes that the needs of American artists today are extraordinary.
USA is committed to addressing these needs. USA was founded in part to fill the gap left when the National Endowment for the Arts cut back its individual artist fellowships. Through the USA Fellows program, which annually awards 50 unrestricted grants of $50,000 each to outstanding performing, visual, media, and literary artists across the country, USA has put $12.5 million in the hands of artists in the five years since its founding.
Last year we launched USA Projects, the first microphilanthropy site dedicated exclusively to artists living and working in the United States, where anyone can discover original projects from some of today’s most innovative artists and make tax-deductible donations to support their work. Donations–of any amount, even $1–also support artist training, artist education, and the broader mission of United States Artists. USA Projects was created to foster direct connections between artists and the public, catalyze new funding for artists, bring creative projects to life, and build community support for the most accomplished artists in America.
UCIRA: How are the artists chosen for the projects area?
Thuy: In the course of developing this initiative, research showed that it was important both to artists and potential supporters to ensure a high level of experience and quality among the participating artists. The artists seeking funding on USA Projects have been vetted and recognized for the caliber of their work by USA or by one of more than 100 qualifying organizations across the country. Experts review projects within their fields of expertise for legitimacy, viability, artistic quality, and appropriateness of the scale of the project. Reviewers will change periodically.
USA Projects Partners include organizations such as Creative Capital, Austin Film Society, Penland School of Crafts, the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture (NALAC), National Performance Network, The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, and the California Community Foundation. (A complete list of qualifying organizations, along with artist eligibility requirements and a brief application, are posted online at www.unitedstatesartists.org.)
UCIRA: How do you see this kind of support mechanism changing your relationship with the artists who participate?
Thuy: We believe USA Projects will be a game changing tool for artists and cultural philanthropy in this country. We know that artists need more money for their work. It is a misconception to think that artists have the funding necessary to develop new creative work just because they have already received recognition. The unfortunate reality is that many of the finest artists in this country are struggling to make ends meet. Even in the short time since the USA Fellows program launched in 2006, there has been a rise in the number of artists who have used their $50,000 award to cover essential needs like medical bills, health insurance, and even housing. Particularly in this difficult economy, the other forms of employment or funding that most artists depend upon have grown scarce, and new sources of support are more critical than ever.
USA Projects was inspired by a desire to leverage the power of the Internet to extend its mission to accomplished artists everywhere. Some benefits for artists include:
– Generate donations to support new projects
– Participate in organization and group matching funds
– Increase their following by showcasing their work to a community of art lovers, supporters, and premier art organizations
– Build an ever-increasing database of donors that they can come back to time and again
– Support at every step of the process; USA’s Artist Education and Support Program is designed to help artists thrive in an online fundraising environment (project development, budgeting, segmentation, video production and editing, donor relations, building an online following)
USA Projects offers a sophisticated matching fund system that gives any organization, foundation, group or individual the ability to create a matching fund, specify their criteria, and automatically identify and apply funds to appropriate projects. One of the site’s first matching funds was pioneered by visual artist Mark Bradford, who donated the proceeds from the sale of one of his own paintings to create the Artist2Artist Fund. Every participating artist benefits from this fund, which continues to grow through support from other participating USA Fellows.
This model has proven to be successful for the organization as well as participating artists. Since USA Projects began last year, 75% of all projects successfully reach their goal (another site averages under 50%); average donations are $120 (this is also quite high); and over $1 million has been raised for artists’ projects.
“One of the valuable things that I got from this endeavor was losing my fear to ask. Even though philanthropists slammed doors in my face I was determined to succeed. So the fear was gone and I used every opportunity to ask whenever possible. This led to 48 hours before the deadline and still just over a thousand dollars to raise, I find myself at the symphony where I run into a friend and colleague and decided to ask. The next day she donated $1,000. And as they say the rest is history. Thank you for all your help and guidance throughout this process, I needed your support every step of the way.”
UCIRA: How would you describe the difference between the USA process and others such as Kickstarter or Rockethub?
Thuy: USA Projects builds on best practices in the burgeoning crowdfunding arena and represents the first online community where the public can find, learn about, and make tax-deductible contributions directly to highly accomplished artists in all disciplines. USA owes a debt of gratitude to pioneering sites like DonorsChoose, Kiva, and Kickstarter for demonstrating how the web can foster new support for educational and creative endeavors.
What sets United States Artists apart is its network of leading artists in all artistic disciplines and geographic regions of the country; an esteemed annual artist fellowship program; relationships with leading cultural peer organizations; great brand equity among a focused group of committed donors; and an engaged and influential Board of Directors. Some of the key differentiators between USA Projects and the others are:
– First online community exclusively for artists, their friends, fans and followers
– Only accomplished artists are invited to post projects
– Donors directly contribute to a project at any level and may qualify for a range of perks
– All donations are tax deductible
– Matching grants allow artists to raise additional money and donors to double their perks
– Artists receive full-service support and education
– USAP Partners are a powerful force to help artists advance their work