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: What kids of shifts might we see in terms of the kinds of research, work, projects supported in this emerging funding climate? i.e. do you see a demonstrable difference in the kind of support offered through governmental versus private avenues?
Steve: You’re asking about what kinds of projects will get supported and if that will change, but I am going to expand your question to both projects and the processes involved at the artist level and beyond.
First, I need to acknowledge the many advantages of crowdfunding because they are significant. For someone with a great idea and little track record crowdfunding can be incredible. I remember how hard it was for me in 2000, without even a complete slide sheet, trying to prove to a foundation that I could pull off an ambitious project. When an organization is fronting $12,000 dollars, they want to make sure it won’t be wasted. As a newcomer, this barrier can be discouraging. Crowdfunding gives more people access because arguably all you need is a good idea and the ability to communicate it well.
For me, I’ve been claiming ‘artist’ on my taxes since 2000. That’s 11 years of hustling, from being a newcomer, bending over backwards proving myself, and advancing to where I turn down opportunities I would have fought for in years prior. Having been through a variety of positions and situations, I like that I can sidestep the demands of the bureaucracy (the California Arts Council application process was the most elaborate I’ve ever navigated) and instead make a video, go straight to my base, and raise the money more quickly. That’s good.
Part of your question touches on a idea that ‘appealing to the masses’ for funding would mean that projects chasing the lowest common denominator will be successful, but I don’t believe art will follow the path of reality television. People are very smart, are able to learn, and have a variety of interests. Crowdfunding allows niche creators to find the niche audiences who love them.
I believe that what is funded depends much more on how well the artist can communicate why they are passionate about the project and why people should care. Ironically, this very thing is what I’m convinced destroyed the NEA. The NEA wasn’t able to communicate the value of funding artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, Karen Finley, and Andres Serrano. These were artists who made groundbreaking work, but had no place in the market. They deserved to be supported by the government because the market never supports such challenging, but valuable work. (See my video on why public funds should be used to support artwork that may be considered offensive:
Setting aside my skepticism I read an amazing interview were Serrano explained ‘Piss Christ’ in his own words. I was completely won over. I went from a skeptic to now advocating for Serrano when he comes up in conversations. This direct communication from the artist that turns the viewer into a supporter is exactly what happens in a Kickstarter video! The same communication with the audience doesn’t happen when the artist is isolated in their studio and issued a check. The viewer isn’t as likely to become an advocate.
So I’m not concerned about the quality or types of projects supported with this funding model. I think this is where public funding could learn a lot when if we could plan a successful hybrid.
However, focusing on the funding of projects is a mistake.
A friend argued that this direct funding meant that artists receive a higher percentage of the resources. They argued the bureaucracy of arts organizations is inefficient, stating only [fill in some horrifying percentage] reaches the actual artists. I won’t argue that any given arts organization couldn’t be more efficient. It probably could, but that argument is a red herring. Let me explain.
As artists, our job is to make art. If you make your living as one, you know being an artist is less hanging out at cafés and ruminating on the way the light lands on your danish and much more similar to managing the day to day operations of a one person small business. You are responsible for everything. Arts organizations and their ‘bureaucracy,’ when at their best, take some of these burdens away so artists can make art. I might need to get to a different location to focus on a new important project. A residency program, with all its overhead, helps do that. If I want to have an exhibition, I’ll need to work with a gallery, with all its overhead. The non-profit galleries and residency programs that receive NEA funds help artists accomplish things we couldn’t do on our own. In fact, some take on securing funding for our projects so we don’t have to – lets not forget fundraising is a lot of work and most of us would rather be in the studio.
Public funding doesn’t only mean supporting artists and projects financially, but supporting an arts infrastructure that is needed and wanted, but can’t exist in a strictly capitalist system.
If we move further towards privatized funding and crowdfunding, what happens to the infrastructure? I’ll gladly throw in a few dollars for an exciting project through crowdfunding, but what about a roof repair?
Art requires public funding because art simply doesn’t exist exclusively in the marketplace. Republican leaders and libertarian ideologues see things that don’t thrive under capitalism as weak, unnecessary, or inherently unpopular. We know this isn’t true, they’re simply using the wrong lens to look at the problem.
So why accept a perspective we know is false?
It’s time to create a vision, taking the best from every model, and work toward our ideals. Caring about culture means effectively communicating it’s value. It means engaging power by working to tax the wealthy and corporations at pre-Reagan rates and working to cut defense spending. It means advocating for, increasing, and securing public funding for the arts and our arts infrastructure now and for the future. It means instead of settling for short-term solutions, pushing to make our dreams reality.