(This article was first published on NewMusicBox on April 4, 2012. I’m grateful to Molly Sheridan, Kevin Clark, and Frank J. Oteri for their helpful comments on previous drafts.)
Every once in a blue moon, an arts policy story breaks into the mainstream media—and as with most poorly understood subjects, it’s usually for some profoundly stupid reason. The news that the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter anticipates distributing more money this year than the National Endowment for the Arts was no exception. The story, prompted by a February 24 interview of Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler by Talking Points Memo’s Carl Franzen, led to a flurry of content-free online chatter on well-trafficked channels with frothy headlines like “Could Kickstarter Replace the NEA?” and “Kickstarter Kicks the NEA’s Butt in Arts Funding.”
It’s worth noting that neither Strickler himself nor Franzen’s analysis suggested that Kickstarter was somehow in opposition to the NEA—indeed, Strickler went out of his way to emphasize that he has mixed feelings about the growth of his startup relative to the nation’s second-largest arts funder. But not surprisingly, that was the direction the conversation immediately went. In a way, I can sympathize with the enthusiasm for this easy, attention-grabbing narrative: Kickstarter, after all, has been extraordinarily successful in positioning itself as the hot new tech tool that everyone’s talking about, the creative entrepreneur’s best friend, in more or less direct contrast to the NEA’s comparatively stodgy, bureaucratic image. The comparison, furthermore, is like catnip to conservative and libertarian opponents of federal arts funding, who see the numbers as justification for the argument that their taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be used to support art that they don’t directly endorse. Just as inexperienced artists sometimes mistakenly believe that Kickstarter is going to solve all of their fundraising problems with nary a lifted finger in sight, commentators who have more interest than background in the arts can easily fall into the trap of seeing Kickstarter as “the answer” to United States arts policy.
Seductive as it is, that narrative ignores a number of pertinent facts about the nature of both Kickstarter itself and the arts funding ecosystem in our country. Crucially, it misses the forest for the trees by incorrectly assuming that the NEA is one of the primary means by which our country funds the nonprofit arts sector, following the model embraced by governments in Europe and elsewhere. In reality, Kickstarter and the NEA combined comprise less than 0.5% of the total dollars arts organizations raise and spend annually. The NEA isn’t even the largest line item in the federal budget devoted to arts and culture—that honor goes to the Smithsonian Institution, with an appropriation from Uncle Sam exceeding that of the NEA’s by a factor of five. Instead, nonprofit arts organizations raise nearly half of their revenue from earned sources such as ticket sales and tuition fees, with the bulk of the remainder coming from individual donations (yes, people gave money to the arts before Kickstarter) and foundation grants.
Moreover, as author and technologist Clay Johnson points out, the NEA and Kickstarter are fundamentally different beasts: the NEA is a mission-centric public agency intentionally focusing its resources in certain directions to attain specific goals, whereas the strings-attached donations that take place on Kickstarter arguably have more in common with purchases of goods and services than with grants. A solid quarter of Kickstarter’s distributions to date have gone toward projects that fall outside of the scope of what the NEA has traditionally supported, such as new product design and commercial entertainment (high-profile projects have included an iPhone dock, an iPod Nano watch, and a movie by Tom Hanks’s son). Indeed, to say that Kickstarter “funds” the arts at all seems an exaggeration; Kickstarter is a for-profit technology platform that takes a 8-10% cut (counting credit card and transaction fees) from the donations that come through its system, money that is currently being used to grow the company and will one day undoubtedly make its founders very, very rich. Saying that Kickstarter should replace the NEA is rather like saying we don’t need libraries anymore because we have Amazon.com.
It’s interesting to me that, in contrast to the apparently exciting (for some) notion of Kickstarter supplanting the NEA, no one has called for the reverse—that is, for the NEA to replace Kickstarter, or at least for Kickstarter to become more like the NEA. That suggests the NEA has a bit of an image problem relative to the darlings of the crowdfunding world. Why might that be? I suspect a big reason is the complex role the NEA plays in United States arts policy, one that is frequently at odds with the expectations placed upon it by liberals and conservatives alike.
Following the first meeting of the National Council on the Arts (the body that oversees the National Endowment for the Arts) in 1965, the Council released a statement that read, in part, “…The Council cannot create artists, but it is passionately dedicated to creating a climate in which art and the artist shall flourish.” That sentence neatly encapsulates the indirect role that the NEA must play in our cultural ecosystem due to its small size. United States citizens can be forgiven, I suppose, for thinking that the role of a federal agency called the “National Endowment for the Arts” is to support artists directly in the creation and production of art. But these days, aside from a handful of literature fellowships, it’s not—any more than the role of the Federal Highway Administration is to make and drive cars. Rather, the function of both agencies is to create and maintain a strong infrastructure to serve their respective constituencies.
One could make an argument that the NEA isn’t so different from Kickstarter in one key respect: neither entity really gives away its own money. In the NEA’s case, that money is ours, the taxpayers’, and just like Kickstarter it takes a cut of the pie for itself: more than 20% of the budget goes toward operating expenses or program support efforts rather than grants. But taxpayers get at least two things for their overhead dollars that their Kickstarter patron and customer counterparts don’t: curation and leadership. The first is becoming increasingly central for the arts field as a whole, as the number of new and growing creative enterprises threatens to overwhelm an already crowded market. Rather than allocate its dollars to grant applicants via some automated process, the NEA invests considerable time in assembling peer review panels to assess each project’s merits and goals in relation to its strategic objectives (creating excellent art, engaging the public, and promoting public knowledge and understanding about the arts). Importantly, as a government entity with no obligation to consider the commercial potential of the projects it supports, the NEA is free to prioritize art that would otherwise fall through the cracks—either because of what it is, who’s making it, or where it’s happening. This freedom is what allows the NEA and other mission-oriented funders to create a subsidy-driven artistic marketplace to serve alongside the profit-driven commercial marketplace.
In short, by making strong, centralized, and values-based curatorial choices, the NEA has the capacity to exercise leadership. And leadership is the means by which the NEA can be relevant despite its modest budget as the most visible national government body supporting the arts. The Endowment has focused a singular attention during Chairman Rocco Landesman’s tenure on setting national priorities and forming partnerships and coalitions around them, resulting most obviously in a raft of new creative placemaking initiatives casting the arts as engines of economic redevelopment in urban and rural centers across the United States. The NEA has also put new energy and resources into its research activities, using its power as a convener to standardize and update methodologies and form liaisons with other branches of government.
Finally, there is one important respect in which the NEA leads by…well…following. Forty percent of the Endowment’s grant dollars go not to organizations or artists directly, but to arts councils via state and local partnerships. This arrangement is part of a decentralization strategy that is aimed at getting national dollars for arts access to every corner of the country. While some commentators feel that the NEA could do more to support arts access in rural areas and away from the coasts, the Endowment is without question a bigger boon to these regions than Kickstarter, whose marketplace-based model (mirroring the economy more generally) inherently privileges geographic clusters.
Right now, it’s not clear that Kickstarter is doing much more than offering a streamlined process for donations that would probably have happened anyway. Aside from a handful of lucky campaigns that “go viral,” anecdotal reports suggest that the vast majority of donors to a typical project are previously known to the recipient. That means that whatever biases and privileges exist in the real world also exist on Kickstarter. Artist-entrepreneurs who have either ready access to networks of family and friends with money or an already-existing fan base will have a noticeable leg up on those who are just starting out or paid their own way in college. In fact, Kickstarter’s all-or-nothing campaign model may exacerbate these inequities, by increasing the risk that those who begin with less will lose the benefits of all their hard work—a fate that befell more than half of all campaigns launched on the site last year.
Given all the above, it may seem ironic that it is Kickstarter that has seized the mantle of democratizing access to the arts in the public imagination, rather than the NEA. A closer examination, however, quickly reveals why. In recent years, the NEA has focused on arts access from the perspective of the audience, particularly through geographic reach. The Endowment publishes national studies on arts participation twice a decade, supports touring programs through its network of regional partners, and frequently supports established organizations that are capable of bringing in large crowds consistently. But these measures are often not so friendly to the creator. The NEA’s focus on pre-existing institutions, its requirement that applicants hold tax-exempt status, and its extensive application requirements and lengthy review process all erect barriers to participation no less formidable than those that face artist-entrepreneurs who come to Kickstarter without access to a video camera. The NEA is simply not set up to provide seed funding of any kind, relying on partners, grantees, and the private sector to fulfill that function instead. By contrast, Kickstarter allows pretty much anyone to sign up and start soliciting in a jiffy, and campaign timelines are purposefully kept short to allow for nearly immediate results. In short, if one fits the profile of an ideal Kickstarter project, that platform offers an infinitely more attractive vehicle for obtaining funding than the NEA.
Precisely because the marketplace for individual giving is so much larger than the capacity for government support, Kickstarter has the potential to deliver a transformative impact on the arts sector by cultivating more and better donors to the arts. (Kickstarter isn’t the only platform of its kind, of course, nor is it even the first. My employer, Fractured Atlas, partners with two of Kickstarter’s competitors, IndieGoGo and RocketHub, and many other online fundraising platforms cover the arts and beyond, including USA Projects, Power2Give, and ArtSpire. But Kickstarter’s large customer base and obvious cachet with the technology community currently put it in the best position to achieve what I suggest here.) Kickstarter has already taken a number of steps to encourage “browsers”—people who donate to projects to which they have no personal connection. The company offers a weekly newsletter featuring projects that catch the program team’s eye, and regularly highlights selected campaigns on its blog and other social media. A “Discover Great Projects” section of the website offers staff picks, and curated pages increase the number of voices in the mix. Strickler’s comments on a year-in-review thread from earlier this year also indicate that Kickstarter is working on ways to make it easier to find projects in close geographic proximity to you.
But Kickstarter could do more. For as much time as it puts into selecting projects to highlight, many, many more will pass unnoticed, a trend that will only worsen as the platform becomes more popular. By engaging its audience directly in the curation of its projects, perhaps through some kind of guided crowdsourcing process, Kickstarter would expose more of the “long tail” of its project pool to potential review by strangers. That would allow projects that originate from underserved communities and don’t already come in with strong connections to donors a more realistic shot at reaching their campaign goals. Kickstarter’s broad conception of creativity, one that reaches beyond the arts to video games, product design, and even social innovation, holds enormous promise for encouraging the cross-pollination of donors across various fields, perhaps even training a new generation of tech-savvy arts patrons and board members. A robust recommendation engine and more project discovery tools will likely be needed, however, to turn all of those one-time supporters doing a friend a favor into ongoing mini-Medicis (or should we say Bloombergs?) providing a regular stream of dollars to projects and artists they discover for the first time through Kickstarter. Were that vision realized, the notion of Kickstarter as a “funder” of the arts would not seem nearly so far-fetched.
I’ve been pretty harsh on the “could Kickstarter replace the NEA” meme, on the logic that (a) it’s not going to happen and (b) even if it did, it would have little practical impact because of the relatively small dollar amounts involved. Yet the NEA/Kickstarter cage-match narrative compels because it gets at a central debate in American society: the value of shaping markets through planning and policy versus letting them run free. While Kickstarter does not prioritize, and therefore is less successful at, distributing its funds in a way that acknowledges historical inequities and the biases of capitalism, in other respects it does represent a more accessible vision of the arts in America consistent with the Pro-Am Revolution. It is this commitment to lowering the barriers to entry that has made Kickstarter so popular with the media and, in particular, with the innovation-obsessed technology community. And though the NEA theoretically should be able to democratize access to the arts more effectively than a for-profit entity like Kickstarter, for creators, accessing the Endowment—with all of its rules and structure—simply requires a different kind of privilege.
For these reasons, it’s not that hard to imagine Kickstarter and the NEA learning from each other. Though Kickstarter’s mission is not to serve the arts community per se, it would be a shame to see it pass up the huge opportunity in front of it to do just that by flexing more curatorial leadership and empowering its audience to do the same. Meanwhile, crowdfunding’s open-access, instant-gratification model offers an important challenge to the Endowment as it continues to wrestle with how it can best do its job on pennies per capita. If democratizing access to the arts means anything at all, it must include not just who gets to see the artist but also who gets to be the artist. And on that last score, both institutions have a ways yet to go.
1. I’m not going to waste time crafting the world’s seven gazillionth article describing Kickstarter here. If you’re not familiar with it, Anastasia Tsioulcas’s blog post offers a good introduction from a classical music perspective.
2. Depending on the definition used, the NEA is either neck-and-neck with or far behind the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in money provided to the arts annually.
3. Kickstarter does “curate” its projects in the sense that they must meet basic eligibility requirements in order to get listed, but the review and due diligence process is far less extensive than the NEA’s.