Let Your Folk Flag Fly: Folklore Research and the Informal Arts

Over the last decade, you’ve probably known someone who took up dance or music classes, or maybe someone who joined a knitting or craft group, or started a novel. According to a 2008 NEA study, 74 percent of Americans participate in the arts through attendance, art creation, or media. Whether you call it the Pro-Am Revolution, the Long Tail, or participatory arts, foundations and arts leaders are taking notice of people getting together to be creative. Currently, however, theory is ahead of practice regarding collaboration between these casual groups of individuals and their more professionalized counterparts.  As a result, the world of formal arts institutions (nonprofit arts organizations, grantmakers, and arts agencies) remains apart from that of the informal arts (pro-am participatory groups, classes, and networks).

Folklorists are uniquely suited to bridge the gap between these two worlds. Their research methods address uncovering artists outside the nonprofit arts infrastructure, a factor essential to building a sustainable local arts network.  If foundations and arts policy decision makers want to build such an environment for the arts, folklorists can aid them in taking steps towards authenticity and sustainability.

The Importance of the Informal Arts

Several studies over the last ten years have emphasized the importance of informal arts as well as nonprofit arts organizations, commercial arts, arts education, government, and businesses, in creating a healthy environment for the arts.

Cultural Development in Creative Communities (2003) came out right after Richard Florida published The Rise of the Creative Class. Published by Americans for the Arts, it cites Portland, Oregon as an example of the new creative city, having “an especially large number of mid-sized and smaller organizations . . . [where] informal arts activities thrive . . . [and] many arts spaces sponsor project based collaborations . . . .” The authors (among others, Bill Bulick and Carol Coletta, current ArtPlace spearheader) continue: “Community asset mapping must encompass this breadth [commercial, nonprofit, and informal] in order to ferret out nodes and catalysts of cultural vibrancy, synergy, and impact.”

The authors recommend developing funding for project-based creative work with individuals and informal groups. They conclude,

The opportunity for our field is to broaden our definitions of culture, maximize participation and engagement, develop a climate that encourages creativity among all citizens, and channel that creativity towards building-and sustaining-our communities.

One of the key findings of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Research into Action: Pathways to New Opportunities (completed as part of a study of culture in Philadelphia in 2009) is that “Personal practice (including creating music or dance, painting or drawing, and sharing photos, music or videos online) is a gateway to attendance.“ The report goes on to cite Steven Tepper’s book Engaging Art, in which he predicts that “the twenty-first century will be shaped by the Pro-Am Revolution.”

In Informal Arts: Finding Cohesion, Capacity and Other Cultural Benefits in Unexpected Places (2002), Alaka Wali and colleagues make a convincing case that there is mutual benefit and reinforcement flowing between the informal and formal arts. The formally trained teachers and group leaders often derive benefits from teaching, such as new ways of thinking about techniques or ideas and hands-on experience in organizing and administrating. The students and less skilled artists benefit from the formal training of their teachers and gain inspiration from performances and exhibitions at formal arts institutions. Informal activities can also serve as incubators for experimental ideas in the arts.  Wali et al. recommend that the informal arts be incorporated into community development, that institutions that already intersect with informal arts be supported in expanding that activity, and that arts advocacy be built across informal-formal divides.

Barriers between Theory and Practice

It’s clear that many grantmakers and arts agencies agree that the path to a healthy, sustainable local arts ecosystem will necessarily include informal artists. Yet, their strategies by and large remain focused on nonprofit arts organizations. Research into Action hammers home the need for more programming that encourages personal participation in the arts, but it doesn’t even mention informal arts groups. A recent solicitation of perspectives from of regional arts councils participating in Americans for the Arts’s Local Arts Network yielded several examples of individuals who happened to be amateur artists serving on planning and advisory committees, but little targeting of “informal” artists specifically. Although many informal groups are led by professional artists, it is important to focus on the activity of the informal arts and their amateur practitioners, not simply viewing them as another source of revenue for practicing artists.

To be certain, there are significant barriers that have up to now kept funders from partnering with the informal sector.

  • Visibility Barriers

In the Informal Arts report, Wali et. al. found that informal arts activities tend to fly under everyone’s radar. Activities occurring in “artsy” neighborhoods were more visible in the media than activities occurring in neighborhoods lacking that reputation. Additionally, researchers found no widespread recognition of informal arts practice as a concept within the informal arts world.

This means that it takes considerable effort just to find these groups. Combined with the economies of scale offered by larger nonprofits (enabling them to reach a larger number of beneficiaries), it should come as no surprise that informal artists often seem to escape the notice of arts leaders engaging in cultural planning and policy development efforts.

  • Structural Barriers

The informal arts are—by definition—informal. Most groups are casual in attendance, unselective in ability required, and run by volunteers. They come and go according to availability of resources, popularity of the activity, and dedication of volunteers.  Some have organized leadership and discrete financial accounts, but many do not.

These factors make informal arts groups challenging to work with, especially for funders. Grantmakers are under heavy pressure to show exactly where their grants went and what kind of impact they had. This is difficult if not impossible to do with a group that may or may not exist from year to year. No wonder that when grantmakers do get involved with participatory arts, they often end up “formalizing” the group—building it into another institution.

  • The Quality Barrier

Many, if not most, of the funders that support the arts have the word “excellence” in their mission statements or program guidelines. They want to support, and be associated with, high-quality art. The problem is that high quality participation and high quality art can’t be measured by the same factors. Some informal art is amazing, and some is amateurish in every sense.  If the goal is to create a more sustainable arts ecosystem, however, that means encouraging more people to experience the process of art-making, not just consume amazing art.

Barriers of structure, visibility, and perceived quality keep the informal and formal arts from collaborating at a strategic level.  The result is that informal artists’ voices are rarely heard in discussions about regional development, robbing grantmakers and arts agencies of the valuable information they could contribute about regional culture and what resources they need to thrive.

Folklorists Can Bridge the Gap

As Brendan Greaves points out, folklore is all about process—both the research process and the artistic process. Folklorists first locate practitioners of traditions and ask them about their involvement, in a method known as fieldwork. Some of this fieldwork is structured—that is, a folklorist will start with a list of persons of interest and gradually grow that list by ending each interview with “Who else should I talk to?” Unstructured fieldwork, by contrast, involves exploring an area through any means possible: attending festivals and talking to people, perusing community bulletin boards, and shuffling through the stacks of business cards at gas stations and talking to the attendants. The first result of such investigation is a list of arts practitioners, making that which was previously invisible, visible.

The second step in this process is to articulate why this tradition is practiced (the artistic process). What motivates the artist? Through interviews, folklorists get the answer to this question in the practitioner’s own words. This is extremely important because it ensures authenticity of the study.

Most often, folklorists have been asked to document cultural traditions that are rooted in community identity. However, the skills and methods described above don’t have to be limited to the realm of folk art. The North Carolina Arts Council demonstrated this when they worked in collaboration with the North Carolina Folklife Institute to map the cultural assets and needs in Wilmington, NC. Folklorists Sarah Bryan and Sally Peterson conducted structured and unstructured fieldwork, along with academic research and a public survey, resulting in a series of documents that outlined existing informal arts groups and distinctive regional traditions and recommended steps to be taken to grow these assets. Notably, this work uncovered informal arts practice across the spectrum of creative activity, including a network of artists employed in the film industry and a genre of music called “holy hip hop.”

Wayne Martin, Senior Program Director for Community Arts Development at the North Carolina Arts Council, explains that involving folklorists in this project enabled the Arts Council both to identify and begin engagement with artists outside the nonprofit infrastructure, and to understand community culture in an authentic way. “Folklorists are trained to seek out and recognize creativity in a variety of forms,” says Martin. “Folklorists understand how artistry is a window onto a community. They are able to articulate how the art that is produced there reflects the values of that community and makes it distinct.”

As beneficial as folklore research is, it has its own set of advantages and disadvantages relative to other methods of community research. This is a labor-intensive method that takes adequate time and human resources to be done well, and some communities that are extremely cosmopolitan might be too overwhelming to take on comprehensively. Furthermore, while folklore research can paint a rich picture of a subset of the community using qualitative data, quantitative data can be more useful for seeing the “big picture” in a region. That being said, folklorists can aid grantmakers and arts agencies in collaborating with informal arts groups by addressing the barriers of structure, visibility, and perceived quality.

-          Research addresses barriers of visibility

Through structured and unstructured fieldwork, folklorists uncover informal artists and groups that don’t have the resources to advertise themselves, making them visible and bringing them to the attention of grantmakers and arts agencies.

-          A collective approach addresses structural barriers

Instead of asking informal arts groups to propose projects that will fit a foundation’s mission, folklorists ask what resources they need to operate and grow and who they collaborate with.  By approaching the informal arts as a collection of individuals and groups, folklorists could help foundations and arts agencies identify resources the sector needs as a whole, instead of trying to work with each specific group.

-          Focus on process and participants addresses the “quality” barrier

The informal arts place more of an emphasis on the process of creating and experiencing art, not only on the “excellence” of the finished piece. A folklorist’s focus on the artistic process (why art is created, how it is created) as well as the process by which it is shared and experienced with others, gets at the reasons people participate, and how and why they bring their art to their community. It is imperative to know why and how people participate in these informal arts if foundations and arts policymakers seek to encourage such participation.

The Irvine Foundation’s new Exploring Engagement Fund, accompanied by a white paper written by WolfBrown, is an exciting step towards foundations supporting participatory and informal arts. The study points out various projects being undertaken by arts organizations around the world that embrace and encourage participatory art  (e.g., the Art Gallery of Ontario’s In Your Face open submission art exhibit;  inviting community members to create, perform and witness Headwaters, produced by the Sautee Nacoochee Community Association in rural Georgia; enabling anyone to learn to dance, together, at The Big Dance (2012) in London and the Bal Moderne in Brussels). Although the informal arts are certainly nothing new, it is novel for a leadership institution like the Irvine Foundation to actively encourage this kind of arts participation.

In the 21st century, technology continues to make it easier to learn and practice art. The Pro-Am Revolution has blurred the lines between audience and artist, making arts participation more important than ever to the strength of the arts as a whole. The problem is that funders operate in a wholly different world from the informal arts. Because folklorists already work with the informal arts subgenre of folk arts and music, they are uniquely suited to seek out and find informal artists and groups, learn from them, and report back to grantmakers. Funders and arts policy leaders would do well to turn to folklorists to help them work with and strengthen the informal arts for the benefit of the sector as a whole.

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On Trey McIntyre Project and Both/And Creative Placemaking

Rat City Watching the Trey McIntire Project's Half-Time Show / photo by Kenneth Freeman

(David B. Pankratz, Ph.D., is the Principal of Creative Sector Research in South Pasadena, California. He can be reached at creativesectorresearch@gmail.com.)

In TINA vs. LOIS: Bringing the Arts Back Home, community arts advocate Scott Walters applies a concept developed by author Michael Shuman in The Small-Mart Revolution to cultural economies in American communities. TINA (There is No Alternative), in the broad economic and social terms that Shuman discusses, refers to develop strategies that emphasize: 1) luring large corporations to locate in your back yard, e.g., Wal-Mart, a Toyota plant, or a major studio movie production; and 2) exporting goods as widely as possible. LOIS (Local Ownership and Import Substitution), on the other hand, refers to: 1) local ownership of businesses, and 2) whenever possible, locally-focused distribution of goods and services, e.g., farmers markets, alternative newspapers, and artists space collectives. The LOIS imperative is to maximize the dollars generated locally and to minimize their subsequent departure.

A TINA cultural economy, according to Walters, features passive consumption of the cultural products (the commodities) of large non-profits (many with edifice complexes), merging media companies, and other “outside experts.” The LOIS cultural economy is characterized by the growth of “citizen-artists” who are equipped with the skills needed to extract joy, meaning, and achievement from the practice of art. Walters argues that this kind of personal creativity begets personal empowerment among citizens, unleashes a “creativity multiplier effect,” and can lead to a community’s transformation toward self-sufficiency and sustainability.

Despite these important distinctions, it seems to me that TINA and LOIS are not mutually exclusive, a point Walters acknowledges by saying that “a complete isolation of local economies from the globalized one is not possible or desirable.” In cultural terms, finding meaning in the creations of professionals surely has its place within a community’s cultural ecology. Nor does it seem to stifle “personal creativity,” which is on the rise, exemplified by the proliferation of community choruses, the “curatorial me,” and omnipresent craft festivals.

To be sure, not everyone will be convinced that TINA and LOIS can co-exist peacefully. That said, these kinds of either/or distinctions in the arts sector are softening and blurring. For example, thousands of crafters both exhibit locally and, via Etsy.com, export their wares to national and international buyers. The City of Chicago, in its 2012 Cultural Plan, will seek to promote its major cultural assets worldwide and to attract affluent “creatives” to the city, while also providing ample opportunities to all citizens for personal creativity in neighborhood-based venues. The Irvine Foundation, a major funder of large arts nonprofits, also aims to increase citizens’ engagement in the arts by supporting their making and practicing of art, through its new Exploring Engagement Funds initiative.  Finally, as an example of mutually advantageous blurring of TINA and LOIS distinctions, the Baltimore Symphony’s Rusty Musicians program gives non-professional local musicians the chance to perform in side-by-side concerts with its Symphony members, who are recruited from around the world.

Still another way to look at bridging either/or distinctions is through the practices of individual arts organizations. The Trey McIntyre Project (TMP), I think, provides an especially strong example. TMP is a modern dance troupe that, since its founding in 2004, has toured extensively to national and international acclaim, led by a mission to advance the form of dance “in innovative and ground-breaking ways.” In 2008, TMP conducted a nationwide search to identify a home base of operations, which it had lacked.

In making this decision, the Troy McIntyre Project ranked the locale itself as a significant selection criterion. Boise, Idaho, with its growing arts community, its aspirations to become a regional center of innovation, and its status as one of America’s most livable cities, scored high. And it appeared that Boise would support TMP’s artistic mission.

But Mr. McIntyre wanted more. He had originally placed San Francisco and New York City at the top of TMP’s list of possible landing spots. However, he reasoned that in these and other large cities  TMP likely would just get lost amid the flurry of dance activity. Instead, he wanted a city that needed the troupe, and that wanted it to become part of its civic identity. It wasn’t enough just to make the best possible work. TMP wanted to both reflect and engage its local community AND to tour to and work in other locales in the U.S. and worldwide. (To illustrate, once TMP settled into Boise in 2008, it soon thereafter undertook a 25-city tour).

In the past few years, TMP has also become well-known for the many ways it engages citizens and institutions in Boise—from its SpUrbans (Spontaneous Urban Performances) to an artist in residence program at St. Luke’s Children’s Hospital, where dancers go bedside to bedside. An array of LOIS-like engagement activities are known collectively as the Boise Bright Spot Project.

Boise’s political leaders, following TMP’s lead, bought into both/and thinking as well, naming TMP the city’s Economic Development Cultural Ambassador and their emissary to the world while also making grants to the company annually to support local engagement projects, which now number 40. For their part, Boise citizens treat company members as local heroes and rock stars, offering them a wealth of in-kind services and spaces, reductions in health care services, and driving the price of TMP performance tickets into the $100s on Craigslist.

Some might say that Boise lucked into a mutually beneficial relationship with TMP. After all, it’s not as though Boise tried to lure the company to town, in TINA-like fashion, with a bevy of tax breaks or other incentives. But, in ways that many cities might not have, Boise certainly has  leveraged TMP’s presence. And that goes back to TMP’s thinking in choosing a locale aspiring to be an innovation hub and that needed them.

TMP set a high early standard for itself saying that it wanted to generate local identity and pride equivalent to that fostered by the by the university football team, the Boise State University Broncos. The Broncos regularly rank in college football’s Top 10 and were the authors of one of the most dramatic upsets in college football history, beating the University of Oklahoma Sooners, a perennial power, with highly innovative play-calling in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. The Broncos head coach, Chris Peterson, along with TMP’s John Michael Schert, is a member of “The Gang,” a select, eight-person group of innovative, high-achievement leaders in Boise.  They are drawn from law enforcement, athletics, business, education, and the arts, and meet to discuss the importance of creativity in their work. Mr. Schert sees parallels between TMP and Boise State football, saying that they both have “a lot of nuance, layers, and integrity and a lot of sense of…[themselves]. They know what they’re trying to achieve and they go and achieve it, and that’s art really.” Participation in The Gang is yet another example of TMP engaging multiple segments of Boise, even if equaling the iconic status of the football team may yet take some time.

In any case, do the examples of recognition, support, and engagement outlined here prove that TMP truly reflects the Boise community, bridging TINA and LOIS orientations? Mr. McIntyre acknowledges that connecting with the city and its residents is an ongoing, unfinished process. And Mr. Schert admits that “our time in Boise is limited. Touring takes us away so frequently that we are not able to fully commit ourselves for long stretches of time to the Boise Bright Spot Project.”

Still, it seems hard to dispute that the Boise community is indeed reflected through the creative dialogue between TMP and community members. Some connections occur in participatory, open rehearsals during which comments from citizens are encouraged, while others are rooted in opportunities for personal creativity fostered in TMP classes at, as one example, the Treasure Valley YMCA.

Further, several of TMP’s new pieces reflect cultural practices in Boise. One example is Arrantza, a piece created for the city’s Basque Festival, an annual event involving Boise’s Basque population of 15,000. McIntyre, out of respect for these local residents, functioned as cultural anthropologist as much as a choreographer, attempting to capture the authenticity of Basque dance, music, and mythologies in Arrantza. In a more whimsical vein, when a local couple discovered a cache of bowling pins, they thought to call and ask if Mr. McIntyre might want them. He did and, not surprisingly, made a dance, called Tenpin Episodes.

Now that it has been awarded funding from the National Endowment for the Arts’s Our Town program and the ArtPlace initiative, the Trey McIntyre Project may well to be able to deepen its connections to Boise citizens, for example, in hospital settings, local watering holes, and many more venues. But these community connections and TMP’s artistic reach are far from mutually exclusive.  Accordingly, TMP, in 2012, will represent the U.S. Department of State in a tour of China, South Korea, the Philippines, and Vietnam; in 2013 the troupe has  week-long residencies in Orange County, CA, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

TMP’s story raises a final question: What can other non-profit arts organizations in the U.S. learn from TMP’s lead? On the one hand, the TMP experience, says Mr. Schert, has ”led other cities in the U.S. to look to the TMP/Boise model and ask how they can create projects similar to Boise Bright Spot in their own city.”  It appears that TMP is being asked less about its artistic innovation or international profile and more about its extensive and diverse community engagement programs.

However, are there other lessons to be learned? Some might be hard to apply. For example, most arts organizations, even if they hope to locate (or re-locate) in a new city, no matter how receptive that locale might be, do not have the standing, reputation, or  assets to do so. Nor is it always the case that organizations with the capacities to choose a new home should do so. All things considered, there are advantages to being part of an extensive artistic community, even as a small fish in a big pond rather than the reverse.

That said, TMP’s approach, grounded in an intentional strategy to both reflect local culture and engage with regular citizens while also pursuing artistic innovation and broad geographical reach, likely can be adapted by other arts organizations.  To do so, such organizations would do well to consult a recent interview with Mr. Schert, who cites several lessons that TMP has learned through its Boise experience:

  • Define your values and set your parameters. For TMP, definitions were about how best “to make an impact on the community in which we live and the greater nation, really create new models and systems, and do it in an innovative and entrepreneurial way.  It became apparent to us that Boise was a community that was really ripe ground for this sort of creative leadership to step in.”  
  • Invest time and energy to cultivate and steward local relationships. Mr. Schert points out that Boise citizens did not spontaneously embrace the troupe.  Retail relationship-building is hard, time-consuming work.  One of TMP’s signature partnerships, in which a local bar named a cocktail after each TMP dancer, happened only after 30 to 40 hours of planning meetings.    
  • Resist the scarcity paradigm so common in the arts. In its first two years in Boise, TMP, says Mr. Schert, “did not approach a single major patron in Boise or…any of the tried and true families that have supported the arts in this community for decades. We created new sources of income: new projects, new patrons, new relationships with certain businesses.”
  • Grow the local funding pie. TMP worked closely with a local foundation affiliated with Boise’s performing arts center (the Morrison Center) to revise its distribution policies to include each of the Center’s resident companies and user groups.

In summary, the overarching  message of TMP’s  orientation-spanning work amidst these many lessons,  it seems to me, is for individual arts organizations, and/or a locale’s artistic community, to define and pursue long-term strategies to think and act both locally and globally.


Is Federal Money the Best Way to Fund the Arts?

That’s the title of a slightly silly “debate” on the Huffington Post Culture section in which I am featured, perhaps surprisingly, as the spokesman for the “no” camp. The debate is with former dancer and research scientist Carla Escoda, whose writing I had come across thanks to Thomas Cott’s highlighting of a very good article she wrote on the same topic a couple of months ago on the website ballettothepeople.com.

I had some subversive motives in taking on this assignment. As you’ll see below, my post takes advantage of a technicality present in the question to position myself as actually for increasing federal appropriations to the NEA even while arguing against the adoption of a full-on Western European model of arts support. (There’s plenty of room in between, believe me.) Part of the reason I agreed to do it was that I knew I’d be boxing out a perspective that might be more hostile to the idea of government funding the arts at all. And judging from the frustrated comments from some readers, it seems my little gambit worked:

(You are so welcome!) Anyway, I guess I can take a bit of grim satisfaction in knowing that, so far, I’ve “convinced” more readers than Carla of the rightness of my position. Perhaps I’ll regret this post one day, but it was a fun challenge to play devil’s advocate and write a bit outside of my comfort zone while still maintaining my integrity. What do you think, dear readers?


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Public arts funding update: April


Breaking news: the government is cutting its funding to PBS! Wait – sorry – hold that. It turns out the NEA is cutting its funding to PBS - to the tune of more than $1 million, to be exact. Talk about irony! The money had been earmarked to support organizations that produce arts-oriented programming on public television through the NEA’s Art in Media program. The grants are large by NEA standards – one organization was receiving $400,000 – and the media program received more than twice as many applicants this past year in part by opening up the guidelines to include interactive forms.

Facing potentially deep cuts to defense spending should the parties fail to come to agreement during this winter’s “lame duck” session, the US Air Force is planning to shutter three of its 23 military bands and downsize two others, eliminating 103 positions in total. An attempt to reduce the Pentagon’s spending on bands by $120 million (note that this is only a little less than the entire budget of the NEA) failed in the House last year.


The Arizona Commission on the Arts has been reauthorized by Arizona’s state government for another 10 years. In another state that might have been a routine win, but Arizona’s arts commission has been cut to the bone by Republican legislatures and governor Jan Brewer since the start of the current recession, and had been threatened with de-authorization earlier in the process. The cynic in me wonders if conservatives are happy to keep the Commission around as a political punching bag as long as it doesn’t have any real power, but at least if the infrastructure is there the hope of growing it in the future is ever-present. Congratulations to Bob Booker and Arizona Citizens/Action for the Arts for shepherding this one through.

Meanwhile, it looks like much-maligned Kansas may be on track to restore funding to its state arts council this year. Rebranded as a creative industries commission, the agency is slated to receive $700,000 in the state’s yet-to-be-passed budget. Of course, it wasn’t until the budget got to Governor Brownback’s desk that the arts commission was vetoed last year, but after the political firestorm and that caused, one hopes that he will see things differently this time around.

Otherwise, things continue to be quiet on the state front. Is no news good news? I guess we’ll find out in a few months.


In the city of Portland, ME (yeah, the other Portland), two arts and creative economy agencies are merging, and the community is seeing the benefits. Creative Portland and the Portland Arts & Cultural Alliance will become the Creative Portland Corporation as of July 1, and will be the official arts agency of the region. Creative Portland has also successfully applied for a Community Development Block Grant to bring Blair Benjamin’s Assets for Artists program to the city.


The UK is considering a cap on the tax incentives offered for major charitable gifts, and some folks in the arts community there are not happy about it. Similar proposals for this country have been floated by the Obama administration for the past few years, but have gone nowhere to date. Meanwhile, Britain’s Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, is implicated in the growing scandal concerning News Corporation’s cozy relationship with the British government. Hunt is accused of acting as a “back channel” to Rupert Murdoch’s news empire during its bid to take over full control of the broadcasting network BSkyB, which it was Hunt’s job to approve.

Hunt isn’t the only minister of culture in the news lately. We had Sweden’s Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, who found herself in the worst photo op of all time the other week. And now, Bahrain’s culture minister is in some serious hot water for calling her conservative critics “not real men” for opposing an arts festival that her office is organizing.

At least these countries have culture ministers. Bosnia and Herzegovnia’s most prominent museums, galleries and libraries may have to close indefinitely due to a dysfunctional, leaderless government that failed to appropriate any federal funds for their operation last year. At Sarajevo’s National Museum, employees haven’t been paid in seven months. Amazingly, it’s still open – for now.

Finally, this is a novel take on the “day without art” concept: an apparently insane museum director in Italy burned one of the paintings in his museum’s collection as a protest against debt-driven funding cuts, and is threatening to destroy three more each week until the Italian government stops to listen. (So far, there’s no indication that it gives a crap.)

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Around the horn: American Bandstand edition


  • The California Arts Council is in danger of losing its right to solicit voluntary contributions from California citizens through their state income tax returns. Though that wasn’t proving to be a very effective way of raising money anyway – the agency banked only $165,000 from CA’s nearly 40 million residents last year.
  • Arts Council England has published an evaluation of its ambitious program to give out half a million free tickets to the theatre (in actuality slightly less than 400,000 were distributed).


  • Heather Pontonio has joined the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation as its new arts program officer.
  • Welcome Ayanna Hudson, new director of the NEA’s Arts Education program.


  • Whew! The Los Angeles Times published a brutal exposé earlier this month of problems at Watts House Project, a darling of the fledgling creative placemaking movement that attracted nearly half a million dollars in grants last year from the NEA’s Our Town program and ArtPlace and others. (Update: the NEA wrote in to clarify that while Our Town has supported projects around Watts, the grant is not associated with Watts House Project specifically.) According to the article, the Project and its founder Edgar Arceneaux have alienated some of the residents the organization is supposed to be helping by failing to deliver on promises and succumbing to mission drift. I found  this little bit of gotcha journalism particularly cute:

    As for [Rocco] Landesman, reached by phone in Washington, D.C., he said he based his positive impressions on a slide show by Arceneaux as well as a tour of the block, “and it all looked good.” He also talked to one enthusiastic 107th Street resident, Rosa Gutierrez, whose home received a bright flower mural as part of the program. He said he was not told she was on staff at Watts House Project.

    Consequences were swift. Arceneaux didn’t last the weekend as executive director of the organization, though the announcement leaves the door open for him to remain involved in another capacity. However, another former board member disputes elements of the article, presenting a compelling case that it was unfair to WHP. Nevertheless, the problems don’t seem like they’re going away anytime soon. (Interestingly, I heard Arceneaux’s replacement, Will Sheffie, keynote the Rustbelt to Artist Belt conference in St. Louis just a week after all this went down. He got a warm welcome from the audience, but avoided addressing the controversy in any real depth.)

  • The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra is upping the ante again on its radical drive to democratize classical music. The latest move is to offer members tickets to every single one of its concerts for just $5 a month. The article is worth reading in full; essentially they’re saying they’re all but giving up on earned revenue as a serious income driver.
  • Is there a future for cash mobs to support local arts organizations?
  • RIP San Antonio Opera.


  • The NEA has a new literature review out on audience impact, conducted by WolfBrown as part of a larger project to study audiences at NEA-funded events.
  • The Nonprofit Finance Fund has released its 2012 State of the Nonprofit Sector Survey, which reports that nonprofits are still feeling the economic pinch of the recession even though we’ve officially been in recovery for almost three years. (As an aside, I always have this funny cognitive dissonance whenever I read about nonprofits having a hard time because they’re “unable to meet demand.” If only arts organizations had such problems!)
  • Now conservatives are making a stink about the American Community Survey (the government’s annual replacement for what used to be the long-form Census) because of the nature of its questions. They want to make it optional to fill out, which of course would make it just another poll and destroy its statistical usefulness.
  • Americans for the Arts’s Randy Cohen offers a 2012 update to his popular Top 10 Reasons to Support the Arts post. AFTA also released the latest edition of the National Arts Index this month, and this time, there’s a new website–and a nifty new Local Arts Index–to go with it.
  • The Center for Effective Philanthropy finds no major differences between how grantees of color and others experience relationships with their funders.
  • The Ford Foundation has made its internal records from the 1950s and ’60s available for review at the Rockefeller Archive Center in upstate NY. This was a fascinating time in Ford’s history during which it was largely responsible for the growth of symphony orchestras and the regional theater movement across the country.
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Uncomfortable Thoughts: Can Left-Wing Art Be Racist Too?

Recently, this story popped up in my Facebook feed, via one of my former teachers from high school:

STOCKHOLM (FRIA TIDER). A macabre scene with racist undertones took place on Saturday when Swedish minister of culture Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth attended a tax funded party for the Stockholm cultural elite. The self-proclaimed “anti-racist” Liljeroth declared the party officially started by slicing a piece of a cake depicting a stereotypical African woman.

Oh, but it gets better – soooo much better. Because the whole thing is supposed to be a comment on female genital mutilation, Liljeroth sliced the cake from where the woman’s clitoris would be while the artist whose actual head, in blackface, was on top of the cake, screamed in mock pain.  Now THAT takes some serious chutzpah! The pictures have to be seen to be believed, but what truly takes the cake (if you will) is the video, which is below. Warning, it’s not for the faint of heart:

I find this whole thing interesting on so many levels. My high school English teacher, who happens to be black, was deeply offended by this episode, seen as it was through the lens of a conservative online rag that was jumping at the opportunity to savage a government official of which it didn’t approve. (Choice quotes include “The shocking photos show several established left-wing members of the Stockholm cultural elite watching and laughing as Minister of Culture Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth slices a cake depicting a black African woman with minstrel-esque face.”) His Facebook friends all felt the same way, at least those who commented, and I imagine many readers of this blog will as well.

The full story is a bit more complicated, however. The artist, a fellow by the name of Makode Linde who is no less black than Barack Obama, turns out to specialize in “revamping the blackface into a new historical narrative” by exaggerating racist stereotypes to grotesque extremes. In the Skype interview below with Robert Mackey of the New York Times‘s The Lede, Linde claims that he is interested in “problematizing racism” and defends the organizers of the World Arts Day event for which he created the cake sculpture.

For her part, Liljeroth has refused to resign over the incident and posted a statement on the Ministry of Culture website that reaffirms her commitment to free expression, averring that “art must…be allowed room to provoke and pose uncomfortable questions.”

Wow. Before we go further, let’s take a moment to consider this: can you imagine the shitstorm that would have ensued if Rocco Landesman had found himself mixed up in something like this? Folks, this is why the NEA does not support individual artists. This, right here. Exhibit A. Trust me, it’s better this way.

Anyway, to the piece itself. Aside from disgust and revulsion, the other dominant response I’ve observed so far is the one from defenders of the work like New York Times commenter Brian, who writes that “The piece, the reaction to it, the reaction to the reaction…all of this is part of what makes this ‘art’.” I see where Brian’s coming from, and obviously the fact that I’ve decided to write a blog post about it counts as evidence that it’s been successful in provoking dialogue. But I’m not sure that it’s the kind of dialogue that the artist had in mind. He complains himself in the Skype interview about the images being taken “out of context,” but how could they not be? Has he not heard of Facebook? The fact that this has apparently taken the folks involved by surprise is mind-boggling to me.

My problem with art that deliberately sets out to shock is that, all too often, it’s just bad art. I believe in respecting an artist’s intent, but assuming the label of “artist” doesn’t let one off the hook for accountability. If the intent is to shock, my question is “to what end?” It’s not a rhetorical question. Is it to raise awareness of some important social issue? To gain attention for the artist himself? Or just for the sheer thrill of seeing the shock you’ve created on other people’s faces? Some of these goals are more virtuous than others, and frankly sometimes I’m not so sure where the real motivation lies. But even assuming a virtuous goal, we have to ask the question of whether it succeeded or not. Has this raised awareness of female genital mutilation, and in anything resembling a helpful way? It seems to have raised awareness of Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth more than anything else.

But, in fairness, I’m open to being convinced. Digging around for material on this turned up some pretty racist stuff on Swedish websites, so maybe it will ultimately be successful in driving a dialogue about that rather than FGM. And the piece does raise some fascinating questions, even if unintentionally. Like the one in the title of this post, for example. Can art that’s supposed to be ironic in its racism end up being earnestly racist by accident? That seems to be what has happened here, at least judging by the reaction of my former teacher and his friends. Not to even mention the whole man-acting-out-female-genital-mutilation bit – all I can say is that someone’s going to have a lot of fun writing their critical race theory/gender studies dissertation chapter on this whole mess.

[UPDATE: here's another perspective, the most interesting I've found from among many others that are out there.]


Cool jobs of the month – UPDATED

(Reminder: the Fractured Atlas Research Fellows deadline is this Friday!)

Executive Director, South Arts

South Arts seeks a dynamic, multi-talented executive director to build on its exceptional 37-year track record of strengthening the south through advancing excellence in the arts, connecting the arts to key state and national policies, and nurturing a vibrant quality of life. South Arts, a nonprofit regional arts organization based in Atlanta, GA, was founded in 1975 to build on the South’s unique heritage and enhance the public value of the arts. South Arts’ work responds to the arts environment and cultural trends with a regional perspective. The organization works in partnership with the nine state arts agencies of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee, and is funded by those member states, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), foundations, corporations, and individuals.

Deadline: Accepting applications through April.

[NEW!] Program Manager, General Operating Support Program, Cuyahoga Arts & Culture

Cuyahoga Arts & Culture [ed - in Cleveland, OH] seeks a creative, energetic, and detail-oriented manager for its General Operating Support (GOS) program. The program manager will oversee the day-to-day management of CAC’s GOS grantmaking program, which in 2012 awarded $14 million to 66 arts and cultural organizations. S/he will work closely with the director of grant programs to develop and implement program strategy.

No deadline provided.

Project Coordinator, Strategic National Arts Alumni Project, Indiana University

Job Summary: Prepares annual application, amendments, and reports, and monitors compliance of the SNAAP project with the IUB Institutional Review Board. Prepares documents for internal SNAPP use, including survey response rates and analyses, and makes recommendations to improve survey procedures and protocols.

Serves as a liaison between SNAAP and its partner institutions, responding to requests for information and recruiting institutions to participate in the annual survey. Works closely with the SNAAP analyst team throughout the survey process, including the development of institutional reports and in management of any requests for special reports from institutions. Serves as primary liaison with the IU Center for Survey Research.

Deadline: April 26.

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St. Louis

Any Createquity readers from the Show Me State? I’ll be in town for a brief visit to speak at the Rustbelt to Artist Belt: At the Crossroads conference on Friday. Organized by the Community Arts Training (CAT) Institute of the St. Louis Regional Arts Commission (RAC) in partnership with Cleveland’s Community Partnership for Arts and Culture (CPAC), the convening is a forum to consider best practices and novel approaches in achieving social and economic goals through the arts. I’ll be presenting with Mary McCullough-Hudson, CEO of ArtsWave in Cincinnati, on the work we did together last year in helping the now 85-year-old united arts fund develop a new impact agenda and accompanying grantmaking strategies in response to the findings of the Arts Ripple Effect report.

April 12-14
From Rustbelt to Artist Belt: At the Crossroads
Chase Park Plaza Hotel
232 North Kingshighway Boulevard
St. Louis, MO
Info and registration
(My session is titled “Moving Beyond the Tip Jar: Arts Funding and Collective Impact,” and takes place at 2:45pm on Friday the 13th.)

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Games and the Arts in the 21st Century: An Introduction

The idea of using games as a new way to engage audiences has gained immense traction in the last 5 years. The museum world in particular has seen a great deal of discussion on this topic, from Nina Simon’s dozens of posts to this year’s Museums and the Web conference; these conversations are a natural outcropping of a much larger discussion about games in our everyday lives. I’ll be writing more about games in a later post, but I hope this one serves as an introduction to why this dialogue is happening now and what is at stake for the arts.

So why is everyone suddenly talking about games? Put simply, the immense growth of the video and social gaming industry is inspiring innovators across many sectors to ask how they might hitch themselves to this rising star. In 2011, video and computer games became the U.K.’s biggest entertainment sales category at 40.2% of the market, beating out music and video. The Entertainment Software Association notes the following staggering statistics about the 2010 U.S. market:

  • Consumers spent $25.1 billion on video games, hardware, and accessories in 2010.
  • 72% of U.S. households play computer or video games.
  • 42% of all game players are women. In fact, women over the age of 18 represent a significantly greater portion of the game-playing population (37%) than boys age 17 or younger (13%).
  • In 2011, 29% of Americans over the age of 50 played video games, an increase from 9% in 1999.

Note: Sales numbers provided here include console and PC sales only; the $25.1 billion sales total for 2010 provided by the Entertainment Software Association includes a broader range of video/online games.

The implications of this data extend far beyond the screens that limit video games to the virtual world—their newfound cultural ubiquity means that huge numbers of the population can now more easily recognize tropes and imagery from video games in real-world settings. The tools of the online gaming world (getting points for accomplishments, ascending in level, unlocking achievements, and participating virtual social circles) have become powerful ways to engage an audience for any organization, whether an arts nonprofit or a private company.  Foursquare is just one well-known example of this phenomenon, as participants receive points and other rewards for visiting a particular venue in real life.

Academics and game designers have generated a number of theories about the power of these kinds of games. Jane McGonigal, probably the most visible representative of this cohort, has made a name for herself arguing that games can literally make the world a better, happier place by harnessing their power in the service of solving real-world problems, from bodily injury to oil shortages. In his review of her recent book, Reality Is Broken, Ian Bogost argues that games allow for engagement with real-world problems by providing complex modes of inquiry rather than clear solutions. Finally, folks like Jesse Schell imagine a terrifying future in which nearly every activity we undertake is part of a game in which we accumulate points via specially-designed sensors. These are powerful ideas, and they are continuing to gain traction as technology allows for the omnipresence of games in our lives through smartphones, ultralight computers, tablets, wireless internet, and even Schell’s toothbrush sensors.

While games can clearly serve numerous social, educational, or marketing goals, the debate over whether they might form a legitimate arts genre rages on.  Roger Ebert famously thinks not, and undoubtedly not all games should be considered art, since most are created primarily as products to be sold to a mass audience. However, more and more institutions are placing at least certain kinds of games on the art pedestal. In just the past few years, Georgia Tech has co-hosted an Art History of Games conference, the Computerspielemuseum (Museum of Computer Games) opened in Berlin, and the Grand Palais in Paris hosted the Game Story exhibition; in May, MoMA will host a program titled “The Game as an Art Form.” This proliferation is rooted in games’ fundamental resemblance to conceptual art in which the audience, or player, is integral to the work. One can cite a range of work in this vein, including Yoko Ono’s instructional Grapefruit, Allan Kaprow’s performances, a great deal of the art produced for Burning Man, and Punchdrunk’s ongoing Sleep No More production. Other pieces like Manchester street artist Filthy Luker’s playable Space Invaders installation pay more direct homage to popular games.

Filthy Luker's Space Invaders installation. Credit: Duncan Hull.

Arts organizations stand to gain a great deal from refining their relationship to video and real-world games. As games industry growth outpaces already-recognized art forms like music and video, institutions should certainly incorporate games into a larger marketing or audience engagement strategy to stay relevant. But beyond that, arts organizations can positively affect the trajectory of games in culture through serious investment in programs like commissions, residencies, or cross-sector collaborations. When music and video became dominant entertainment forms, they were embraced and challenged by artists willing to push the boundaries of popular practice, and arts institutions can and should encourage the same evolution in games.

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Art and Democracy: The NEA, Kickstarter, and Creativity in America

(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.[1] 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.[2] 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.

Graph from the NEA's "How the United States Funds the Arts" report

from National Endowment for the Arts, “How the United States Funds the Arts”: http://www.nea.gov/pub/how.pdf

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[3] 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.