The Internet vs. the NEA

Is Kickstarter a secret right-wing plot to undermine the National Endowment for the Arts?


Has there ever been a better time to be a cobbler in Berlin with a dream to manufacture shoes with the message "Ich bin Atheist" emblazoned on their soles? Or a group of environmentally minded designers and technologists who'd like to establish a community-based air-quality sensing network? Or a sculptor who creates giant interactive signs aimed at encouraging people to contemplate the impact of capitalism on their lives?

Thanks to Kickstarter, the New York-based crowd-funding website, the visionaries behind these and approximately 20,000 other endeavors have been able to attract enough financial support to turn their dreams into reality. Founded in 2009, Kickstarter allows individuals to publicize creative projects they'd like to pursue. The projects might involve shooting a movie, building a new performance space for a dance company, or manufacturing an open-source espresso machine; you just have to propose something specific. 

To attract backers, creators promise rewards for various levels of commitment. In March, for example, a comic book writer named Alex Woolfson sought $7,000 to publish a print edition of his serial web comic, Artifice, a science fiction thriller that features a gay hero. For those who pledged $5 to the project, he promised a PDF version of the story with some special features that had not appeared in the online version. A $20 pledge got the PDF and the print edition of the book. A $450 pledge netted the PDF, three copies of the print edition signed by Woolfson, an original inked page from the book signed by the artist who collaborated with Woolfson on the project, and other inducements.

Woolfson reached his $7,000 goal in just 48 hours and ended up attracting 988 backers who pledged a total of $36,551. While his initial goal of $7,000 would have allowed him to print around 1,000 copies of his 120-page comic book, he is now contemplating a run as high as 5,000. 

Woolfson's extraordinary success was by no means unprecedented. A remarkable 46 percent of the projects publicized on Kickstarter's site in 2011—11,836 in all—attained their funding goals. On February 8, 2012, the company enjoyed another milestone moment when an industrial designer seeking to create the Great American iPhone Dock became the first Kickstarter creator to secure $1 million in funding. A few hours later, Double Fine Productions, a video game designer, hit the $1 million threshold as well. 

In the wake of these successes, Kickstarter cofounder Yancey Strickler tried to contextualize his company's rapid growth in an interview with Talking Points Memo. "It is probable Kickstarter will distribute more money this year than the NEA," he said, referring to the 47-year-old federally funded National Endowment for the Arts. Strickler sounded almost apologetic: "But maybe it shouldn't be that way. Maybe there's a reason for the state to strongly support the arts."

Such concerns have been brewing for a while now. In April 2011, a writer for the Seattle alternative weekly The Stranger worried that "Kickstarter might start pulling money away from nonprofits and charitable organizations, becoming a way for entertainers and creative-minded people to exploit their fans." In October 2011, an artist named Steve Lambert suggested in an interview published by the University of California Institute for Research in the Arts that Kickstarter was a "right-wing paradigm" that could ultimately serve as a pretext for abolishing public arts funding completely.

"Kickstarter is really good for some projects," Lambert tells me. (In fact, Lambert used it to raise $16,986 to fund a spectacular, scoreboard-like sign that reads "Capitalism Works for Me" and gives viewers a chance to agree or disagree with this premise via an ancillary voting machine.) "I had actually tried to fund [the sign] in other places, in much less financially demanding forms, and the organizations said, 'Our board didn't go for it,'?" he says. "They thought it was at odds with our mission. So being able to skip that and go straight to people who wanted to support the project was fantastic."

Still, Lambert remains unconvinced about Kickstarter's potential to support challenging, noncommercial projects. He also cites arts education and arts infrastructure (e.g., repairing leaky classroom roofs) as areas that might get short shrift in a funding environment geared toward fun, sexy, commoditizable projects. 

Current NEA funding amounts to about $1 per U.S. taxpayer each year. Yet the program is controversial and likely will remain so because those who contribute to it have no say in how their dollar is applied. Kickstarter, by contrast, gives people that control. It turns arts patronage from an abstract, opaque, disconnected, possibly involuntary act into one of dynamic engagement, where creators get to pitch supporters instead of faceless institutions and supporters feel as if they have a personal stake in helping creators realize their visions. 

Kickstarter increases the pool and variety of funding sources for creators and allows people who are not wealthy to act as patrons. Artists can seek levels of financing that the NEA isn't designed to accommodate on either end of the spectrum, from a few hundred dollars to a few million. And the chances of success are greater for Kickstarter applicants: In Fiscal Year 2011, 5,574 individuals and organizations applied for NEA grants across six program categories, and 2,350, or 42 percent, obtained them.

It is certainly too early to say that Kickstarter has made the NEA superfluous. At the same time, it may also turn out that Yancey Strickler's reservations about rivaling the U.S. government are far too modest. Last year Kickstarter funded more than three times as many projects as the NEA did, in a wider range of disciplines. So far, at least, Kickstarter works just as well for hot dog cart entrepreneurs and 3D printer manufacturers as it does for documentary filmmakers and oddball literary magazines. Perhaps Strickler should start preparing himself for the burden of making, say, the Department of Agriculture's Market Access Program (MAP) unnecessary too.

MAP gives $200 million a year, $50 million more than the NEA currently has at its disposal, to trade associations such as the U.S. Meat Export Federation and the Ginseng Board of Wisconsin to subsidize their marketing efforts. Granted, programs like these represent a fraction of the federal budget, but they also help institutionalize America's status as the land of special interests, a place where the federal government officially privileges opera over hip-hop and ginseng over garlic. Ending such programs entirely would make America a little bit freer from cronyism and a little more democratic. But at the very least, numerous federal agencies should be contemplating how they might incorporate the Kickstarter approach into their missions. 

Kickstarter has only 38 employees, compared to the NEA's 169. In its 2012 budget request, the NEA estimated that $31 million of its $146 million, or 21 percent, will go to salaries, expenses, and program support efforts, while $115 million will go to its grantees. Kickstarter, meanwhile, takes a 5 percent cut of a successful project's funding, and Amazon takes another 3 percent to 5 percent in processing fees. This means that with NEA levels of funding, project creators would net at least $131.4 million, or $16.4 million more than the NEA's grantees. 

Kickstarter, in other words, isn't just on track to eventually surpass the NEA in total funding dollars. It's also significantly more efficient than the NEA in underwriting international haiku initiatives and evening-length dance performances about the "environmental impact of commuter towns." No doubt the average right-wing philistine will soon be longing for the days when artists depended on the federal government for their livelihoods.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato writes from San Francisco.