Crowdfunding the Arts Doesn’t Work
Crowdfunding the Arts Doesn’t Work
April 15, 2022, 10:30 pm
Filed under: American, art, art institutions, business, community, economics, Non-Profit, theatre | Tags: Charity Blossom, crowdfunding, donations, fundraising, grants, IndieGoGo, Josh Battle, Kickstarter, Ko-fi, Non-Profit, potato salad, theatre company
My theatre company is over twenty years old. We started in 2001 and we’ve seen some things.
For our first show, we raised funds by writing a letter — yes, an actual paper letter — and we mailed it to anyone we thought might write us a check. This worked pretty well. I’d have to double check the numbers but it’s not impossible that it was the most effective fundraising we ever did. There are a couple of reasons for that, I imagine. One is the First Steps Toward a Dream Effect. This is the thing where people love to fund the FIRST something. They enjoy helping people take a first step toward a big dream. (They don’t love so much the slog of keeping something afloat.) But I think the other factor that helped this first show’s fundraising was just the moment we were in and the circles to which we had access.
It seems like it should have been harder in those days. The efforts that people had to make to donate were substantial. First, they had to open and read our letter. (Not a given!) If they wanted to donate, they had to get out their check books, write the check and then put it in an envelope, put a stamp on it and put it in a mailbox. There are a lot of moments for this process to get derailed. It’s a lot. It was not like clicking on a link, letting your credit card info autofill some boxes and then hitting submit.
When donating through the internet started to be a thing, we were very excited. It seemed like, by eliminating all those steps for people, we’d get so many more donations. It didn’t really work out that way, though. We saw charity donation websites come and go. (Remember Charity Blossom?) The donations got smaller and smaller and people who’d written us big checks never made it to the digital mailing lists. We didn’t have their emails. I’m not sure a lot of them HAD emails.
Then crowdfunding kicked off and everyone was so excited about its potential. In some circles people talked about it as a democratizing fundraising source. We wouldn’t need to depend on rich people to fund things anymore! If we got enough tiny donations, we could make a big difference! What a win for democracy! Poor people could pay for the arts instead of rich people!
But here’s the thing. You need a LOT of people to give you $20 to make up a 10k budget. You need 500 people, in fact. (Actually, given that all these platforms take a cut, you’ll need MORE than 500 to get there.) And for people without much to spare, even that $20 is a huge deal. It’s a huge deal for me. Most folks, no matter how much they like you or believe in what you’re doing, are not going to bother or they just don’t have it to spare.
If you want to really depress yourself as a theatre fundraiser, take a tour of the theatre fundraisers on a platform like Indiegogo. You’ll see a lot of folks barely making a dent in their humble 3k ask. Theatre isn’t a good candidate for crowdfunding. It doesn’t scale well. We don’t have compelling prizes. But crowdfunding is sort of the only deal anymore. Even wealthy donors expect you to eke out a bunch of $20 donations before they’ll think about sending over a few hundred bucks.
It feels a bit like crowdfunding has killed our ability to actually raise sufficient funds because sometimes a wealthy donor looks at how a crowdfundraiser is doing and thinks it’s not worth the investment. They see that we didn’t get 10 people to give us 20 bucks and they reconsider the 2k check they were thinking of writing us. In having our struggles be so transparent, we lose leverage. We can’t sell someone on a dream because they can see how little others have put in to it.
Crowdfunding, like a lot of things, has turned out to work best for things that are going viral. Remember that potato salad? Or the Josh battle? Crowdfunding also does really well in a well publicized tragedy — but it is terrible for the day to day art making. It is a very blunt instrument. It may be the only instrument at the moment, so we pretty much have to use it but it’s not very effective. Like anything in this capitalist world, your ability to fundraise is dependent on the wealth to which you have access. Your crowdfunding campaign does not depend so much on the content of your work but on the wealth of the people in your circle who will open their wallets for you. We had more access to those people two decades ago than we do today. Today, most of my contacts are fellow artists. We have a joke in the indie theatre community about how we all just pass the same $20 around between us.
To make a 10k budget, you only need 10 people to give you a thousand dollars. Big deal! That’s only ten people! But you have to know ten people who might have a grand to spare first. That’s the real kicker and why crowdfunding the arts doesn’t work. Not unless you only want work by and for the wealthy, which is what you get when you don’t subsidize the arts, no matter which way you slice it.
Crowdfunding demands an extraction of wealth from the artist’s community. Every time I put on a show, I have to go to the crowdfunding mines and extract a little wealth from the people I know. I know some folks have found a way to perceive this as obtaining their community’s investment in their work. I appreciate that perspective but I find it particularly challenging to see it that way in this moment where most of my community is in the performing arts and most of my community lost their jobs or their big plans or their dreams or their support. Now is not the moment to extract wealth from the performing arts community — even if you call it an investment. Same goes for a lot of people right now.
I know someone is thinking, “Hey what about grants?! Grants exist. Can’t you just get a grant?” Oh darlings. Yes. We have gotten some grants. Most of them were about $500. Very nice! It’s helpful! Not as helpful as someone just writing you a check for $1000 that you didn’t have to write several essays for but helpful! $500 is a very nice start and other funders like to see that you got it but there is not a grant in America that will fund your whole project. They want to see that you can extract $10k of wealth before they will give you $10k. The best way to get an arts grant is to show how much you don’t need one.
In my experience, it takes around 10k to do just about any significant art project. That’s with a shoestring budget. Shoestrings cost about 10k. For some people, donating that 10k would make less impact than the $20 coming from a struggling artist — but an arts organization lives or dies based on where that $10k might come from. Crowdfunding seemed like an answer and it’s probably not going anywhere but you can tell that it’s not an effective tool because you’ll never catch one of the big arts institutions using it. No one suggests that The Metropolitan Opera do a Kickstarter. They extract their wealth in a much more efficient way.
And yes, of course, I’m in the middle of trying to crowdfund a project right now which is, of course, why I’m thinking a lot about this. I feel extraordinary gratitude to the people who gave us their $3 or their $1000 and I really wish I didn’t have to ask them for it, just to make a piece of art.
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Originally published at http://artiststruggle.wordpress.com on April 16, 2022.