The Internet had mixed reactions to last month’s news that Kickstarter was on track to outfund the National Endowment for the Arts. On the one hand, this was great news for artists and creative people who wanted to fund a seemingly obscure or perhaps controversial art project that their friends would probably get behind. Yet others weren’t so easily sold. Why was a crowd-funded platform beating out the National Endowment for the Arts, a government agency funded by Americans’ tax dollars? Something didn’t seem right.
The National Endowment for the Arts has not funded visual artists since 1993. But it once did fund controversial work, like that of Robert Mapplethorpe’s X Portfolio series, which featured images of homoeroticism, BDSM and classical nudes. That body of work was included in a traveling exhibition called “The Perfect Moment,” which was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. But not for long.
It was only a matter of time before the NEA would stop funding individual visual artists all together. Take, for example, the 1993 case of the NEA Four, which includes performance artists Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck and Holly Hughes. In June 1990, their proposed NEA grants were vetoed by John Frohnmayer because of the artworks’ highly politicized subject matter. The NEA Four filed suit against the NEA, and Frohnmayer was forced to resign. Even though the artists won their court case in 1993 and were awarded the grant money, after all was said and done, the NEA stopped funding individual artists.
Today the NEA funds visual arts through grants and organizations that “serve the needs of and enhance opportunities for artists and their audience.” The NEA claims that it is committed to advancing the work of contemporary visual artists, but that’s not what individual visual artists had to say.
Cleveland’s SPACES Gallery, Recipient of NEA Grants
Ask anyone who has received an NEA grant, and they’ll tell you that there’s a lot of legwork involved. Christopher Lynn, the executive director of Cleveland’s SPACES Gallery, tells ReadWriteWeb that the gallery has an ongoing relationship with the NEA. It receives money for the SPACES World Artist Program, an artist residency that brings in local artists from around the world.
“The NEA seems to be on board with it because it deals with issues of cultural exchange and enrichment of the national and local landscape, in addition to bringing in international artists,” says Lynn.
Yet the process for getting an NEA is “long and arduous,” he says. “It requires budgets (last year’s and next year’s), images, information on previous artists to recap on where we have been, and proposed upcoming artists.” Even if you do receive an NEA, the organization expects the organization to pay upfront, so the entire grant functions more like a reimbursement process. “You get the money at the end of the grant period, rather than get the money upfront, which can be tricky if you don’t have the cash function.” This reverse-like funding happens because organizations or individuals have, in the past, abused the privilege of receiving money upfront.
Lynn says the best word to describe the NEA is “traditional.”
In a lot of ways, Kickstarter is a far easier route than applying for an NEA grant, or any grant, for that matter. And judging by the success artists have had with Kickstarter, it’s hard to rationalize not doing it. Except for that whole small government thing.
Artist Steve Lambert: Kickstarter Is a Short-Term Solution to a Long-Term Problem
Steve Lambert raised money using Kickstarter for a project not-so-ironically titled “Capitalism Works for Me.” This project, as he says, was “more ambitious than what a nonprofit could do,” and there was a limited timeline for the project. So he jumped on Kickstarter, and in only 30 days he was able to raise $16,000. Does this mean capitalism works? Or government is broken? Or neither at all? Lambert asks friends on Kickstarter to make capitalism work for him.
“There were 434 people who now are connected to the project, even if they only gave a dollar,” says Lambert of the Kickstarter fund. “Plus there’s this accountability to the public – it’s not just me being like, ‘Hey, this is great!’ The idea needs to be supported for it to move forward.”
Lambert only turned to Kickstarter after other avenues proved to not work quite as well. “I had tried to do different forms of the Capitalism Works for Me through other institutions and it didn’t work,” he says. “Some were like, ‘No, that’s not what we do,’ and others were willing to show but not put the money behind it. If you’re challenging institutions or capitalism or the government, it’s good to be able to go outside of it.”
Or, in other words, if you’re making work that’s controversial and perhaps not as family-friendly, you’ll probably have to find alternate means of funding. Take the controversy that Mapplethorpe caused, for example. “The federal government has not given money to individual artists for decades,” he says. “Other countries don’t do this.” When it comes to work like Mapplethorpe’s, for example, even if you don’t like it, “it has value,” says Lambert.
Kickstarter is a short-term solution to a long-term problem, to continued government cuts to the arts.
“We have billions of dollars going into war,” says Lambert. “We need to be having that conversation. Kickstarter fills a need; it should always be there. But within the nonprofits, I hear them say things like ‘That program got cut so we’re gonna do a crowdfunding thing.’ And it’s like whoa, whoa, what are we doing to fight the cuts?!”
Kickstarter is well aware of this problem, too. When ReadWriteWeb originally reported the news that Kickstarter was on track to outfund the National Endowment for the Arts, we also noted something that Kickstarter Co-Founder Yancey Strickler said: “But maybe it shouldn’t be that way,” Strickler said. “Maybe there’s a reason for the state to strongly support the arts.”
Queer Filmmaker Wendy Jo Carlton: The Closed World of NEA
Two years ago, Chicago-based queer filmmaker Wendy Jo Carlton needed to raise funds for her indie film about two girls in love, Jamie & Jessie Are Not Together. She turned to Kickstarter instead of a complicated, paperwork-heavy grant because, as she tells ReadWriteWeb, it just made more sense – especially considering the subject matter she was tackling.
“I haven’t applied for really big grants probably because they’re so daunting – the time and the paperwork, the content that you already have to have such a clear, concise idea expressed in written form, plus you need budgets,” says Carlton. “It took a lot of time to prepare for Kickstarter – it’s like your own storefront, and you figure out what you want your storefront to look like. And you can be a lot more creative.”
As opposed to the Internet, a broadcast-to-the-masses type of platform, the Kickstarter campaign acts as “its own broadcast without being too idiosyncratic,” she says.
The NEA isn’t exactly focused on connecting to the social-networked masses.
“I associate the NEA with access. You have to do a lot more legwork to understand what kind of language they want you to be speaking. It’s like this insider-y thing, and to me, I associate that to upper-middle class background and Ivy League people, and people who know people or they’ve lived in New York most of their lives and are already connected. That’s not my background. I’m a working-class background, and for me it’s empowering to know how someone wants you to dance if they’re going to be throwing money at you for the dance.”
Of course, Americans’ tax dollars fund the NEA grants. But that’s beside the point.
“It’s connected to federal funding, which is taxpayer money, and I smell some right-wing agenda in the comparison because the NEA and Kickstarter are not in the same playing field to compare.”
Rainb0wLightening: We Are an ADD Culture. Get Over It.
Akron, Ohio-based artist Chelsea Blackerby of artist collective Rainb0wLightening used Kickstarter to raise funds. But it’s not something that she was particularly thrilled about. Using Kickstarter, she was able to raise a quick $2,000 for her sculpture project Dreamscape Memory Cave, a collection of personal memories and stories gathered over one year. They line the walls of this sentimental space. With 48 backers, rainb0wLightning raised the money. But the Kickstarter platform seemed to be more of a burden than a success, at least in terms of community building.
“People are really busy, everyone is demanding their attention, and that’s our culture,” says Blackerby. “That’s kind of what our piece is about. We’re asking people to stop their ADD and really slow down and experience themselves.”
A project like this doesn’t really make sense on the Internet, the exact type of medium that the artist is trying to combat.
“Kickstarter does a good job of making you feel like you had a direct hand, and it’s unique in that way because it does take out the middle man,” says Blackerby. “But it’s kind of like throwing money at the RedCross or a philanthropic organization. You want your money to go somewhere good.”