A new way for art to take flight


Crowdfunding has helped bankroll movies, albums, exhibitions and books – and as Irish artists face dwindling resources this alternative type of ‘public’ funding is about to get more popular

THE ARTS, we keep hearing, are facing a financial crisis. Whether it’s the type of artistic endeavour that relies on dwindling public funding, or the commercial arts that are seeing revenues collapse due to downloading, the financial models that underpinned creativity over the past few decades are changing rapidly. But a solution might come in the form of “crowdfunding”, an innovative form of distributed capital funding that has been pioneered by New York web company Kickstarter, and which will soon be coming to Ireland in the form of Fundit.ie.

Crowdfunding sees artists submit project ideas, whether it be for a film, an exhibition, an album, a book, a piece of design, etc, and then the crowdfunding company solicits pledges from the public for each project on its website, with the project creators raising awareness through social networks and new media. Rewards are created to attract interest, so for instance a pledger might be guaranteed an advance copy of an album they put money towards. A key element is that the pledges are only paid out if the funding goal is reached within a certain timeframe, otherwise nobody pays anything.

In effect, crowdfunding is a sort of large-scale, arts-centric Dragons’ Den, but rather than being a mere investor, it allows everybody to act as micro-patrons, helping the creation of art and fostering creativity.

Kickstarter was the brainchild of Perry Chen – he needed capital to set up a music festival, and wondered why such large-scale pledge system didn’t already exist. He co-founded the company with experienced tech operators Yancey Strickler and Charles Adler in April 2009 – in less than two years, it has revolutionised the economic model for the independent arts, and inspired other similar companies such as PledgeMusic. But how likely is it to disrupt existing business models? Strickler is evangelical about the possibilities.

“It’s absolutely a replacement for the old way of doing business, and in many cases it’s a better option for artists,” he says. “If you use Kickstarter, you have complete rights to your work, and you’ve built a strong relationship with an audience that’s going to care about what you do. A lot of successful creators would say that money is the least important thing they got out of it – it’s more about putting their idea out into the world.”

Allowing artists to maintain that independence is a big part of Kickstarter’s appeal. “In other circumstances, artists are often asked to think about how to monetise this, how to make this a blockbuster, even if those traits aren’t inherent in the project or art itself,” says Strickler. “Kickstarter lets projects exist as they are, you don’t have to cram in other things to satisfy what other people might be looking for . . . we’ve never told anyone to change the third act or ditch the bass player.” At the moment, Kickstarter caters to US projects only, but one Irish artist who has attempted to raise money with the site is Ciara Scanlan, of artist co-operative Mart. In an attempt to fund Invite or Reject, a touring exhibition that’s part of the Imagine Ireland series of events in the US, Mart set up a Kickstarter project which succeeded in raising $5,000.

“We had some difficulty getting support, which we were surprised by,” says Scanlan, “but the problem might be trying to appeal to Irish people on a US site. You have to do an awful lot of promotion, it’s almost a full-time job promoting the project. You can take more risks, though – when you apply for public funding or Arts Council grants, there are a certain number of boxes that need to be ticked, and maybe you change your work to get those boxes ticked. Crowdfunding opens it up to anyone who might be interested. You’re handing the power back to the people – it’s quite a socialist model in a way.”

Scanlan hopes that Fundit.ie, which is being set up by the arts-funding agency Business to Arts and is due to launch in the next couple of week, will be a better fit for Irish creatives. This is certainly the goal of Business to Arts chief executive Stuart McLaughlin. “There might not be that large-scale philanthropy here, but Irish people are phenomenally good at giving in small volumes, for large totals,” he says. “Fund It is not a charity, but we do believe there’s something in the psyche of people that we’re used to giving in that way. The cultural organisations are heavily dependent on public funding, which is fading fast, so it’s a good time to try these things, it’s a time of change.”

As for the challenges of creating a crowdfunding system in a creative pond as small as Ireland’s, McLaughlin is bullish. “We believe, even given the size of the market, it should be available, and we can give it the right feel and context for Irish creatives.”

WHILE CROWDFUNDINGhas already proven successful, it’s easy to suspect that it could remain a niche part of the creative economy, the preserve of bijou projects with limited mainstream appeal.

Strickler, however, is optimistic. “I think it’s the very beginning of this . . . it’s great to see something and say ‘I was a part of that, I helped make that, that story is my story’. That’s a real asset, and it’s not something you can put a price on, but it’s an experience that people do not forget.

“And so it’s our belief that it’s a new type of transaction, something in between patronage and commerce, and it offers a lot to people on both sides of the transaction. I don’t think there’s a ceiling to that potential.”

Successful crowdfunded projects

TikTok and LunaTik

Kickstarter wasn’t originally envisioned as funding products, as such, but the number of designers who approached them with innovative product designs quickly changed their minds. By far the most successful were these two iPod nano watch straps, created by Scott Wilson. With a snazzy video and significant exposure on gadget blogs, this project vastly exceeded its modest $15,000 goal, ultimately reaching $941,718 in pledges.

Content by Gang of Four

The great iconoclastic punk band have never sat easily with the business side of the music industry, so they decided to fund the production of their latest album, Content, through PledgeMusic.

PledgeMusic founder Benji Rogers says they “consider ourselves more in the direct-a-fan space than crowdfunding”, with less emphasis on achieving a specific goal.

But the liberating effect is largely similar, and appealing to musicians - other acts to fund their work through PledgeMusic include Duke Special and Cornershop.

Blue Like Jazz

A film version of Donald Miller’s bestselling memoir was all set to go into production when financing fell through at the last minute. But nearly 5,000 fans raised $345,992, way more than the $125,000 goal, and production went ahead. It’s far from the only successful film project - five films at this year’s Sundance festival were Kickstarter-funded.

Designing Obama

The design director of Obama’s presidential campaign, Scott Thomas, collaborated with artists and designers to create this glossy 360-page book chronicling the design decisions and artwork of the historic, and historically tasteful, campaign. It raised nearly $85,000 on Kickstarter.