The Wisdom(?) of the Crowdfund
In the ongoing debate over how creative projects in any medium can find financing outside the traditional system, crowdfunding tends to be a popular suggestion. Juke the gatekeepers and run straight to the outstretched arms of your target audience, the argument goes. But is it a viable strategy for fine art?
I started pondering this question yesterday, when I saw that the avant-garde filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky -- forever a force for good in my cosmos after seeing Jodorowsky's Dune -- had started a new Indiegogo campaign to finish his latest film, Endless Poetry. Having crowdsourced $440,000 of the project's estimated $3M budget prior to shooting, Jodo's new aim is to raise an additional $150,000 from his fans to cover postproduction costs. And since he fits much more comfortably in a fine art context than a Hollywood one (his influence on Kanye West notwithstanding), the Endless Poetry funding coda seems like a timely opportunity to explore the topic.
So what does history tell us about the success of creative content in this brave new world of online patronage? For starters, the most cash-magnetic crowdfunding effort of all time belongs to Star Citizen, a forthcoming PC game from the mind behind the classic Wing Commander series. The project collected more than $77M (not a typo) before April 1 of 2015, and more stacks have flooded in since. (Wikipedia pegs the current total at $87M as of today.)
While they may not look so impressive in light of Star Citizen's intergalactic haul, results have been encouraging in TV and feature films, too. The beloved kids' show Reading Rainbow raised $5.4M toward its effort to resurrect itself on the web earlier this year. The comedy collective Broken Lizard raked in over $4.5M via Indiegogo to fund a sequel to its cult hit Super Troopers. And Zach Braff raised $3.1M for Wish I Was Here, his feature directorial follow-up to Garden State. I'm now picturing Braff, the troopers, and Levar Burton on a mid-90s No Limit album cover.
Combine these cross-media crowdfunding smashes with the fact that Jodorowsky is already more than a third of the way toward his $150,000 goal with 19 days to go, and it starts to look plausible that fine art, like other creative content, could have a strong ally in the collective wallet of the crowd, doesn't it?
Actually, I'm not so sure. Because all of the projects I cited -- even Endless Poetry -- still qualify as mass media. None of the completed works will be A) physical objects in limited supply, B) pinned to a specific geographical location, C) accessible only at a price point beyond the means of the average citizen in the developed world, or D) all of the above. That means every potential funder will eventually be able to engage with them in their intended form.
As I just wrote a few weeks earlier, it's crucial to remember that fine art is largely, if not entirely, a niche medium rather than a mass one. That distinction deprives most fine artists of many digital-enabled benefits now enjoyed by filmmakers, videogame designers, musicians, and others.
Think about the differences between asking fans to back self-distributed, available-online content versus analog artwork like paintings, sculptures, or drawings. The cold reality is that an artist creating any of the latter would almost by definition be requesting an act of charity from her supporters, because few backers will ever get to own or experience the campaign's ultimate reason for being. That raises a big challenge.
However, I do think exceptions may be possible. They would just require fine artists to dramatically rethink the classical approach to creating work.
For instance, if the goal is to fund a single monumental piece, artists could create an array of less valuable, less substantial related objects and accessories to reward backers at different pledge tiers. Imagine Richard Serra crowdfunding a new Tilted Arc by offering tabletop-size sculptural multiples for a few thousand dollars, unlimited and unnumbered paperweight replicas for a few hundred bucks, and postcards displaying a concept sketch of the work for even less.
Laughable as that hypothetical would sound to art industry VIPs, some precedent exists for the underlying strategy. It just exists inside the hallowed halls of a gallery, at a much higher price tier.
Ever wonder how Matthew Barney got the money to create most of The Cremaster Cycle, his five-part symbolist screen epic in which the individual films allegedly ranged in budget from $150,000 to $5M? The answer, as Noah Horowitz covers at length in his book Art of the Deal, is that Barney sold editioned photographs and unique sculptures related to (or actually featured in) the films through his galleries, then used the proceeds for production.
These associated works were still pricy and extremely limited pieces of fine art in themselves. But the basic motivation behind their sale mirrors crowdfunding. The only difference is scale -- both of the number of offerings and the number of funders needed to reach the goal.
Still, I suspect that many artists -- even unbranded ones -- would be hesitant to embrace the leveled-down, Kickstarter version of this approach. The reason being that it may feel too much like they're creating a commercial product rather than an artwork.
The question, of course, is just how sturdy the wall separating those two categories actually is. And given the direction the fine arts have been heading over the past 15 years, fine artists might benefit from testing it for themselves.