Lost Highway: Patreon's Dubious Road to Contemporary Art Funding
As longtime readers know, the Gray Market is always ready to road-test alternative business models for contemporary artists, hoping to determine which, if any, are worth traveling. That impulse has led me to crowdfunding twice before––first as a standalone topic, then as one leg in a longer journey through the new arts philanthropy. In both cases, I came away cautiously optimistic that, for some artists, the concept could be a viable off-ramp from the Autobahn to misery that is the 21st-century gallery system (by the numbers, anyway).
But after reading Keith A. Spencer's essay "Against the Crowdfunding Economy" this week, I'm pumping the brakes a bit on my earlier opinions. Because I'm now convinced that one variant of the model is actually just a side route to the same compromised artistic destination.
The crowdfunding variant in question is Patreon, the platform that bills itself as a next-generation pathway to "recurring funding for artists and creators" of all types. Unlike Kickstarter or Indiegogo campaigns, Patreon doesn't revolve around artists' making specific requests for specific projects. Instead, online patrons (in Spencer's words) "sign up to donate 'tips' whenever their favored 'creators' produce content they like." The bigger a patron tips, the more supplementary and/or exclusive content they receive from their sponsee. And since Patreon takes a portion of all tips––the site touts its cut as five percent, though Spencer's sources allege that the number is "closer to 12 percent" after the inclusion of assorted fees––everyone involved in the arrangement theoretically gets what they want.
Still, before signing up, every contemporary artist should ask one crucial question about the platform's viability: How do I generate a sustainable stream of tips? Lauren Parker, an Oakland-based freelance writer and podcast producer, offers this key piece of advice from her Patreon experience:
[Donors] start to get pissy when you make art they don’t want. Like they have a right to be involved in your life. If you piss them off, your revenue goes down. And the more time you spend on the exclusive art, the less time you have for what you really want to be working on.
Now, from an economist's perspective, patrons SHOULD stop tipping any artist who ceases to make work that they want, and patrons DO have a right to be involved in an artist's (professional) life as long as they're actively funding it. To quote Don Draper, "That's what the money is for." Furthermore, as Spencer acknowledges later in the essay, neither of these dynamics is Patreon's invention. The platform only recreates the same ethically complex relationship that artists and patrons have always shared.
For example, Jeff Koons's revenue would have gone down if he'd pissed off Dakis Joannou while designing the Greek industrialist's mega-yacht. (In case you haven't rolled your eyes yet today, it's named "Guilty.") Michael Heizer's revenue would have gone down if he'd pissed off Virginia Dwan while trying to engineer "Double Negative." Caravaggio's revenue would have gone down if he'd pissed off Alof da Wigancourt, the Grand Master of Malta's Knights of the Order of St. John, while painting under his patronage in the early 17th century. (In fact, Caravaggio eventually DID piss off da Wigancourt, by shooting one of his knights in a barroom brawl, and the incident nearly ended both Caravaggio's career and his life.)
But Patreon does iron one glaring new wrinkle into the longstanding artist-patron relationship: scale. The problem emerges in the first quote Spencer includes in the piece, from an anonymous Patreon artist: "Patreon is really hard, unless you've already got an existing following that's huge." As Spencer also relays from Lauren Parker, the platform is most––and maybe only––viable for people who have "heavily cultivated their social media presence," i.e. amassed a sizable audience.
Why does scale matter? Because when I read between the lines and think about the basic principle of crowdfunding, I'm left with this conclusion: While it's not impossible for Patreon artists to succeed by convincing a few fans to consistently give a few enormous tips––more or less replicating the historical patronage model in the process––they're much likelier to succeed by convincing a lot of casual fans to consistently give a lot of small tips. That means Patreon incentivizes artists to try to play to a mass audience.
The problem is that contemporary art is not, and has never been, a mass medium. It's a niche medium for a niche audience. (Another theme I've written about more than once). Unlike musicians or filmmakers or authors, contemporary artists can still have incredibly successful careers by making work that only ever satisfies, at most, a few hundred people––as long as they're the right few hundred people. (Or really, the right few dozen. The rest will follow the leaders.) And while I wouldn't say it's true in all cases, many of art history's most intriguing, meaningful, and innovative developments have come precisely because of this license to disregard a mainstream sensibility.
Spencer doesn't dig into this issue, since he's primarily focused on using Patreon to vault to a larger socialist critique of crowdfunding platforms in general. But he does allude to it briefly when he distinguishes between "art" made by "artists" and "content" made by "creators." (A boundary line I've also drawn in the past.) Aside from its initial mention of "artists" on the landing page, Patreon uses the word "creators" almost exclusively throughout the rest of its copy––in Spencer's mind, justifiably so. He writes:
Art and content are not the same. Content is produced with a specific, marketable goal in mind. Patreon turns artists into content-makers whose creativity is moderated by their patrons.
That transformation taints Patreon like a flatulent passenger taints a scenic road trip. In my mind, crowdfunding's most exciting potential for contemporary artists would be as an alternative revenue stream for ambitious and/or challenging work––in other words, work more singular than the instantly digestible selfie-bait that rules today's hyper-commoditized art market. But since Patreon's reliance on scale favors artists able to appeal to a broad audience of casual fans, the platform ultimately just detours us back into the same forgettable freeway lane as much of the 21st-century gallery system. And that shared destination makes Patreon-style crowdfunding a route that all but the most mainstream-compatible artists might be wise to avoid.