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Blog: NEA vs. Kickstarter?

By David Seals

Some thoughts in response to Kickstarter co-founder Yancy Strickler’s statement that the crowd-funding company will distribute more money this year than the National Endowment for the Arts.

  1. Kickstarter often doesn’t fund the same types of projects as the NEA. The two entities aren’t even close, a case made well by blogger Clay Johnson (e.g. designing iPhone accessories isn’t an art project.) That said, Kickstarter (and other programs such as IndieGoGo) are funding a lot of amazing art, and the sheer volume of projects demonstrate that there is a much greater need for arts funding than the NEA has ever been able to provide.  NEA grants are extremely competitive, and the advent of these quick, accessible tools is a great supplement to NEA funding.
  2. Though crowd-funding tools are a great supplement to government funding, they are not a substitution for it. There are many reasons to fund the arts outside of the private sector. At least theoretically, the NEA can do two things that crowd-funding can’t:

    One of these is to provide access—there is no profit motive for bringing art to people who can’t pay for it. Kickstarter is about voting with your dollars. Poorer people, by nature, can’t vote with their dollars to bring a project to their communities, and their social networks aren’t as strong as wealthier communities. In many cases, these communities might not even have internet access. Part of the NEA mission to bring art to those who don’t normally have access to it.

    Another is to keep artistic integrity separate from market demand—there is no profit motive to produce/present art that critiques our own society, challenges our presuppositions, makes us uncomfortable, explores ideas and concepts that lead us to a deeper understanding of our lives, etc. The private sector is about market demand, and consumers (even charitable ones) almost always gravitate toward projects that support instead of challenge their current framework about the world. In theory, government funding could provide a safe place for this type of challenging freedom of speech, though after the culture wars, you might say that the NEA leans more toward access than avant garde.

What do you think about this, Pittsburgh?


Comments (3)

  1. Good article, Kyle. Another thing that weighs heavily on NEA reaching rural communities is that 40% of its budget goes directly to state arts councils, who presumably have a much better reach into their own rural communities. In this sense, the NEA is doing exactly what Scott calls for when he says that "NEA grants (and other grants) should not be centralized in a few established institutions but rather spread geographically across America". The question is whether state arts councils are getting the funding out beyond their own major cities. Here in PA, at least we have the PA Partners in the Arts program, whose goal is to do exactly that. In the end, though, Scott's point is well-taken; his numbers about NEA grants in rural communities are somewhat staggering.
  2. You stole the words right out of my mouth (except much more eloquently stated than me). I wholeheartedly agree, Kickstarter is an interesting supplement, but never a substitution to the NEA. Just as a quick experiment, I went over to nea.gov and kickstarter.com to find comparables [I randomly selected New York state since I knew it'd make for a quick search]. This is what Kickstarter.com had on their front "spotlight" page: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1188275304/frank?ref=spotlight [a rabbit wall hook] This is what http://www.nea.gov/grants/recent/index.html had as their first NY listing [FIGMENT, a free participatory multi-media arts fest]. Pretty different projects. Both beautiful in their own way, but different. The most enlightening part of my quick search was finding a smaller FIGMENT Project on Kickstarter. http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/diedra/get-plastic-fantastic-2011-to-figment-governors-is I suppose the answer is both and not either/or.
  3. I agree in general and want to stress in particular the phrase "in theory" about the possibility that government funding could provide a safe place for works of art that challenge dominant cultural mindsets. From my point of observation, it seems that private foundations (rather than the government or individuals) are the most likely to support artists based on merit alone -- without regard to the content of a specific project. I would also point out that, in my view at least, the NEA does not do a very good job of creating access to art for poor (and especially rural) communities. For more on that issue, check out the Feb 16 entry (and many others) on Scott Walters' blog "Theatre Ideas" (" http://theatreideas.blogspot.com) or his "Cradle Project" website ()http://www.cradlearts.org/blog).