Opinion: Make New Friends! Addressing the Problem of Access to New Sources of Arts Funding

Crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, RocketHub and their offspring have taken advantage of the web’s reach to create a platform for collecting small-scale donations to fund personal and community arts projects. This offers a welcome alternative to the main sources in the recent past: credit cards and loans handed over from dubious, “I’ll-do-this-because-I-love-you”, handwringing family members.

These sites have undeniably changed the dynamic of the arts in many ways for the better, funding valuable projects that have had a positive impact in the collection and dissemination of knowledge or the creation of new artistic work that otherwise may not have happened. Among the photography community likely to read this, initiatives such as Pete Brook’s “‘Prison Photography’ on the Road” and Jennifer Schwartz’s “Crusade for Collecting” were widely and successfully backed, each raising over $10,000 to support their worthy projects.

While acknowledging the strength of crowdsourced arts fundraising, this new economy for the arts has limits of access that reflect and perhaps even reinforce the imbalance of the economics of the arts worldwide. While anyone can register a project on some of these sites - IndieGoGo and RocketHub, for example, accept international campaigns - there are clear limits on who is likely to use the system successfully.

To illustrate, let’s say I would like to fund a photography project on the problems of illegal mining in Colombia on Kickstarter. Drawing on connections made through my photography education and online community, I am probably able to get a few well-known photographers to contribute prints for giveaways. I call friends from my university involved in the business world to help me think through marketing, budget and the project model. I put out the word via Facebook and Twitter and friends graciously repost my project on high-visibility blogs and sites. My friend has the editing equipment and editing programs to make a top quality video on the project. Friends and family have the resources to contribute. Project likely funded.

Now let’s say a young professional photographer from a public university arts program in Medellín would like to fund a photography project on the problems of illegal mining in Colombia. Without real and social media world connections to well-known photographers, this photographer will not be able to offer the same tempting giveaways. English makes navigating setting up the project difficult and most likely a little awkward. They are without the online photography world connections to request the promotion of their project on a blog or site. Their family recently had their water cut and pays paramilitaries protection money each week, as do their neighbors and family friends. They won’t be contributing. Project? Little chance whatsoever. No matter how strong their work, how passionate the vision, how outstanding the project, they lack the tools to participate.

The successful pitch in the new economy of the arts relies on social networking, real world social connections, friends and family with money to contribute, strong giveaways to reward donors that also rely on connections, a bit of English, and a dash of tech savvy and personal marketing skills. Of the nine suggestions Pete Brook makes in his article "The Etiquette of Crowdfunding: A Recipient's View" to help someone launch a successful fundraising campaign, at least the first six are fairly impossible for the majority of international artists from outside the US and Europe to take advantage of: get advice from people in the know, offer strong incentives for giving, use your existing networks, promote hard while the project is live via your networks, involve your community, and a "blooming good video" (English, equipment).

So the question becomes: to what degree do crowdfunding platforms reinforce the existing dynamics of art world resources? And to what degree do these sites, which require tapping into an online world of social media savvy people with connections and the money to contribute, limit funding to projects from a very specific sector of the world arts community? And an uncomfortable question: to what degree is this sector also the most likely to have access to funding their projects outside the crowdsourcing model, including the traditional methods of awkward family conversations resulting in support, credit card debt eventually paid off through access to decent-paying employment, and small grants and loans?

The inability for much of the world art community to tap into the strength and opportunity of the new model of arts fundraising is deeply problematic: the arts, photography in particular, inform our thoughts and decision-making by giving us images from artists across classes and across nations that make us aware of realties beyond our own. Without images, we have less specific knowledge, and therefore take less consideration of these spaces and people in our worldview and decision-making. Secondly, and beyond the scope of this post, artists generate money for a community (as documented in Richard Florida’s The Creative Class, for example) through renovating sectors of cities and by adding their creative talents to local economics. Therefore by leaving the world’s artists out of new funding sources, we also affect the health and the developmental ability of the cities and countries these artists come from.

Sadly, this also reinforces other economic factors that militate against the success of international artists and the arts in the developing world. Imagine importation costs raise your equipment prices 35%. And now imagine you make 1/3 the money per hour for the same work you do. Enough said.

This is certainly not a call to avoid funding projects on Kickstarter. It’s an attempt to point out an issue in the new arts funding model and a call to amplify and expand the opportunities for artists not likely to succeed in this model. As a creative and progressive community of photographers, we can work to extend the strengths of crowdfunding. The new arts economy requires, more than anything, social connections. Of the six tips Brook gives that most artists based outside the US and Europe cannot use, you can argue all six would be able to be taken advantage of with better connections.

An easy first step for all of us to take is to take the initiative to form the social connections that are crucial for the new economics. Search out sites that promote photographers from countries and cultures less frequently seen - Greater Middle East Photo, We Take Pictures Too, Invisible Photographer Asia, and Kilele for example. Connect with the artists you discover there. Be proactive in communications with them to create a stronger, more cross-cultural online photography world - establishing these connections will begin to bridge the divide that is leaving the majority of our fellow photographers unable to use the powerful tools of the new economics.

- Tom Griggs