Tech + Art + Mobile + Money = A New Hope for Artists and NPOs?

<a herf=>Start Mobile</a> offers 18 Mobile Art GalleriesSTART Mobile offers 18 Mobile Art Galleries

Wouldn't it be great if you could spend a small amount of money to get something cool, and at the same time both support an artist AND the non-profit that supports them?

For example, you could hop on iTunes and look up your favorite museum, your alma mater, your child’s school, your favorite ballet company, and download a gallery of images relating to or by the organization. You could purchase it for less than a buck, and pat yourself on the back for making a donation (when really you were just buying something for yourself).

Thanks to START Mobile, that possibility is rapidly becoming a reality.

Started in 2005, START Mobile’s mission, as described by founder and CEO John Doffing, is to bring “NEW ART to the mobile medium. From the beginning, our vision was one of 'Art for Everyone & Art for Everywhere.’” At the moment, START Mobile is "a bootstrapped startup" that has launched 18 mobile galleries for the iPhone, including one which contains Shepard Fairey's now-controversial Obama image, and promises to launch applications for other platforms in the next few months.

“Technology can facilitate a lot of outside the box thinking relative to the marketing, ownership and appreciation of fine art, and this is a significant part of what START Mobile is trying to accomplish," says Doffing. "[I]t introduces a decidedly egalitarian ethos into an art world that has become inaccessible to the vast majority of potential art lovers.”

A longtime advocate of the arts, Doffing also founded San Francisco's START SOMA Gallery and the Painted Rooms at the Hotel des Artes. He is fierce in his conviction that artists retain the rights to the work that START Mobile licenses, and that they be paid for their work. "There is no charge to the artists that we work with to 'mobilize' their content," explains Doffing. "ALL our artists receive the same commission (and this goes for ALL our art projects): 50% of our net. Or about 10 times what is typically paid to artists to license their work. How much can they make? Depends entirely on how many are sold!"

Apple charges 99¢ for an individual to download one of START Mobile’s artist galleries (a gallery contains multiple images) onto an individual’s iPhone. Apple makes 29¢ off the sale, and the remaining 70¢ is equally split between START Mobile and the artist. Thus, the artist is paid every time anyone, anywhere, downloads the gallery.

Doffing again stepped "outside the box" when he approached Kathy Hanlon Sampon, art teacher at his alma mater, Wisconsin’s Catholic Memorial High School, whose art department was struggling for funds. “During our talks, we discussed [the CMHS art] department’s progress in digital media,” explains Hanlon Sampon. “Since [Doffing] was already developing the program for the app, it would be easy (relatively speaking) to drop our students' work into one of his programs and make it available to the general public – worldwide.”

Hanlon Sampon chose the work that would be included in the CMHS Gallery, digitized the pieces, sent them to Doffing, and START Mobile did the rest--including donating all revenue to the CMHS art department (CMHS is a Catholic non-profit organization). But Hanlon Sampon appreciates more than financial benefits, and says her students now "understand much more about marketing of artwork, the prospect of global visibility, PR, and how technology can be used to not only create art but also to share it.”

START Mobile subsequently released the Pride Gallery by artist Samala (START Mobile Creative Director Christina Samala), who donated her work to raise money to NPO The Courage Campaign. As with CMHS, START Mobile gives 100% of revenue to the Courage Campaign. Though in neither case do the artists directly profit from their work being used, the implications of START Mobile undertaking a project like this are huge.

At this time START Mobile would not be able to sustain itself if every gallery operated like the CMHS and Pride mobile galleries. But perhaps there are artists that would collaborate with non-profits for an equal share of the traditional revenue of 35¢ (after START Mobile takes its cut). START Mobile could become the go-to company for arts organizations wishing to make some money for themselves, the artists, and increase exposure. Galleries could have mobile shows, private schools around the world could have a program like CMHS’s (perhaps public schools could get in on the action if the profits went toward the Booster Club, or were differently packaged). Doffing's long-term goal is "to get our business stable enough that we can do a few dozen apps each month for non-profits that our team supports."

Doffing is optimistic about the potential for artists and organizations to really profit from the galleries, though START Mobile doesn't release sales figures. "If we can manage to crack the top 100 apps in our category on iTunes, sales numbers increase by an order of magnitude. . .There are currently quite a few iPhone wallpaper applications available via iTunes that are selling several thousand units globally per day at 99¢ each - generating several thousand dollars a day in revenue."

"When the CMHS iphone app started getting some press, we received inquiries from around the world wanting to do something similar, representing everything from art museums to non-profits to high school and college art departments. We don't have the resources to do them all, and I have been talking to some folks about automating the process so we can just launch as many of these things as possible [in the future]."

His enthusiasm is contagious, and his positive outlook gives me hope for all of us who have been lamenting the sacrifices that both artists and non-profits make daily. When I told him that I believe many people, like myself "would love the opportunity to support favorite organizations AND get nice wallpaper AND support artists," his reply made me smile:

"Mobile + small-dollar transactions + application model for content delivery enables this for the first time EVER. Pretty exciting."

Yes, it is.