Kickstarter Reaches Major Milestone

Depending on your perspective, the following news is either a cause for celebration, or a sobering reminder of the state of federal funding for the arts in America. Or perhaps both. Kickstarter, the funding platform for thousands of arts and other creative projects, announced last week that it is projected, through its website and thanks to thousands of contributors, to be on track to receive over $150 million in pledges in 2012, by far its biggest and most successful year to date.

This is wonderful news for the arts community, and will help thousands of artists get their projects off the ground. However, the amount does represent a milestone of sorts: while substantial in its own right, the $150 million figure also surpasses the entire 2012 annual budget of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), a federally funded program with the might of the United States government behind it.

So it begs the question: as sites like Kickstarter grow in popularity, and help steer more funds to specific arts projects, does federal funding for the arts carry less significance going forward?

We’re big fans of Kickstarter here at Tech in the Arts, and have written about the site’s innovative funding platform and some of the better projects that it has featured. For those who are unfamiliar with Kickstarter, a quick primer: people can post projects online, ranging from art to fashion, film to music, photography to theater, and request donations to get the projects running. The people responsible for the projects outline what they hope to accomplish, how much money they need, and can offer incentives for people to donate money, like free tickets or exclusive merchandise, depending on the amount donated. In the end, if the project fails to reach its fundraising goal (usually within a couple of weeks), no money is exchanged, and the project fails.

As it relates to the juxtaposition of the two entities, first a few caveats. Projects from outside the United States are featured, so the money in question is not confined just within our borders. Second, the site is on track to secure $150 million in PLEDGES in 2012, which does not guarantee funding. According to the site, a little over half of projects fail to meet their fundraising goals, meaning funds for those projects do not change hands. However, with people around the world willing to contribute that much money, it does represent a significant milestone in the arts community.

I wrote last week about the 2013 funding request for the NEA in President Obama’s budget, and welcomed the news about the funding being increased for the new year. However, even with the increase, the budget has failed to increase with the rate of inflation, and is actually a decrease from the early 1990’s, when the budget was in the range of $180-185 million per year.

However, as budget deficits climb and the debt reaches new heights each year, the axe seems to fall on what’s referred to as “discretionary” spending, or spending that’s not mandated by existing laws, first, and that includes programs like the arts, education programs, and public service organizations. This has especially been true in recent years, with calls by some in Washington to drastically cut discretionary programs and cap them from future increases.

As I talked about last week, the NEA is an essential resource for arts organizations, after school programs, schools and community groups who depend on federal programs to survive. Few of these groups generate the amount of internet excitement as the projects on Kickstarter, and cannot rely on social media or online funding mechanisms to continue. Their continued existence rests largely with the help of their local communities, state and local organizations, and most importantly, the federal government.

My concern is that with sites like Kickstarter providing a mechanism for taxpayers to select the individual projects they would like to see funded, the desire to continue to fund the NEA and other arts programs will diminish. Why, after all, have taxpayers pay for a central agency like NEA when individuals can contribute to the projects in their community, or the projects they share an interest with, instead of some program or group they have never heard of?

The NEA has been targeted for elimination in recent sessions of Congress, but thankfully it has survived. Even though the advent of online fundraising tools has provided a steady source of pledges and funding for arts projects, the backbone of arts funding continues to be at the federal and local levels, and any decrease or entire elimination of funding would have a catastrophic impact on artists, the arts community, and arts lovers everywhere.

Another way to look at it this: with the advent of sites like Kickstarter, funding for the arts is increasing, and is becoming a wildly successful endeavor. Last year, Kickstarter received over $90 million in pledges, with several projects hitting the $1 million mark. This is NEW money coming into the arts community, and it deserves to be celebrated.

The ideal, however, is a world where both funding mechanisms continue to move forward, and serve the unique niches they cater to: Kickstarter to the up-and-coming and innovative film/music/theater/art projects and NEA for the community-based groups and local arts organizations.

Congratulations are in order for our friends at Kickstarter, with many more years of continued pledges and success moving forward. It is my hope that the same kind of success and impact continues with NEA, as it faces significant hurdles in Congress to secure future funding.