Help Desk

Help Desk: Crowd Funding

Help Desk is an arts-advice column that demystifies practices for artists, writers, curators, collectors, patrons, and the general public. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving.

I have a lot of friends who are running crowd-funding campaigns. One is staging a performance in another state, another has a residency in Europe in 2015, the third is going on a “research trip” in preparation for a solo show, the fourth wants to self-publish a catalog of her work. Part of me wants to contribute because these people are my friends, but personally I would never think to ask other people to fund my art practice. Isn’t that why we all have day jobs? So on the one hand, I want to be supportive. On the other, it feels like chutzpah to ask me to pay for their projects, and I don’t like feeling pressured by my friends. Should I give to all or some of these campaigns, or should I pretend I never saw the emails? Should I run one myself the next time I need to travel or buy a new laptop? 

John Baldessari. Money (with Space Between) , 1991; Lithograph / Screenprint on Arches.  © Baldessari

John Baldessari. Money (With Space Between), 1991; lithograph and screen print on Arches.

Should, should, should. It’s my least-favorite word, and it doesn’t really apply to your situation. The answer to this dilemma (I’m not counting your facetious final question) depends on your altruism and the size of your wallet. It sounds like you’re already leaning toward no, and that’s a perfectly acceptable reply. Of course, if you’re concerned that these ambitious pals of yours will snub you in the future, you could always give the minimum—it’s usually under ten dollars—and for the price of a drink you’ll have kept the peace.

Some crowd-funded projects carry more weight than others. Personally, I tend to give money to organizations (an art space, a ’zine shop’s forced relocation, a free program to make e-books) rather than individuals, because there’s more potential to do good. If I’m going to be part of a capital-raising crew, I want the benefits to extend to more than just one person. That said, I have supported some projects by my friends because they were truly in danger of not being able to take advantage of some great opportunities—but these have been in the minority.

I reached out to some other artists that I know—ones who actively participate in their communities in a variety of ways—and asked them to weigh in on flock financing. Not only did they generally echo my sentiments, they also offer tips for deciding which projects to fund, and (inadvertently) provide some dos and don’ts on how to run an honorable crowd-funding campaign:

“As an artist, I have a lot of mixed feelings about crowd-funding options. I’m glad they exist, particularly given the woeful state of arts funding in the U.S., and I think they can help fill the gap; at the same time, I’m wary of the extent to which they’re now being used for everything under the sun. I myself used Kickstarter on one occasion to produce a DVD compilation of past work—the campaign essentially functioned as a way to pre-sell the compilation in order to be able to produce it. In these sorts of instances, I don’t really see any problem with crowdfunding, especially since I wouldn’t have been able to pay for the production out of my own pocket. So I think it’s a viable way for people to fund larger projects that their regular income isn’t going to cover.

“I’ve also donated to Kickstarter campaigns at various points as well. Most of these were projects by friends or close acquaintances. I’d like to say I have some thoughtful set of metrics I use to decide what campaigns I contribute to, but the truth is a lot of it depends on a highly fluid and inconsistent set of variables—it really depends on my mood and degree of decision fatigue at that particular moment. Generally, if it’s someone I know and respect, and if the project seems like one I know they couldn’t fund on their own, I’m willing to throw down a few bucks. Sometimes the rewards are actually something I’d enjoy having—a print, a book, an album, etc.—though this is usually not the deciding factor.

“I do understand how one can feel overwhelmed by constant requests to contribute. I guess a good set of questions when one is evaluating whether to contribute or not might be: Do I like and support the work of the person running the campaign? Am I genuinely interested in their project? Would I like to see it realized? Is the project of a scope or scale that the person running the campaign would be unlikely to be able to produce it solely out of their own pocket? Are any of the rewards something I might actually like to have? Can I afford making a contribution? If the answer to most questions is yes, then I would be likely to contribute, if even only a small amount.”

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“Over the past two years, I’ve funded four artist projects. As a general rule I will not give to any art-related crowd-funding campaigns if the person could feasibly pay for the project on their own. This typically covers any ‘normal’ part of a studio practice such as making a book, doing a residency, taking a road trip to make photographs, doing extensive framing for artwork, traveling an existing solo exhibition to multiple venues, or generating basic research for an upcoming project. These are all things for which I’ve been asked to contribute funds recently.

“With this said, I will happily consider funding a project that seems more ambitious than one person can possibly pay for on their own. This would include producing a feature-length film, going to Antarctica for three months to gather data in the dark for a multi-year project, producing a year-long education program for under-served urban youth, or building a massive public sculpture in the middle of the desert … all of which I have funded or considered funding over the past few years.

“The only exception to this rule comes when an artist is offering a really great gift for funding his or her project. There have been a few instances when I funded a project reluctantly just to get some amazing thing that was offered. With that said, if I don’t receive the gift (and somewhat on schedule), I will not fund future projects by that person, regardless of the goal or project. I have a ‘one strike and you’re out’ policy. It may sound harsh, but I’ve funded four projects over the past two years, and only one person has issued their promised gift to me.”

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“I have only contributed to a handful of projects over the years. Kickstarter showed promise as an arts-funding model in the beginning but quickly devolved into a haven for half-baked ideas and vanity projects for those with social capital. That being said, the few campaigns I’ve contributed money toward have one of the following qualities:

—An arts organization or alternative venue with a track record of presenting thoughtful programming and supporting artists.
—An individual artist who wants to finance the production of a book, album, or DVD, and uses Kickstarter as a preordering system for fans. If I’m into your work, I’m happy to pay for a piece of it up front.
—An individual artist who presents a clear idea that in some way justifies the need for a large amount of money, for example, digitizing archival material for a film. This third example is very rare and my guidelines for supporting one of these projects are as stringent as any granting organization. I want to see that the artist understands the scope of her project and has made a good-faith effort to seek other funding sources.

“Here are some qualities I despise in a campaign:

—Artists begging their poor friends for money. Perhaps they also have rich patrons, or more than likely family members, who are also contributing to the campaign, but too often their emails come off like a high-school student bumming change in the lunch line.
—Asking me to support your research trip, residency costs, or other travel. Learn to write a proper grant, it’s not hard to find travel money if you put in the legwork.
—Underdeveloped proposals that would never make it past the first stage of a grants process.
—Attempting to make me feel obligated to your vanity project by using words like ‘community’ and ‘social.’”

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“I love crowdfunding. I think this type of exchange has provided creatives of all types with the opportunity to get their ideas off the ground, and has provided me with the satisfaction of contributing to projects that I find interesting and useful. However, I view crowdfunding more as a transaction than a favor to a friend. It’s an agreement.

“When I spend money on a product or a service, I get something in return. Even when I donate money to a nonprofit, I am paying for a service—that money is being used to make a difference for a cause that I care about, but that I cannot accomplish myself. When I am asked to contribute to someone’s crowdfunded project, I analyze the request like I would any other purchase. I typically refuse to fund projects that are, in my opinion, typical studio expenses or just someone’s basic cost of living.

“In my mind, there is no such a thing as a starving artist; I expect artists to be resourceful for the way that they fund their work, just like I am expected to be resourceful. But that doesn’t mean just sticking my hand out to my friends and family whenever I need something. I don’t fund projects because someone is my friend or because I get some kind of satisfaction from ‘donating’ money to an artist’s work—don’t come to me with a bleeding-heart story about why you can’t fund something yourself. Come to me with a real idea and give me something useful and interesting in return for supporting it.

“The projects that I find to be the most rewarding to fund are based on delivering some kind of product. I have supported friends who used Kickstarter to get their new accessory idea off the ground and, in return, I have received great products and other schwag. They sent regular updates of them building prototypes, selecting materials, and in the factory. I have funded a film project and have received a photograph from a small edition in return. I am often disappointed by projects that I have funded that don’t send thoughtful updates or don’t deliver the thing I purchased. When this happens, I will not fund that person’s projects again—just like I would do with any other bad customer-service experience.”

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In the end, it’s pretty easy to get out of contributing to a campaign that you can’t or don’t want to support. Yes, you can just ignore the emails, but if that seems awkward, why not meet the subject head-on: “I saw your Kickstarter/Indiegogo/GoFundMe campaign, and I am saving for my own residency/have no extra money right now/have a policy of only supporting institutions—but I hope it works well for you!” Said with genuine goodwill, this may be all that’s necessary to preserve both your friendships and your bank balance. Good luck!