The Dance Community’s Affair with Kickstarter

by Steven Weisz for The Dance Journal

More and more dance projects and performances in the Philadelphia region are being funded through Kickstarter. The concept is fairly simple, an artist or organization explains their project on the web site, and if enough people pledge donations with in a given time period, the project is funded.  If the goal is not reached, the artist does not receive any funding and those who pledged retain their monies. Kickstarter takes a 5 percent cut for the use of their service.

For dancers, dance companies and area organizations, the crowd funding model of Kickstarter has been a boom. They are no longer faced with lengthy and difficult grant applications or the endless pitching to patrons in order to get a project funded. In addition, funding is more immediate with turnaround times in either thirty or sixty days versus six months or longer with standard grants.

What’s more, many of those who have posted projects have expressed that the can be more clear about their project, as well as more creative with how it is represented. The artist tends to have more control of what is presented to the public.  Grants on the other hand can be a very daunting process, requiring significant time and paperwork.  All too often the grantee is forced to mold their project to fit the wording and requirements of the application form. Then, there is always the issue of budgets, finances and reporting to further deal with.

So on the surface, this model seems to solve the difficult task of raising funds for the arts, especially given the current economy.  However, Kickstarter is also not without its pitfalls and perhaps a need for some caution.

To begin with, Kickstarter is not need-based.  As such, the success of any campaign depends on the size and viability of the artist’s existing social network and fan base. Simply put, organizations and individuals with larger networks, who can get the word out, do well while smaller groups still suffer.

The Kickstarter model is incestuous, in that it does not build audiences or develop new fan relationships, but rather simply asks for handouts.  While the traditional grant gate keepers are put to the side and the general public now decides what is funded, how many times can we ask the same crowd for funds? And how often can we ask our fellow dancers, who are also struggling, to support our work?

Also to some degree, Kickstarter can create a greater gap between funder and artist, especially when form emails are sent as a thank you.  Acknowledgement of larger funders is often on the same level with that of the ten dollar donor.  And all too often rewards, given as an incentive to donate, are not delivered in a timely manner if at all. The personal connection between the funder and the artist can be easily lost in the electronic mesh of the system.

I have always been for the power of an audience, for lack of a better term, but some dance is not necessarily popular. It does however push boundaries and challenge our notions of movement and meaning. The work is critical to the diaspora. Popularity, which is so key to the Kickstarter model, does not necessarily make for better art. Such projects are likely to suffer on Kickstarter and still face a serious need for alternative funding.

Government support for the arts has always been miniscule and in the current economy, it is vanishing even more rapidly. On both federal and state levels, there have been significant moves to cut funding for the arts and arts education. Kickstarter offers a short-term solution to what is perhaps a more insidious and long term problem – how to fund the arts. But does it also detract us from what should really be the goal at hand, a continued fight to end such cuts? If the average citizen was called to action as much as they are called upon to donate to Kickstarter campaigns, would our priorities change?

A crowd funding system is still better than no system at all. More dance projects in Philadelphia have achieved success because of Kickstarter. I have seen dance projects raise more money in less time than available through the average government grant.  However, perhaps this gives cause for us to re-examine the funding and grant process currently in place.  I would also encourage users of Kickstarter and other crowd sourcing models to really examine and have a plan in place as to how this fits in to their overall funding goals. More importantly would be to examine how such a process  could be used to  develop a relationship with the public and potential future audiences.

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