That’s the question that’s been debated across several blogs following Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler’s comments to TPM published on Friday that his three-year-old website expects to see $150 million in fundraising for projects this year, compared to the $146 million NEA budget for the same time period.
Now, the NEA has weighed in on the debate. Although the organization declined to speculate on whether it or Kickstarter would provide more funds to the arts in 2012, the NEA is by and large a big supporter of the New York-based web company.
“The NEA and Kickstarter exist to fund different art of the arts ecology in this country, and in order for the sector to thrive, we need both,” said Victoria Hutter, an NEA spokesperson, in an email to TPM.
Indeed, some of the NEA’s own research (namely a 2007 study called “How the United States Funds the Arts”) bolsters the case for Kickstarter’s role in supporting creative projects.
“Support from individuals (both in the form of contributions and in ticket sales) is by far the most important source of revenue for arts organizations in this country,” Hutter added, “Religious organizations and political campaigns have long recognized the power of creating a broad base of individuals giving relatively modest amounts of money. Kickstarter and the other platforms that crowdsource donations for arts organizations and projects are becoming increasingly important in helping the arts catch up.”
That’s essentially the same point that Kickstarter’s Strickler attempted to make to TPM on Friday.
“It is probable Kickstarter will distribute more money this year than the NEA,” Strickler told TPM in a phone interview, later adding “But maybe it shouldn’t be that way. Maybe there’s a reason for the state to strongly support the arts.”
But some may have misinterpreted his remarks as a challenge to the NEA or worse still, an implicit, but unfounded veiled statement that Kickstarter could replace the NEA.
“I don’t want to get into a ‘What is Art’ discussion,” Johnson wrote. “Rather, let’s talk about how much money Kickstarter is giving to the kinds of projects that the NEA supports.”
Johnson initially attempted to derive this by adding up the top 10-highest grossing (“most funded”) projects within each of Kickstarter’s 13 categories: Art, Comics, Dance, Design, Fashion, Film, Food, Games, Music, Photography, Publishing, Technology, and Theater. Based on that measure, Johnson found that the “Design” category — which mostly includes third-party Apple accessories — was the highest grossing category, representing projects the NEA would never support.
“Let’s be generous and say that 7 of Kickstarter’s categories actually overlap in some way with the NEA’s general mission: Art, Dance, Film Music, Photography, Publishing, and Theater,” wrote Johnson. “That total comes up to about 28% of the top funded projects on Kickstarter.”
But Strickler responded with a post of his own on his personal blog, stating that Johnson had reached “a number of inaccurate statistics and conclusions.”
As Stricker continued:
“Looking at the top ten most-funded to determine overall funding is certainly a methodology but it is a distorted one. Clay writes that design and technology make up 50% of funds on Kickstarter. Let’s look at the percentages based on the actual numbers:
Film — 33%
Music — 21%
Design — 11%
Art — 6%
Publishing — 5%
Games — 5%
Technology — 5%
Theater — 4%
Food — 3%
Comics — 3%
Photography — 2%
Fashion — 1%
Dance — 1%”
Stricker continued by pointing out the design category included far more projects than Apple products, and added: “Those seven categories that Clay mentioned have seen a combined $93.3 million in successful pledges and account for more than 69% of all dollars pledged.”
Johnson amended his piece and published a follow-up with the new data. Still, going off Strickler’s explanation that 70 percent of Kickstarter’s total lifetime divestment occurred in 2011, Johnson figured that Kickstarter actually raised $65.5 million for “core arts in 2011.”
That’s “less than half of the NEA’s budget,” Johnson wrote. “The point of my original post stands: it’s not close. While my numbers were wildly off, so was comparing Kickstarter’s arts funding to the NEA’s.”
Like Johnson, many readers took issue that the comparison between the two starkly different organizations was even being made in the first place.
“It is a comparison of apples and spaceships,” one TPM reader remarked.
Indeed, Kickstarter is a young Web startup that allows aspiring creators of a wide variety of projects to post their ideas online, solicit donations from the rest of the Web in exchange for providing early or premium access to their completed ideas, and to then go on and sell or monetize those completed projects separately.
Among the more noteworthy Kickstarter projects are an iPod Nano Watch and an iPhone dock, each of which raised around $1 million each. And though both projects are arguably artistic in some ways, they are considered part of Kickstarter’s “Design” category.
The NEA is a nearly 47-year-old independent agency established by the federal government (under President Johnson) that doles out taxpayer money as grants specifically to non-profit organizations that have been in existence for at least three years, based on a fairly rigorous application review process.
But it is worth pointing out that like Kickstarter, the NEA does allow creators to monetize taxpayer funded works and sell copies of them after completion.
“Allowing creators to sell their works is indeed part of the NEA’s mission,” said Hutter, in a phone conversation with TPM.
Specifically, Hutter said that the agency had made this clear in May 2011, when it revised one of its funding categories, the The Arts on Radio and Television, into the The Arts in Media, widening the net to include videogames, web videos and other digital interactive media.
However, Hutter pointed out that because the NEA only funds non-profits, the money made from sales could not be used for enriching creators, but rather go back to support the continuing existence of the creative organization that produced the art.
Furthermore, when it comes to comparing the precise dollar amount of fundraising for the arts done by both agencies, it is critical to keep in mind that the NEA’s budget amount doesn’t actually go entirely to creative projects — much like the fact that Kickstarter’s funds don’t all go to what some might consider “art.”
That’s because the NEA, as an agency, relies on taxpayer money to support its employees, pay for the studies it conducts on the value of the arts and its own efficacy, and other associated overhead.
In 2012, for example, the NEA’s total budget is $146 million, with $118 million set aside for “program and program support,” and the remaining $28 million used for salaries and expenses.
Kickstarter, meanwhile, takes a 5 percent cut of successfully funded projects. As long as Kickstarter raises more than $124 million in 2012 for the seven categories that Johnson calls “core arts” — Art, Dance, Film Music, Photography, Publishing, and Theater — plus videogames, which the NEA also now funds, it would seem that the website could indeed beat the NEA when it comes to arts funding.
Most importantly, though, neither Kickstarter nor the NEA have ever said that they thought it should or would be an “either/or” situation of one organization providing all the arts funding in the U.S.
“While different in approach than the NEA and others, Kickstarter shares the same goals of supporting the creation of art,” wrote Strickler in his post on Monday. “It’s a mission we’re proud of and hope to continue in the future.”
“A platform like Kickstarter exists to provide support to some of these same organizations” as the NEA, said Hutten, “But also exists for individuals, unincorporated artist collectives, for profit endeavors, and anyone else who has an idea that might engender public support.”