Kickstarter and the NEA: Who funds more?


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Last week, based on two record-breaking campaigns, the crowd-sourcing fund-raising site Kickstarter projected that it would distribute $150 million in 2012. That’s just a shade more than the National Endowment for the Arts; the NEA will distribute $146 million.

The comparison to the NEA immediately led to confusion -- even on the part of Kickstarter itself. Talking Points Memo spoke with Yancey Strickler, one of Kickstarter’s three founders, about the news Friday.


“It is probable Kickstarter will distribute more money this year than the NEA,” said Stricker in an exclusive phone interview with TPM. “We view that number and our relationship to it in both a good and bad way.” As Strickler explained, the milestone is ‘good’ in the sense that it means that Kickstarter may now reach a point where it will funnel as much money to the arts as the federal agency primarily responsible for supporting them, effectively doubling the amount of art that can get funded in the country.

While I’m all for increasing arts funding, and also all for Kickstarter, something here didn’t ring true. My cousin and her friends used Kickstarter to help establish an Internet cafe and microbusiness incubator in Cambodia -- a worthy cause that I was delighted to support, but hardly an arts project. Just because the amount Kickstarter may distribute is similar to that of the NEA, it doesn’t mean Kickstarter will provide more funding to the arts -- or does it?

It does not, as Clay Johnson shows today at the Information Diet, by taking a snapshot of Kickstarter’s currently funded projects (be sure to check out the graph). In his reckoning, 33% of the project funding is going to design; those projects are predominantly iPhone and other Apple accessories, with a pair for coffee, one for photography and a pen. Only the last two, at a stretch, could be considered arts funding. Similarly, technology, which made up 17% of the project funding, was full of interesting projects that had little to do with the arts.

Johnson rightly points out that part of the NEA’s mandate is to provide access to the arts, to fund projects all over the country. I would add that another key difference is that the NEA mostly funds nonprofits, which have to meet certain state and national requirements to ensure fiscal responsibility. When not funding nonprofits, it provides grants to individual artists, who must fill out long applications, which are vetted and selected by experts.

Kickstarter, on the other hand, is kind of a free-for-all, which is part of its charm. It has projects from real companies with proven successes, like gamemaker Double Fine Productions, one of the million-dollar projects (trying to raise $400,000, its tally now stands at more than $2 million) -- yet it also has projects like a zine-to-be about Eastern European arts and culture by a Chicago graduate student. It’s come one, come all. It’s exciting. Its projects can be outrageous, profane, individual, monumental, even crazy.

Interestingly, of the obviously arts-ish Kickstarter funding that Johnson tallied, film/video is the biggest share, followed, in descending order, by comics, music, art, publishing, theater, photography and dance. Maybe Kickstarter could be even more of a resource for independent publishers.


Kickstarter is stepping in where traditional business funders and institutions such as the NEA have left a gap. But it’s not fulfulling an identical function. And it doesn’t seem to be anywhere near meeting the amount of arts dollars the NEA provides.


2012 NEA writing fellows

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-- Carolyn Kellogg