Since its founding in 2008, Kickstarter has given artists a new alternative to toiling over grant applications. In a world where art is increasingly being discovered online, the start-up’s easy-to-use crowdfunding scheme has provided a new way for artists to fund their projects. No longer are artists only able to survive by securing gallery representation and selling their work to collectors or patrons—Kickstarter represents a place where artists are being discovered by normal people like you and me. “It’s a really exciting time to be an artist,” says Stephanie Pereira, director of Kickstarter’s Art Program.
Most people know about Kickstarter’s pioneering M.O.: Visionaries build their project according Kickstarter guidelines, submit their idea to the site’s staff, and wait for the green light. With an eye for inspiring backstories and innovative rewards for supporters, Kickstarter OKs about 75% of proposals, which have a set amount of time to meet their fundraising objective. If the deadline hits and the goal isn’t met, no money changes hands.
According to Pereira, the number of successful Kickstarter projects in the art category represents a little over 10% of the whole. Some projects are weighty and serious: artist and activist Dread Scott’s video installation, Academy Award winner Vincent Ward’s installation for the Shanghai Biennial, and artist collective Justseeds’ bandanas that aid in identifying endangered wildlife in the Congo. Others are surprising and whimsical: Jesse Chorng’s skatebowl outfitted with audio inputs, David Levine’s marathon performance piece, or Molly Crabapple’s Week in Hell, for which the artist locked herself in a hotel room and did nothing but drink absinthe and draw on the walls.
But how do artists in particular approach the site? What kind of projects are being proposed, and how do the successful ones meet their goals? Turns out the key to success for artists on Kickstarter is similar to that in all other categories. “Show people your work, get them excited about it, and offer them direct access to it for a reasonable price,” Pereira says. “That’s it.”
Effective projects have compelling videos, project description, and rewards. Renderings and examples of past work also help convince potential backers. Pereira advises keeping the rewards as connected with the actual project as possible. Offer postcards, sketches, print editions, studio visits, a book, or exclusive sneak peeks.
“To have a great project, you want to make sure that you bring as much creativity and generosity to dreaming up these rewards as possible,” Pereira says. “It’s about thinking of each element of your Kickstarter as a creative work unto itself.” Instead of the $5 thank-you card that’s given out in a lot of projects, do something simple like making an edition of oversized postcards. “It won’t cost you that much more,” she adds, “but it will be something you actually want to make and will be proud to send out into the world.”
After all that is in place, you need to tell people about it. “On Kickstarter, the majority of the interest in your project will come from your own outreach efforts,” Pereira says. Make sure to follow up on your posts about your project on Facebook and Twitter with lots of personalised messages to your supporters and biggest fans. “Maybe throw an opening party, or a closing party, or both—treat it like you would any show where you’re trying to get people in to see your work,” Pereira says. “Also, make sure that the content you share with others is something shareable—a great image they will want to Tumble or a video link they can tweet. You want to let them know that you are working on something cool and this is their chance to get on it.”
Brooklyn-based artists William and Steven Ladd are in the midst of their first Kickstarter project. Titled Shaboygen, the work consists of hand-hewn boxes that house textile landscapes related to the brothers’ high school experiences, both dark- and light-hearted. “One piece, titled Magnificent King William, explores our relationship with our grandmother and how we spent our high school years working in her rose garden,” Steven explains. “Another piece, Wagon on Fire, explores our experience of narrowly escaping our station wagon bursting into flames outside of our high school.” Shaboygen will be unveiled at The Invisible Dog Art Center as part of the French Institute Alliance Française Crossing the Line Festival from September 15 to November 3. A portion of the work will travel to the Essl Museum in Austria in November.
The duo, who’ve been collaborating for eleven years out of their live/work space in Williamsburg, usually reach out to museum directors, curators, and collectors they think would be interested in their work. “Over the years, many of them have done incredible things to support our art,” Steven says. “There was never a conscious decision to avoid gallery representation—relationships are the most important thing for us, and we establish bonds directly with clients by selling our work.” But when a few close friends encouraged the Ladds to use Kickstarter for Shaboygen, the brothers thought it’d be a feasible avenue to get the project funded. “We have museum shows planned out three years in advance right now,” Steven says. “It’s critical for us to reach out to the people we love and ask them to contribute. Their contributions allow us to spend our lives doing what we love.”
Even though fundraising for Shaboygen is going strong, the Ladds are quick to admit that selling and fundraising is difficult for all artists. “Kickstarter is a fun and interesting platform to help artists walk through the process of fundraising—it’s also another way to get projects funded alongside grants,” Steven says, noting the fact that he’s currently working through a shiny new binder of grant opportunities. “Both offer great opportunities for you to refine your communication about what you want to make to get the money to make it.”
Pianist Sugar Vendil has used Kickstarter to fund ventures for the Nouveau Classical Project, a five-year-old group that aims to bring creativity and innovation to the experience of classical music (collaborations with CFDA nominee Pamela Love and Project Runway winner Gretchen Jones are particularly intriguing). Her latest project is In & Around C, a collaboration between NCP and artist Mad Mohre that takes its name from Terry Riley’s classic In C. Viewers will enter a gallery with five large vinyl lines on the floor, forming a musical staff. Via a bird’s-eye-view webcam in a different room, a group of musicians will interpret the positioning of viewers’ heads as notes on the staff. NCP has invited composers to suggest ways to translate the notes into a continuous score, as well as musicians to play the forty-five minute set. “It’s going to be like an endurance test!” Vendil says.
In the past, Vendil has used a site called Indiegogo for fundraising. “The difference is that there, you can keep your funds no matter what,” Vendil says. “But I think that makes people lazy.” She sees Kickstarter as an ideal way not only to raise funds but also to engage a community and build excitement around an event. Since In & Around C is rooted in group participation, making it a reality through Kickstarter seems a perfect match. “There’s this feeling of, ’We’re all in this together, and we need to do this in order to hit our goal,’” Vendil says. “And most donations aren’t going to be much—usually between twenty-five and one hundred dollars. You really need a lot of people to make it happen.”
Vendil says a lot of her friends in the new music world use Kickstarter in addition to grants, their savings accounts, donations, and other sources of income. “It’s a really common thing, since people apply for grants and so often don’t receive enough to cover the costs,” she says. “Even when you are making a grant application, they want to see that you’ve raised some of the money on your own so they don’t have to cover the whole project. Especially if you’re just starting off—you’ve got to show that you can do some of the work on your own.”
Even if fans can’t make a pledge, Vendil says, the next best thing people can do is spread the word. “Kickstarter is such a grassroots thing,” she says. “Most people don’t have a PR firm or anyone else getting their project out there. So if you can’t give money, share the link on Facebook instead. It’s invaluable.”
Pereira suggests that artists start thinking about Kickstarter as a place where they can invite people to see their latest work and get involved while it’s fresh. “It can be a pop-up gallery of sorts, one that lives online and where commissions are a fraction of the standard 40% or higher,” she says. For now, the future of the service as a tool for artists looks bright. “A Kickstarter project can be a place where an artist can be discovered—and many have been,” Pereira says. “It’s an incredible place to get funds to make the things that might otherwise just live in our studios and sketchbooks.”
Top image: Brooklyn-based artists William and Steven Ladd are crowdfunding their current project, Shaboygen, on Kickstarter.