Aug 072011
Bright Bike on Kickstarter

Image by mandiberg via Flickr

Kickstarter has raised more than $75 million for 10,626 “creative projects,”

We had this idea, some friends and I, for a small public art project in New Orleans last year. The problem was, it involved some professional printing that would cost a few thousand dollars, which none of us had. Usually that’s where such conversations end: it would be cool if we could do X, but we’re not going to get a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, even if we knew how to pursue such a thing. So let’s get another round of beers.

But this time something occurred to me: What about that Kickstarter thing? Kickstarter has been around online for just over two years, and various artists, filmmakers, musicians, writers and designers have used the site to raise more than $75 million for 10,626 “creative projects,” to use Kickstarter’s preferred term. That money has come from 813,205 “backers” — individuals making mostly modest contributions (the most common is $25) to support specific efforts. The selling point of “crowd-funding,” as this phenomenon has come to be called, is that it is an alternative to the wealthy patron or the grant-giving foundation. Kickstarter has become the most talked-about example of this democratizing technology: an arts organization for the post-gatekeeper era.

So what kind of “creative projects” does Kickstarter enable? Well, a couple of artists raised $2,181 to send funny handwritten letters to every household in Pittsburgh’s Polish Hill neighborhood; someone pulled in $8,441 to help finance the creation of “a searchable ethnographic database built from the lyrics of over 40,000 hip-hop songs”; a couple of people got $30,030 to publish a version of “Huckleberry Finn” that replaces Mark Twain’s use of a notorious racial epithet with the word “robot.” At times the sums have been a good bit larger: $67,436 to build a statue of Robocop in Detroit; $161,744 to make a computer-animated adaptation of a Neil Gaiman story; and nearly $1 million in pledges to finance a band to wear iPod Nanos as wristwatches. Clearly, the crowd had some spare cash, and if it paid for all those other ideas, why not ours? (It involved artists creating signs advertising absurd hypothetical uses for neglected buildings in New Orleans.) We decided to give it a try. We’d turn to Kickstarter: the people’s N.E.A.!

It wasn’t until much later that I met the people who created the company and figured out how it works. I had imagined Kickstarter as a neutral mechanism for liberating creativity, as bias-free as the Internet itself. With no profit-driven executives or credential-obsessed curators, the site could allow creators to raise cash for any idea, however unlikely, eccentric or even foolish. But that is not the case. The founders suspect that if they had taken a purely values-neutral approach, they would have failed. It may be hard to believe, navigating the unruly mob of idiosyncratic ideas cataloged on Kickstarter, but the reason it works is that somebody is in charge.

Perry Chen, who is 35 and Kickstarter’s chief executive, started thinking about the idea in 2002. He wanted to hold a concert in New Orleans, where he was living at the time, but he lost his nerve thinking of all the money he might lose. Chen imagined a Web tool that would have allowed him to raise the money he needed at no personal risk. Three years later, when he was living in New York City, where he grew up, and paying the bills as a waiter, he explained his idea to Yancey Strickler, a Virginia transplant with a manner as laconic and soothing as Chen’s is fidgety.

“I’m not so sure about this,” Strickler, 32, recalls thinking. He might have been dubious because neither of them had much experience fund-raising, running an arts organization, starting a technology company or writing code. Chen was a founder of a gallery in Williamsburg; Strickler’s only qualification was his work as an online music critic. But experience wasn’t the problem. It was the democracy factor that nagged at Strickler — it sounded suspiciously like a popularity contest. “If you let people vote for what they want — that’s ‘American Idol,’ ” he said to Chen. “That doesn’t produce great art.” But Chen had a retort: “What about someone like a sculptor in some small town in the middle of nowhere? They have no way to get into a gallery. No one around them appreciates what they’re doing — but the Internet could.” The Internet could support any idea stranded on the margins of traditionally financed culture-making.

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