Hey friend, can you spare $150 million?

sundancesolar_1868_1630372Here comes news that Kickstarter, the three year-old online fundraising company, is set to distribute more money next year for cultural projects than the National Endowment for the Arts. That’s right: Kickstarter’s bootstrapped giving may exceed the agency’s circa $150 million budget. And it’s growing.

The announcement signals just how rapidly our funding mechanisms are turning obsolete. It also highlights the roundly different priorities that come into play when funding choices are left to “regular folks” rather than “experts”. Kickstarter’s top three, million-dollar-plus earning projects so far have been an animated film, a design for an iPad dock, and a computer game.

None of this bodes too well for the sort of organizations and initiatives that benefited from arts funding in the past.

For half a century, US philanthropy consisted of a cozy collaboration between tax exempt fine arts organizations and tax exempt giving bodies. For all the efforts foundations spend analyzing their own behavior and chasing innovation, as organizations they remain stunningly risk-averse. Now along comes a giving method that blithely sidesteps the old categories of patronage. Its very success is an indictment of the inefficiencies and blind spots of the old model.

The problem is that the direct democracy represented by Kickstarter will not provide a full answer to arts funding, any more than blogs and tweets can replace professional news gathering operations. Arts funding writ large requires investments into things few individual givers get excited about. As elsewhere, technology promises liberation from caution and elitism, but also a drift to the lowest common denominator.

Even so, Kickstarter is a profoundly disrupting philanthropic technology. And it has major implications for commercial art-world gatekeepers, too. What Kickstarter does so well is call our collective bluff. Its verdicts about merit — expressed in the tangible metric of real dollars from real people’s pockets — carry a kind of instant legitimacy that’s hard to beat.

If you can’t beat them, join them. But how? Adopting Kickstarter’s grassroots logic goes against the grain of old-school cultural stewardship. From foundation boardrooms to gallery back rooms, the cultural system is still, by and large, a smoke-filled room—an insider’s game.

Finding a balance between these two ways to support worthy creative causes is an urgent priority. Any ideas?

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