Kickstarter is a crowdsourced endowment for the arts

When crowdfunding service Kickstarter launched in 2009, it seemed like the perfect way for technology entrepreneurs to raise money for apps and widgets, and in fact much of the focus on the company has been on how it allows inventors to find backers for things like iPod Nano watches and iPad stands. But Kickstarter is also increasingly becoming a platform for launching movies, books and other artistic endeavours — which led its co-founder to say recently that the cash dispersed by the company will soon exceed the amount of funding provided by the National Endownment for the Arts. That claim has drawn some criticism, but based on new statistics provided by Kickstarter, it also appears to be true.

Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler made the comparison to the NEA in an interview with Talking Points Memo late last week, saying that based on its current growth rate, the service is on track to distribute more than $150 million to projects financed through the platform this year — a figure larger than the 2012 budget for the National Endowment of the Arts, which is $146 million (down from $167 million in 2010).

Clay Johnson, author of the new book The Information Diet and former director of Sunlight Labs and co-founder of Blue State Digital, took issue with this comparison in a blog post, saying there is really no comparison between the two. To prove it, he looked at the top most-funded projects at Kickstarter and said that the bulk of them don’t have anything to do with the arts — since most are design-related or technology-based projects, including various accessories for the iPhone. Said Johnson:

Comparing what Kickstarter does to the NEA is like saying Facebook has organized more working-class Americans than the AFL-CIO: it only makes sense if you’re completely ignorant of the function of either.

Kickstarter says $100 million has gone to film, music and other arts

Strickler, however, has pointed out in a response to Johnson’s post that the figures the author used were incorrect. In fact, the Kickstarter co-founder says that close to 70 percent of the money that has been disbursed to successful projects since 2009 (funding is only released from the service if a project hits its fundraising goal) has gone to the categories that Johnson mentions in his post — art, dance, film, music, photography, publishing and theater. That’s 70 percent of the $150 million in total that Kickstarter has raised since it was founded, and Strickler said that close to $100 million of that came in the past year.

According to the Kickstarter co-founder, film-related projects alone have raised more than $40 million through the platform — a group that includes 17 movies that were shown at at the Sundance Film Festival and about 30 that are being shown at the South by Southwest conference in March. Music-related projects are the second largest category with close to $30 million raised, while art, theater, publishing and photography account for another $20 million. One of the recent projects that has raised over $1 million (there have been three so far) was a series of comic book collections from artist Rich Burlew.

Although Strickler made a point of expressing support for the NEA in both his Talking Points Memo interview and in his response to Johnson, he also says that he sees Kickstarter as providing a kind of alternative to the government grant program:

Not everyone has the time or means to fill out a grant application or has an idea that will appeal to a record label or film studio. Kickstarter provides access for anyone in the United States to find funding for their creative project.

In the end, comparing Kickstarter to the NEA — or seeing the two as somehow being in competition with each other — seems to miss the larger point, which is that Kickstarter has already expanded the arts-funding ecosystem by a substantial degree (as arts blogger Tim Mikulski notes in a blog post on the topic), and it is still growing quickly. The fact that Kickstarter is an easy-to-use web platform makes it a lot more accessible than the NEA, but Clay Johnson is right when he says they are both very different. We should be applauding them both, not trying to pick which one is better than the other.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Pedro Ribeiro Simoes and Quazie.