The possibility of patronage

In the distant days of high school art history lessons, I learnt about the practice of patronage in medieval Europe. A wealthy duke would hand over a bag of florins to the local master craftsman who would then labour to produce a suitably religious artefact, such as an altarpiece in triptych panelling or an elaborate silver chalice. Said duke would be rewarded for his financial support with a guest appearance in the finished work: kneeling piously, perhaps, at the feet of a crucified Christ, next to Mary Magdalene. The wealthier the patron, the more elaborate and ambitious the commission might be. Money didn’t guarantee a great result, but it did help to secure the most skilled artists for the months – and sometimes years – of patient work required for a piece.

With the Industrial Revolution and the rise of a wealthy bourgeoisie, the patronage system faded, with artists thrown upon the mercy of the marketplace and the whims of private collectors. If this meant an increased risk that artists might go begging (if unable to secure a buyer for their work), it also offered them a new creative freedom. L’art pour l’art and épater la bourgeoisie and all that. No more having to paint the Duke of Berry into every sodding page of your manuscript! Those stupid rich people might even let you sell them work about how much you hated them!

When I go trawling through the virtual pages of crowdfunding platforms – Pozible, Indiegogo, Kickstarter – and see artists in every creative field eager to reward their financial backers with gifts, private performances and that old standard, the guest appearance, I am, accordingly, rather curious. The mechanism of pledge and reward at the heart of crowdfunding combines philanthropy, pre-modern patronage and contemporary notions of customer service.

Jessie Lymn is a member of the Sydney-based Rizzeria collective, which operates a risograph machine for artists working with stencil-printing techniques. Twelve months ago, the collective raised $5000 through Australian crowdfunding platform Pozible for the purchase of a second-hand risograph to replace a newer, more expensive machine that had been irreparably damaged. Campaign supporters were rewarded with an assortment of merchandise – posters, zines, tea towels – that had been printed by the collective, an existing stockpile without which, Lymn says, they might have reconsidered the crowdfunding option.

‘I would have not wanted to do it if we’d had to invest money to make money,’ she comments. ‘There were emails from people who were getting shitty because they hadn’t got their reward yet. So instead of [the reward] being seen as a thanks for supporting us, it’s seen as a purchase.’

Lymn is concerned by the commercial implications. She draws a parallel between crowdfunding and pop-up galleries, the phenomenon in which local councils and organisations get artists to fill empty shopfronts: ‘It turns art into an output-based practice … which is what pop-ups do. They say, “We’ll give you this really cheap space, or easy access to money, but you have to show us something, you have to give us something in return.”’

Kylie Gusset raised $38 893 through Pozible in late 2011, for the local sourcing and production, from sheep through to yarn, of one ton of Cormo wool. Her project was an ambitious attempt to shift the entire supply chain for a product that would normally have been sent to China or Europe for commercial dyeing and spinning, then shipped back to Australia for retail sale. Gusset herself was not a retail operator and there was no asset or final product for her backers other than the wool itself. Even so, pledgers came to the project with particular expectations.

‘People did see it as a store,’ she says. ‘When I was crowdfunding for wool, people had this idea that I would be sending it out to them immediately, and that I would be able to provide them with customer service and check-ins on a daily basis. And that just wasn’t the case. I tried to say to them, “I’m going through 300 orders. Thanks for your patience; I’m getting in help and assistance.” But it still wasn’t good enough.’

Despite the flak, Gusset remains an enthusiast for crowdfunding, and she is soon to launch a second campaign. But her experience, along with that of the Rizzeria collective, points to the consumer mindset embedded within crowdfunding. It is a model that spreads out the financial power of patronage among hundreds, sometimes thousands, of individual ‘pledgers’, most of whom seek a material reward in return for their support or choose to support projects that are in some way purchasable. For industry-based projects like Gusset’s Ton of Wool, this makes a certain sense, with crowdfunding providing a relatively low-risk opportunity to ‘test’ a market. But in an environment where artists are constantly being asked to prove the value of their work with reference to industry and consumer application, I think that the crowdfunding model should give us some pause for thought. Can the experience of a work of art not constitute its own reward?

In March this year, writer Eliza Sarlos and illustrator Grace Lee crowdfunded Amazing Babes, a children’s book that Sarlos had originally conceived of as a gift for her young son. ‘I’d had a bit of a struggle finding books that I could give to my son that introduced him to strong women,’ says Sarlos, ‘and I thought that others might [have struggled] as well.’ The pair set a target of $2600 to fund a paperback print run of 200 copies – and raised this amount in eleven hours. A contribution of $100 got you a printed copy, a limited edition poster and a thank you in the book itself.

‘I didn’t want the book to be full of people’s names,’ says Sarlos, who set a maximum of five possible ‘rewards’ at this level, ‘and that was the first one to go. Since then, talking to Pozible a bit more, I think it’s because it’s the unique thing – the money-can’t-buy thing – that people get attracted to.’

In fact, the printed thanks is exactly what money can buy. ‘Yeah, “money can’t buy” – apart from on this one rare occasion. But it was so amazing to see people go for that option,’ Sarlos says, ‘because it was the option that benefited us the most’, a $100 contribution being far over and above the actual printing cost of a book. That option ‘was the closest to straight-up philanthropy,’ she continues: ‘you give us the money; we give you a thank you.’

It’s clear that the backers of Amazing Babes were a generous bunch – the project ended up being funded at more than 200 per cent of its initial target – and I don’t doubt their sincerity in wanting to support a local publishing project, especially one that addresses gender representation in contemporary children’s writing. But as Josh MacPhee argues in The Baffler, ‘by building a commodity-based rewards system into the platform, [crowdfunding] naturalizes the idea that supporting a friend is similar to any other online purchasing experience. You charge your credit card and something cool shows up in the mail in the future.’

Things get more complicated, more troubling, when the team behind a crowdfunding campaign is led by a well-connected industry figure with corporate backing. Director Rob Thomas reached his crowdfunding target in ten hours, as quickly as Sarlos and Lee reached theirs. But in Thomas’ case, the goal was $2 million for a movie spin-off of his cult TV show Veronica Mars. This amount wasn’t equal to the film’s projected budget, nor was Thomas raising the money in order to make the film independently: $2 million was simply the threshold at which Warner Bros., his studio employers, would be satisfied that the project was financially viable and step in to fund the rest. Because it was a Warner Bros. production, an array of Veronica Mars merchandise was on offer to the campaign’s 91 585 individual supporters: stickers, T-shirts, DVDs, posters. The highest pledge ($10 000) has been rewarded with a small speaking role in the final film.

Cue much internet love and virtual high fives.

But Broadway producer Ken Davenport believes the Veronica Mars backers got fleeced: if Warner Bros. was sincere about raising money this way, he argues, then they should have offered each supporter shares in the production. ‘The real fraud occurs when companies with deep pockets and big brands start using Kickstarter and the like to fund their dreams so they don’t have to, while at the same time shirking the responsibility of paying out any profits,’ Davenport writes. No-one knows what the total box office receipts from the Veronica Mars movie will be, but we do know that none of those who threw in their money to the Kickstarter campaign will see a cent of this profit. Indeed, they too will contribute to the box office takings – in effect paying twice for the film.

‘They have to see proof that this thing is going to work,’ argues Gusset, who isn’t troubled by major companies who can afford to take a financial risk testing the market on a far larger scale than she was able. ‘That is why with movies we see Batman returning, because Batman has already been there and we know it works. And this is the beauty of crowdfunding: when you’ve got something new and original that nobody has ever seen before, that’s where it’s awesome.’

But should new and original work have to prove a market for itself, I ask Gusset, before it’s enabled to exist? Or is part of the beauty of risk-taking work that it exists regardless of whether or not it can command an audience?

‘Well, I guess you could see it this way,’ she replies. ‘You could always try crowdfunding, and if you fail, well then you’ve got your other avenues to explore. What’s to lose?’

It’s a reasonable perspective. If a crowdfunding project fails to reach target in the allocated timeframe (generally somewhere between twenty-eight and ninety days), any money pledged is returned to the would-be supporters. In a financial sense, then, nothing is lost. However, implicit in Gusset’s argument is the notion of artist-as-entrepreneur, someone who has several projects on the go at once. If one fails, you turn to the next. But not all artists work this way, nor should they be expected to, no matter how often an ersatz ‘creative’ life – one that entails at least four job descriptions – is upheld as the ultimate in neoliberal hipsterdom.

In a less tangible sense, I worry that what is lost from a crowdfunding model of creative arts is work that, for whatever reason, struggles to attract an audience. Crowdfunding benefits projects that are snappy, simple, ‘relatable’; projects with a well-articulated and easily envisioned end result; projects that go with rather than against the current of truncated digital attention spans and rapid publicity cycles. But there is a lot of brilliant art that is not of its time, but rather before, sideways or stubbornly oblivious to it. There is art that is conceptually difficult or thematically confronting; art with no material outcome; art that has an ambivalent or possibly even antagonistic relationship to an audience. I don’t see art like that standing much of a chance inside the crowdfunding model – so where else can it turn? In the extremely likely event of an Abbott government, you can bet on a reprise of the culture wars that so preoccupied Howard, who never tired of stacking funding bodies with his own culturally conservative allies. It will happen again. And crowdfunding isn’t the one-stop solution.

I want to return to Lymn’s comparison of crowdfunding to pop-ups, because I think it’s an insightful one. Pop-up spaces are used by councils and similar organisations as a cosmetic solution to long-term difficulties. For a week, month or even six months, enthusiastic young artists occupy the council’s empty shopfronts. The public exposure seems great and rent is minimal or non-existent, but those involved contribute hundreds of hours of unpaid labour to the cause of ‘monetising’ their artistic process – and boosting council’s new branding effort along the way. And then they have to move on. Pop-ups provide artists with no long-term income security, nor do they allow for the slow, patient development of an artistic community centred on a creative space. The shop is stripped back to its fittings and the cycle starts all over again – or a more robustly commercial tenant moves in.

The Rizzeria collective has schlepped its equipment – risograph machine, inks, screens, archive boxes – from place to place over the past few years (most recently into the back end of a pop-up on Oxford Street, Paddington) but has never succeeded in finding a permanent home. As Lymn describes it, ‘You do all this setting up, and every time we do it, a couple of us are just like, “This is so hard!”’

Of the collective’s crowdfunding campaign, she observes: ‘The money came in really easily. Really, really quickly. People were more than willing to put up 25 or 50 bucks, and we even got quite a few $200 or $150 purchases as well. Yet still we struggle to get people to come and be involved on the ground.’

Crowdfunding enables financial support like petitions enable internet activism; no-one has to leave their chair. But the difficult question of how artists might build sustainable communities – in gentrified cities with high living costs and no rent control – goes unanswered.

Platforms like Pozible and Kickstarter are big on the word ‘community’, but in their context the word is interchangeable with ‘marketplace’. I’m not the first to point out that the commercial value of community, when funnelled through social networking applications and then data-mined by larger companies, is what crowdfunding platforms make a profit on. And did I mention the ‘rentier-money’, as Josh MacPhee characterises it – the 5 per cent fee that crowdfunding sites skim off the top of any successful campaign? Pozible isn’t your generous friend working the door at your gig or handing out flyers; they’re much more like your landlord, who makes money just from you being there.

Each person I spoke to for this article emphasised the importance of an established social media network to the success of their crowdfunding. As Gusset points out, the idea that ‘you’ll put a project up and all of a sudden people will be flinging you money out of the goodness of their hearts’ is a myth.

You’ve got to work the online crowd. And again, I wonder what happens to those artists who can’t or won’t get with this paradigm: the publicity shy, the technologically inept, the refuseniks. Crowdfunding sites bury the projects that are barely limping along, deep within their search results. Successful campaigns get promoted to the front page even if they have already met their financial target, which only compounds the unfairness – some projects end up wildly overfunded, while the majority fail (Kickstarter projects have been fully funded at a rate of only 43.84 per cent).

In Lymn’s opinion, crowdfunding ‘creates a hierarchy based upon who has the most friends, or the most social media nous.’ It makes one wonder how it’s much different from face-to-face networking, which has always favoured smooth-talkers and sycophants over the nervous and socially awkward.

If there was one distinct advantage to Rizzeria’s campaign, Lymn says, it’s that crowdfunding made transparent ‘the idea that no-one owns the machine’. The collective’s original $10 000 risograph machine had been crowdfunded the old-fashioned way, with collective members pooling together their personal finances. Each then made back their investment in free printing, with the risograph becoming a community-owned resource. This process, she says, ‘is something that crowdfunding really reinforces … which makes it easier in a way to explain, because people struggle with the idea that a material thing can have no owner.’ And if there is a future in crowdfunding that doesn’t involve wholesale profiteering by host sites and major corporations, this might be it: communisation rather than privatisation. As MacPhee writes, ‘We need to recognize platforms like Kickstarter not only as tools to raise money, but as tools that harness new forms of our labor power. Which means we need to learn how to organize around these forms.’

Collective organising around the crowdfunding model would have to make visible what the model currently hides – that is, the unpaid or underpaid labour of artists. Platforms like Kickstarter and Pozible exclude any fundraising that isn’t directed towards a project: you can’t campaign for wages. But even within these confines you can crowdfund for equipment, space and resources that will ultimately be community-owned, or allow supporters a share in project profits. Those who spoke to me all pointed out that since crowdfunding for their own projects, they have become much more generous about donating to other people’s campaigns, even on limited personal incomes. If crowdfunding campaigns could be designed to benefit all those involved through distributing access to the means of production, or by allowing supporters to reinvest profit shares from one project into the next – or into their own – might it be a way of bringing artists together as active peers and collaborators? Might supporters with a long-term interest in a project be willing to contribute their skills and labour, not just their purchase power? Or, in the end, do we just want a cool T-shirt and our name in the credits?

There is also the possibility that we leave major crowdfunding sites to the corporations and well-paid publicists who will increasingly inhabit them, and build host platforms that don’t involve 5 per cent commission fees.

And if all else fails, there is always a cake stall.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is a Sydney writer. Her second book of non-fiction, No Document was published in 2021 by Giramondo and was short-listed for the Stella Prize.

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