Can Kickstarter Fund Art Better than the NEA?

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Last week 14,952 strangers raised more than $1 million for a cause they believed in: not disaster relief or a cure for cancer, but a web-only comic book. Just another day at the office for Kickstarter, the crowd-funding platform that collects donations for creative projects of all kinds — from handmade furniture to videogames to sock puppets. One of Kickstarter's founders bragged that he expected the three-year-old site to give more money to the arts this year than the National Endowment for the Arts.

That caught Clay Johnson's eye. The author of The Information Diet examined the numbers and found them dubious. Kickstarter gave about $67 million to core arts in 2011; the NEA's budget is $146 million dollars for 2012, of which $118 million will be distributed as direct funding.

Nevertheless, Kickstarter and other crowd-funding platforms are clearly on the rise, while government support for the arts is buffeted by funding crises and politics. Kickstarter opens an avenue for creators who don’t have the resumes and grant-writing skills to get government funding in the first place.

But Johnson says that comparing Kickstarter to the NEA is like "comparing apples to spaceships." The site treats funders like investors, generally promising products and incentives for contributions. "In some ways Kickstarter is a lot more like shopping than supporting art," Johnson says. "The NEA is not necessarily worried about giving the taxpayer back art directly for their investments."

Johnson worries that Kickstarter’s success will encourage calls to abolish government funding of artists. Neither he, nor Kickstarter’s founders, think it should replace the NEA. "If we only make art that's popular,” he says, “then the guy who made the dogs playing poker and smoking cigars print is going to be the most successful artist of all time."

Should Kickstarter or something like it replace the NEA? Tell us in a comment below.

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