Cara Ober Interviews Curator Steven Silberg about ‘Mining the Crowd,’ A New Exhibition to Explore the Process of Funding with Kickstarter.

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In a new exhibit called ‘Mining the Crowd,’ Steven Silberg, an artist and professor at UMBC, and a team of curators will explore the process of crowdsourcing through Kickstarter. Not only will the team use Kickstarter to raise funds for the exhibit, they will select artists and artworks through crowdsourcing sites as well. If the project is funded, they will exhibit the work at MICA in 2014, and each donor will receive a piece of work or a catalogue from the show. The goal is to explore the process of crowdsourcing and to recognize its benefits as well as shortfalls by working through the process. As the team begins their fundraising campaign, Steven agreed to a conversation about the project.

Steven Silberg: Before I answer your questions, I’d like to recognize the members of the Curatorial Team.  This is not a project that I could undertake on my own. In your questions you mention some of our local partners, but without my teammates, this project would never have gotten off the ground:  Nia Burks, Richmond, VA (MICA MADA, 2006; VCU MFA, 2008), Peter Hayes, Oakland, CA (MICA Graduate Photography and Digital Imaging, MFA 2005), Nate Larson, Baltimore, MD (MICA Photography Faculty), and Erin Zerbe, Adrian, MI (MICA Graduate Photography and Electronic Media, MFA 2011). I also want to recognize Gerald Ross at MICA for agreeing to host our exhibition our fiscal sponsor, Maryland Art Place and their team, Amy, Emily, and Paul.

Cara Ober: This looks like a great team. But let’s backtrack… First of all – for anyone who doesn’t quite understand what ‘Crowd Sourcing’ is – can you explain it?

Steven Silberg: Sure.  “Crowd Sourcing” really boils down to asking a number of people to come together for a common purpose – whether that purpose is completing work, building ideas, or fundraising.  In the first phase of our project, we are primarily looking at the Crowdfunding side of crowd sourcing – asking people to donate money to support a larger goal (and rewarding them with gifts for doing so). While the term is new, the idea isn’t.  Think about every PBS fund drive, ever. – If you donate X to support this station, we will send you a coffee mug or [fill in your favorite PBS gift].

CO: Your press release for “Mining the Crowd” throws out some large figures – “Since its inception, Kickstarter reports that its patrons have pledged more than $300 million to successful visual and performing arts projects.” I have attended workshops on grants for artists where Kickstarter and Indiegogo were presented to students and artists as viable financial solutions for their problems. Sometimes it is presented like a magic ticket to success, a way for artists to empower themselves and fund their projects. Why do you think this is so popular and is the practice growing or has it peaked?

SS: It’s easy. Just like eBay was easy.  All you had to do was post some of your junk and the cash flowed in. With crowdfunding, I just need to make a video telling everyone what I want and they’ll give me money.  At least, this is how it appears on the surface.  This is how it appears to the outsider.

I don’t think it has peaked yet, but it’s getting close. I believe crowdfunding has grown for two reasons. (1) I feel like a lot of us tend to
think in terms of the individual project rather than the sustained practice.  We work through an idea and then jump to the next one.  (2) We have access to a larger network of people to present our idea to and ask for help.

The real drive to use the crowdfunding model is because it appears to democratize the funding structure within the art (and tech) world.  If I have an idea or need now, I want to be able to move forward before I lose interest. There’s a lot of waiting that happens under the traditional grant model.  First, you have to be sure to meet the deadline.  Once you do, there’s a lot of down time until you either move to the next round for consideration or until you find out that you didn’t receive the grant that you had a 1 in 1000 chance for anyway.  Then you’re back to square one.

When crowdfunding is presented, as a solution to our lack of income, the negative aspects are often left out of the conversation.  Less than 50% of all arts projects succeed.  In fact, Kickstarter lists that only about 43% of all of their projects succeed.  The “arts”: dance, theatre, and music seem to be more successful than average. But filmmakers, photographers, and designers, on the other hand, are well below average.  I wish I knew the reasons. Perhaps this will be another good area to investigate. (Kickstarter is very good at laying out their stats at http://www.kickstarter.com/help/stats.  To find out what is happening at Indieogogo, I’d need to spend a bit more time digging.)

CO: So, your exhibit, “Mining the Crowd” is actually NOT a celebration of crowd funding, but an investigation of the process, a chance”to educate artists and facilitate critical discourse about the challenges to financially supporting one’s artistic practice.” This indicates that the exhibit and accompanying research will not be all positive and will involve some critique, right? How will the exhibit relate or explain the research to the audience?

SS: We are thinking of this as more than just an exhibition.  We have already launched social media to open conversation.  We are thinking of the website as not only the online catalog but also a resource for artists.

On one level, the “crowd mining” is based in crowd funding to get the project started, and crowdsourcing to acquire the artworks, but we are also interested in the conversation.  We are interested in “mining” ideas and encouraging dialog.  Critique needs to include both the good and the bad.  Our goal is an informed community.

We want to celebrate those who are successful within crowdfunding and present the challenges they’ve dealt with along the way.  We want to show everything we went through.  We’d love to find a way to present people’s experiences as funders and as project originators – both the successes and the failures.  We want to find a way to bring alternatives to crowdfunding into the gallery as well. The key to this whole thing is transparency.  We want you to see that the $10 that we gave someone costs us almost $11. Only about $9 of that will end up that person’s pocket (before taxes or fulfilling rewards). We want you to see how much it cost us to fulfill perks.  And all of that is just related to the Kickstarter Model.

I know that’s a lot of “we wants…” It’s going to be a very busy 13 months or so; but, we’ve got to do all we can to make sure this conversation is a good one.

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CO: Why do you think most people GIVE to crowdsourcing projects?

SS: There are a couple reasons.  There is, of course, the desire to fund someone or something you believe in (and, sometimes the guilt associated with not helping someone you care about).  The majority of funders, as I understand it, are within the project organizer’s social network.

But there are a small percentage of people (I am one) who visit these sites looking for something cool and different.  Sometimes blog posts draw me there.  Sometimes I’m just bored and browsing.  I end up contributing at a level where a reward or perk seems like something I’d want to hang on the wall or put on my shelf.  It’s my own inexpensive method for collecting art.

CO: Can you explain the process behind this exhibit? How are artists selected and how will the project be funded? What is the involvement of local partners MICA and MAP ?

SS: Process: There are four phases to this project. (1)Raise capital; (2)”purchase” artwork by funding artists; (3)prepare supporting materials – website resources, analysis of collected data, etc.; (4) mount the exhibition.

Selection:  This is something we’re still working out and will be finalizing during the next month.  There are only two criteria that I can
see being necessary for what ever perk level is funded for any project. First, the project must deliver something material – be it print,
sculpture, video, etc.  We will be passing these items along to some of our funders.  Often projects offer experiences in addition to or in place of tangible rewards.  Those would be difficult to pass along to our funders or present in the gallery space.  Second, while what we present does cross the entire scope of crowdfunding, we are specifically interested in the discussion as it relates to the arts.  For that reason, technology based projects would likely not be included.  Some Film and Video projects might also be excluded just because of the timeline for delivery, but that is more a practical matter.

Partners:  From the very beginning, I knew that this idea needed the support of a gallery or institution to offer legitimacy to what we were
doing.  If we didn’t have a location to exhibit the final phase of the project, I was afraid of that Kickstarter would reject it.

MICA, and especially Gerald Ross, has been incredibly supportive. We’ve had great discussions about the potential of this project since I first brought it to him in June. With crowdfunding being seen as an acceptable funding model for artwork and curatorial ventures, this conversation needs to be brought to the student population.  MICA, in the heart of Station North, also has the ability to bring it to the greater Baltimore community.

I began looking for a fiscal sponsor to allow this project to have a non-profit status.  MAP’s mission of innovative programming, exhibitions, and educational opportunities made them the perfect organization to ask to join us on this venture.  I think it would be fair to say that MAP’s director, Amy Cavanaugh Royce, saw the value of this conversation nearly immediately when Nate Larson and I presented it to her.  MAP has been great so far at offering us small administrative support behind the scenes as well.  They will likely be one of the unsung heroes of this project.

CO: Personally, I am not a big fan of crowdsourcing. I have always thought there was something sneaky about it – and I read recently this article, The False Promise of Kickstarter, which confirmed some of my suspicions, especially that artists make a lot less $ than they expect to. For example, Amazon.com owns Kickstarter, they take a high percentage of the money you raise, you have to pay taxes on the amount as income, and you have to give presents as thank-you’s to everyone who donates. Also, Kickstarter ends up with a detailed list of all your friends and family who donated to you and can sell their information and make more money. To me, it seems like a scam and artists are falling for a ‘too good to be true’ song and dance. How do you answer to such criticisms? Do you think this project advances the agenda that Kickstarter wants people to believe? How will you present a balanced view of this process based on what you find out?

SS: Thanks for that link.  I enjoyed reading it.  There seem to be two types of articles/blog posts about crowdfunding out there: the ones that promise you a successful project in 7, 9, 15, etc. steps and the ones that are critical of the whole model.  I’ve found it very difficult, especially recently, to find writers in praise of and supportive of crowdfunding. That’s not to say the writing isn’t out there.  It’s just not nearly as prevalent.

Just a quick correction.  Amazon doesn’t actually own Kickstarter. Kickstarter requires that you use Amazon payments to process all
transactions.  But you’re right.  Kickstarter and Amazon take a cut.  Your personal information is now entered into their database and can be potentially sold; and, with that information, Kickstarter and Amazon, if they desired could market directly to all of your donors.

How different is this from other things we do online?  How much is just being brought to light because of the popularity of crowdfunding right now? Anywhere you make income, you technically need to pay income tax on it.  Kickstarter takes their 5% for allowing you to post on their site and use their network/interface.  Amazon is taking 3-5% for processing credit cards, but I imagine that Visa and MasterCard are taking their cut from Amazon too.   When all’s said and done, after fees, taxes, and perk/reward fulfillment, the project likely has less than 50% of what they raised left.  But it’s something, right?

Selling of information is nothing new either.  Just think about all the junk mail we get (let alone e-mail).

But you are right.  There is the “too good to be true” aspect to this. Kickstarter touts the successes that have happened on their watch.  It
would be business suicide to advertise how much money wasn’t made, how many projects weren’t funded.

There are huge pros and huge cons to engaging in crowdfunding.  There have been some amazing successes. There have also been the successful campaigns that can’t deliver because their projects have fallen flat (or fallen behind) once they’ve received their money. That prompted Kickstarter to change their policies directly related to technology and product design.

To answer your final question – how will we present a balanced view of this process – the more that I’ve worked on this project, the more that I’ve begun to worry that in the end the project will be unbalanced – that it will be overly anti-crowdfunding.  I think the only way that we will be able to remain unbiased is to present this as one of the many options out there.  The exhibition itself will highlight those who are successful within the process while revealing the behind-the-scenes.  The website will offer other alternatives, and If we do it properly, so will our programming in the gallery.

I guess in the end it comes back to the old saying, caveat emptor (Buyer, beware).  The only thing that can help a consumer of a product or service is to be fully aware of all aspects.  Our goal is to help educate and open the conversation about this funding model and other funding strategies – their successes and their failures.

CO:  The idea of selecting only artists who have hosted crowd-sourcing campaigns seems potentially limiting. How will you select artists? What kind of work are you looking for? What is the criteria for selection into the show?

SS: We aren’t just selecting artists that have used crowdfunding in the past. We’ll be looking at active crowdfunding projects and contributing to those projects at donation levels that provide reward perks that can be exhibited and transferred to some of our highest-level donors.

Selection will come down to being in the right place at the right time. We’ll advertise that we are funding, but that you must have an active campaign on a crowdfunding site to receive a donation.  We’ll also be seeking suggestions for projects to fund.

CO: What is your fundraising goal? Who will you ask for $$? If you are asking the art community to fund this project, how do you justify asking artists to contribute hard earned funds to an experimental project which will give a % to Kickstarter ?

SS: Ouch. This is the hard question.

We’re looking to raise $10,000 to $12,000, but we’ll welcome more.  We’re asking everyone to donate.  It’s going to take a lot to get us to $10k.

As to the other part of this question, there seems to be a cost for doing business in every aspect of the arts now – especially for the convenience of doing it online. Apart from entry fees for juried exhibitions and grant competitions, online portfolio sites like Slideroom and CaFE charge a cost to either the entrant or the host.  Artists using sites like Etsy to sell work have to pay for their listing and a percentage of what they make on each sale.

We’re not just asking artists.  We’re asking everyone to contribute.  I’m hoping we’ll see contributions from seasoned artists, curators, educators, gallerists, patrons, community members, etc. etc. etc.  Our ultimate goal is to open the conversation and use this exhibition as the catalyst for that discourse.  We’re hoping that those who can contribute will make the conversation possible for the entire community.

As with every other Kickstarter, though, we are offering you something in return for your contribution.  We’re asking our contributors to buy into our cause and to engage in our discussion.  In return, we’ll be sending you something physical – prints, catalogs, artwork – and, at some perk levels, offering you experiences directly related to this project.

My final question is about the specifics of the campaign – how do people contribute or get involved? What are the different ways for artists to participate? 

We are just waiting on Kickstarter’s approval to run the project.  Everything is submitted to them and as soon as they give the OK, we’ll press the button to launch the campaign.  Since we don’t have a URL at Kickstarter yet, we’ve put information up on Miningthecrowd.org on how to find the project.  We will also announce it on social media.

Website: http://www.miningthecrowd.org

Kickstarter: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/miningthecrowd/mining-the-crowd-artifacts-of-crowdfunding-exhibit

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/miningthecrowd

Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/miningthecrowd

Tumblr: http://miningthecrowd.tumblr.com

There are a few ways for artists (and everyone really) to get involved.  The obvious one is to financially contribute to the campaign.  But there are other ways as well.

* Spread the word.  The more people that know, the more likely we are to be successful.

* Join the conversation on Facebook.  Post on our page.  Tell us your stories.  Share your challenges with being funded as an artist.

* If you have a crowdfunding campaign ready to go, ask us for funding.  We’ll be donating to artists’ campaigns in January and February.

* Suggest Projects.  If you know of any worthy projects on any crowdfunding site, head over to http://miningthecrowd.org and click on the link to make a suggestion.  The campaigns must not have an end date prior to January 20th to be considered.

* Most of all, this is a chance to become part of the discussion.  The more people we get involved the better this project will be in the end.  I hope everyone who reads this will contribute to the project in whatever way they can – be it telling a friend, posting a message, or donating to the crowdfunding campaign.