Kickstarter vs. The NEA: Which Provides More Arts Funding?

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A talk last week at the Aspen Institute reignited a debate that has been circulating in the arts world over the past year: does the website Kickstarter raise more money for the arts than the federal government? And if so, what does it say when a crowd-funding platform beats out the National Endowment for the Arts, a government agency funded by Americans' tax dollars?

Aspen Institute president Walter Isaacson asked Kickstarter co-founder Perry Chen about figures which show that the NEA received a federal appropriation of $146 million in 2012, of which 80 percent went toward grants. During the same year, Kickstarter funded roughly $323.6 million of art-related projects if one includes all design, video and technology-related projects. The company has helped raise $600 million toward successful campaigns since its launch in 2009.

“It’s a big deal,” said Isaacson. “In some ways, you've invented something that the NEA used to do and can't quite be now.”

Chen sought to distinguish Kickstarter's overall goals from those of the NEA, which are more about providing public access to the arts than distributing individual grants to artists. "I like government funding of the arts," said Chen. "I like more arts and music programs in schools so in no way do we want or hope to be competitive. Private funding of the arts is tremendous. The government pales in comparison."

But this has long been the case, Chen added. "Mozart did this for a concerto. He had over a hundred people support him. Actually, the first time he tried to fund it, he didn't raise the money" -- he had to try again the next year before successfully funding his work.

As Washington Post columnist Katherine Boyle points out, in 2011, individuals accounted for $13 billion or 75 percent of all giving to arts and cultural charities -- far more than corporations or foundations. "Kickstarter, in essence, simplifies the long-held American tradition of individual private donors giving to the arts,” she writes.

When the numbers surfaced in 2012 about Kickstarter's successes, some took that to mean the company could eventually replace the NEA. Chen sought to praise the agency last week.

“There’s a balance,” said Chen. “Just in the same way we want governments to continue to fund arts, I don’t think we’re advocating for the shutting down of the creative industry.” He added that his hope is that “creators using a model like Kickstarter can get what they’re unable to get from” traditional sources.

Watch the full video of the Aspen Institute session and tell us what you think in the comments below.