New York City Opera Fights for Survival Using Kickstarter

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When New York City Opera turned to Kickstarter as part of an emergency effort to raise $1 million by September 30, it did so against some immense odds: the fundraising website has seldom hosted a successful million-dollar campaign, and never in the service of a performing arts institution.

Kickstarter's published figures show that a mere 47 out of 48,640 successfully funded projects have raised $1 million or more. Twenty-five of those $1 million-plus projects have been to finance video games; one was for music. Instead, the vast majority of the site's clients raise between $1,000 and $10,000.

Despite these odds, philanthropy professionals acknowledge that crowdfunding sites can be a valuable tool for institutions, and are no longer just the domain of small-time artists seeking their first big break. This year has seen Kickstarter campaigns by the filmmakers Spike Lee ($1.4 million) and Zach Braff ($3.1 million), the producers of the movie "Veronica Mars" ($5.7 million), and the artist Marina Abramovic ($661,454).

But City Opera faces a bigger, more complex and less glamorous task: rallying donors to cover daily operating costs. "Normally people don’t like to fund an organization’s deficit," said Patrick Rooney, an associate dean at Indiana University's Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. "That's a tough sell. People are more interested in funding new ideas and ongoing works.”

Rooney questioned whether Kickstarter is an appropriate vehicle for an opera demographic that tends to skew older and is less technology-obsessed. "Their target audience is probably not using it all," he said. "That is a little baffling to me."

City Opera’s Kickstarter campaign began on September 8 as part of an emergency effort to raise $7 million by September 30 in order to rescue the current season, and $20 million by the end of the year to save its 2014-15 season.

Kickstarter contributors to City Opera can pay anywhere from $1 to $10,000. For $1, donors will get their name on a web donor wall; for $10,000, donors receive a private recital by a City Opera performer. Donations at varying prices points between are rewarded with free tickets or a chance to be an extra in a performance. As of Tuesday, it has raised over $100,000 from nearly 800 backers online.

Jay Golan, a fundraising consultant and a former senior director of development at Carnegie Hall, is skeptical about City Opera's strategy. "Kickstarter is best used for projects where it is the entire sum total that needs to be requested, not an element of a larger plan," he said, emphasizing that the $1 million goal is only one-seventh of the overall pie. "I still have a big problem that [the campaign] is not in the spirit of Kickstarter, which is supposed to reward innovative projects."

Golan, who has previously worked on fundraising for WQXR, added that Kickstarter has high overhead costs, which can be problematic. It collects a five percent fee from the project's funding total if it is successfully funded, plus processing fees of three to five percent, according to the company.

Risa Heller, spokeswoman for City Opera, disputed claims that the Kickstarter funds will be used to plug deficits, and contended that they will support the next three operas planned for the season. "Many groups have used the site to fund movies and plays, in addition to products outside of the arts," she said. "We all agree that opera is certainly within this realm."

City Opera opens its season Tuesday night with the US premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage's opera Anna Nicole at BAM, to be followed by three more productions in the winter and spring.

Patricia Illingworth, editor of Giving Well: The Ethics of Philanthropy, questioned City Opera's managerial history and said it must assure donors that their money will be used responsibly. "Crowdfunding is a great idea,” she said. “But there really are no guarantees here. There’s no quality control. The worst thing from an ethical point of view is a waste of money."

The opera company has not said how it will proceed if the $7 million goal isn't met by Sept. 30, whether it will present a partial season or look to next year.

Golan believes that City Opera's heavily publicized, life-or-death request might have once seemed extreme in philanthropy circles, but the old rules no longer apply. "We live in a free-for-all world now," he said. "I do think that there probably was a previous generation where there were rules of the game. Those included 'don’t cry wolf.'"

But Rooney of Indiana University says donors may respond best to the company's plea. "People understand and appreciate that kind of transparency,” he said.

Below is City Opera's video pitch to Kickstarter donors: