The NY Times featured an article about United States Artists, a nonprofit group founded by foundations and wealthy art donors to broaden support for working artists, and their new Web site that solicits small donations from regular people to help underwrite specific artworks.
Part social network, part glossy brochure, part fund-raising mechanism, the site seeks to democratize arts patronage as government support for the arts continues to decline and private sources of financing also shrink.
“What we’ve tried to do is take the good ideas about microphilanthropy and the good ideas about social networking and put them together in a way that people can learn about artists and learn about their projects and how they work,” said Katharine DeShaw, the organization’s executive director.
In testing, the Web site attracted roughly 36,000 unique visitors and raised a total of $210,000, with an average of $120 from each of 1,500 small donors, Ms. DeShaw said.
Artists like Zoe Strauss, a photographer, who have received United States Artists grants in the past were asked to participate in the test, and 47 did so. Ms. Strauss sought $4,000 for a project to document the effects of the BP oil spill on the Gulf Coast and its people, and to make a book of her photographs.
Ms. Strauss said about fund-raising, “I would rather have someone stab me in the face.” She added, “I’m totally unskilled in how to hustle money and totally repulsed by the idea of asking people for it, so this site was a dream come true for me.”
She ended up raising $5,185, which is helping her make additional trips to the region to take more photos. “I probably would have had to stop at the one trip I made because I couldn’t afford anymore,” she said. “By making one or two more trips down there, I will have much more to choose from for the book.”
Ms. Strauss said she also appreciated the social networking aspects of the site. “I work very much by myself, and so the ability to talk back and forth with other artists and see how they go about raising money and talking about their work is great.”
Thomas Allen Harris worried it might be too much work. But he decided he could use the test to raise money for a documentary that grew out of his work on Digital Diaspora Family Reunion, a multimedia project that asks blacks to share their family photos as a means of broadening the historic record of the black experience in America. As part of that project, he interviewed Byron Rushing, a Massachusetts legislator who had played a pivotal role in the state’s debate over gay marriage, and saw a way of tying that issue to the civil rights movement in a film.
Using the new Web site and other resources, Mr. Harris raised $11,600, 16 percent more than he had sought, to pay for archival materials, a composer and other postproduction costs.
“In first week or two, all I raised was $25, and I started wondering what would happen if people started thinking about this as a failure,” Mr. Harris said. “I’m used to sharing my creative process, but sharing how I’m actually raising money in such a public way introduces another level of vulnerability.”
Bill Frisell, a jazzss guitarist, said he, too, was uncomfortable with so publicly soliciting money. “I’m not rich but I make a living, and so for me to say, ‘Please, please, please give me money,’ it felt a little embarrassing,” Mr. Frisell said. “I had to get over that.”
He raised $20,300 through the new site, which will be used to complete a program called “The Great Flood,” a suite of original music composed by Mr. Frisell and accompanied by a film by Bill Morrison about the Mississippi River flood in 1927 and its effect on society and music.
The money will enable him to take the band that will perform the music on a tour along the Mississippi River. “We’ll play in various places,” Mr. Frisell said, “set up on the street and play or get smaller gigs that wouldn’t pay enough to cover expenses without this money.”
Ms. Strauss, Mr. Harris and Mr. Frisell say they anticipate that the kind of incremental fund-raising on the site will become more and more important to sustaining art. Mr. Frisell said, “We have to try new things.”