The film that my friend Cindy Kleine is making about her husband, director and actor André Gregory, is a labor of love. Expensive love.
A portrait of their marriage as well as Gregory’s life and career, the film includes clips from his inventive theater productions (“Alice in Wonderland” and “The Master Builder”), his film collaborations with Wallace Shawn and Louis Malle (“My Dinner With André,” “Vanya on 42nd Street”), and his appearances in Hollywood movies (“Demolition Man”). But in today’s world of commercial licensing, using even a brief clip — especially from a big studio movie — can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Getting the rights to use music and still photography is also expensive. In the past, an independent documentary filmmaker would have sought funding from government arts organizations, private foundations, and philanthropists. But those sources have gotten scarce. So Kleine decided to go where increasing numbers of artists are going these days to raise money: the Internet.
Crowdfunding for artists, through websites such as Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and USA Projects, is a relatively new phenomenon, but in the last few years it has taken off like crazy. This spring, musician Amanda Palmer grabbed widespread attention when she set out to raise $100,000 to produce an album, and wound up a month later with over $1 million.
But for most artists, the goals and the results are more modest. “It’s like a cyber bake sale,” says actor and playwright Ellen McLaughlin, who has seen a number of friends and colleagues fund projects through Kickstarter campaigns. McLaughlin recently appeared in the “Gurs Zyklus,” a multimedia opera by the German-born, one-named MacArthur fellow Trimpin and director/performer Rinde Eckert. Using Trimpin’s kinetic sculptures — large machines that make music and project images — the piece tells the story of the deportation of Jews from his hometown in Germany to a camp in the French Pyrenees. A Kickstarter campaign this past April raised the desired $15,000 in production funds, from a total of 50 backers, many of whom gave less than $100.
“Crowdfunding campaigns combine fundraising and social media,” says New York marketing consultant Nancy LaPook Diamond. “You start with your own friends, and then broaden out — like throwing a pebble in the lake and watching the circles get wider. People like to feel that they’re part of a project. And all the donors become ambassadors for the work.”
The sites vary in terms of how strictly projects are vetted, whether donations are tax deductible, and when funds get released (some sites, like Kickstarter, work on an all-or-nothing model, collecting from pledged donors only if the funding goal is met before a deadline). As Diamond suggests, most crowdfunding begins by appealing to the artist’s current colleagues, supporters, fans, and friends. This sense of community, of a shared endeavor among artists and supporters, helps guard against the system being exploited by poorly developed or unscrupulous appeals.
It often feels these days as though large-scale, big-budget popular culture has taken over the arts. A Broadway ticket can cost over $400; a Hollywood movie is judged a failure if it doesn’t gross $100 million in its first weekend. But browsing around on Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites is a heartening reminder that there’s another side of the arts in America. It’s a grassroots, do-it-yourself, Frank Capra-esque culture, culture that is “popular” in the true sense of the word — directly from and for the people. The projects range from art galleries to radio shows, from political magazines to graphic novels, from toy robots to the recreation of the lost art of building a wooden synagogue. The incentives and rewards range widely too: anything from a kimchi recipe to the chance to become a character in a video game to a limited-edition silkscreen to your own dinner with André.
Is every Kickstarter project great art? Of course not. Not in my opinion, anyway. But the whole point of crowdfunding is that one person’s opinion is just one person’s opinion. Find a lot of people who support your vision, and you’re on your way. Kickstarter is an energizing reminder of how hungry people are to create and support art. And it’s helping to make sure that all kinds of idiosyncratic, exciting, and often deeply felt projects actually get done.
Joan Wickersham’s column appears
regularly in the Globe. Her website is