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Nicole J. Caruth is a freelance writer and curator living in New York. She is a frequent contributor to the Art21 blog. ArtPrize hired Nicole to chronicle the 2009, 2010, and this year’s events. Nicole’s thoughts and opinions are her own and in no way represent an endorsement or objection from ArtPrize toward an individual artist or venue.

Participation costs are ever a criticism of ArtPrize. “This is the most money I’ve spent in my art career,” a sculptor recently said to me. She was not so much airing a grievance as she was expressing hopefulness that good things would come of her investment. From the nominal entry fee to fabrication, travel, and shipping costs, entering ArtPrize can put a dent in an artist’s wallet. This is true for participants of juried arts competitions across the country. Enter Kickstarter, a do-it-yourself fundraising platform for creative types.*

For those unfamiliar with how Kickstarter or “crowd-funding” works, the model is comparable to museum memberships for which patrons give at different levels and receive certain benefits in return, such as advanced ticketing and behind the scenes access or, for the über-wealthy, a named gallery. Just the same, Kickstarter campaigns ask everyday people to support creative endeavors by pledging at different levels, sometimes as low as one dollar, in exchange for a “reward” related to the specific project. Rarely is the reward equivalent to or greater than the amount pledged, but it’s understood that giving directly to something (or someone) you care about is where much of the value lies. “The selling point of ‘crowd-funding,’” according to the New York Times, “is that it is an alternative to the wealthy patron or the grant-giving foundation. Kickstarter has become the most talked-about example of this democratizing technology: an arts organization for the post-gatekeeper era.” What could be better suited to ArtPrize? (Interestingly enough, Kickstarter officially launched the same week ArtPrize was first announced to the public in 2009.)

“We know artists need funding,” says Kevin Buist, Director of Artist Relations for ArtPrize. “We want to do what we can to help them get it, but we’re not in a position to fund them ourselves.” When Kickstarter offered ArtPrize their first “curated page,” which allows an organization to highlight projects they’re fond of, it presented an opportunity and dilemma. With nearly 1,600 artists registered for ArtPrize 2011, everyone couldn’t be featured. Buist and team limited ArtPrize’s page to out-of-state projects. These included the monumental Site:Lab installation Spire by Brooklyn-based artist Alois Kronschlaeger; Laura Milkins’ live-streaming endurance performance Walking Home (watch her video below); the Urban Institute for Contemporary Art’s ramp-way mural, Screwed Rapids (Wall Drawing #3), painted by the St. Louis collective Screwed Arts; and the 2,400-square-foot collaborative mosaic MetaPhorest, led by artist Tracy Van Duinen (who placed in the top ten of ArtPrize 2009) for the West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology. Kronschlager and Milkins raised a modest $2,000 and $5,000, where Screwed Arts Collective and Duinen saw more than $13,000 and $15,000 respectively.

Laura Milkins, “Walking Home for Art Prize,” 2011. Courtesy the artist.
Because of Kickstarter’s all or nothing system – projects that fail to reach their funding goal don’t receive any of the pledges – some campaigns for ArtPrize 2011 went unfunded. Some are still in progress. For instance, Nancy Judd of the sewing performance Eco Flamenco (a red dress being covered with reclaimed cereal box “ruffles”) aims to recoup expenses for temporary living, shipping, insurance, and then some. Likewise, Dale Rogers of the Blue Bridge “Metal Monkey Mania,” officially titled Please do not vote for me, aims to cover travel and installation costs. (Go to his website to find out why he really doesn’t want your vote.) Rogers’ collection of 30-pound monkeys brings me back to an earlier point: participation costs for sculptors can far exceed that of others, depending on the flexibility and weight of one’s materials. When faced with Cynthia McKean’s The Phoenix outside of Grand Valley State University, on the one hand, I couldn’t help but wonder how much she spent for the transportation and installation of this 18 × 18 × 20 foot steel sculpture, not to mention what she’ll have to shell out to get it home. (In my opinion, it should stay where it is.) On the other hand, artists choose to bring ambitious installations to ArtPrize. With any luck, it will pay off.

In previous years I’ve often heard from artists that the potential to expose their work to large new audiences has made ArtPrize worth whatever costs. Over the weekend, a similar sentiment was expressed to me by Chicago-based artist Jennifer Mills whose interactive installation Gallery 5 is on view at Women’s City Club. Mill’s plays the role of art dealer, selling cut pieces of an oil and acrylic painting by her collaborator Ricardo Harris-Fuentes. Each itty-bitty canvas is as cleanly packaged as an Apple accessory and comes complete with a mini-certificate of authenticity. Most of them retail for $5. Is this the artist’s witty way of making back the costs of being at ArtPrize? Not at all. Collecting money is beside the point. Mill’s spoke of mere interest from passersby and stimulating conversations as being payment enough. (It’s worth mentioning though that artists are showing more retail-marketing savvy than in previous years, selling limited edition objects and memorabilia on the spot.)

Getting back to Kickstarter, artists planning to use  this platform in the future should take heed: creating a campaign doesn’t mean crowds will be throwing money your way. According to Buist, “The recipe for a successful Kickstarter campaign for ArtPrize is not really any different from a successful Kickstarter campaign in general.” Buist notes four essential ingredients: appealing rewards, a wide range of pledge amounts, and an engaging video. “And then, of course, what really helps is if people have a pre-existing network,” says Buist. “Whether that’s a lot of Twitter followers, a blog that people are already reading, or more of a traditional collector [base]. In talking to Kickstarter and watching successful campaigns, it seems like if you have a solid group of fans to take care of the first twenty-five percent of funding, they can also get the word out to people who don’t know you.” The next challenge is to keep your new fans coming back for more.

* Kickstarter processes their funds through Amazon Payments, which requires a U.S. bank account. Artists living outside the United States should check out IndieGoGo.com.

By NicoleC on