Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the last name of one of Kickstarter’s founders. He is Yancey Strickler, not Yancey Strickland. This story has been updated.
Last October, when Emily Oleson first unveiled “Vaudevival,” using tap, hip-hop and other dance forms to address race and culture-stealing, she was a University of Maryland graduate student and putting on a show was part of getting her degree. So Oleson had ready access to a cast of student dancers (free), rehearsal and performance space (also free), live musicians (paid by the school), as well as sets and costumes (bought with a grant).
But when Oleson, 31, and her husband, Matthew Olwell, 34, decided to present “Vaudevival” at Dance Place in June, the economics were quite different. Now every element had a price tag. So the Takoma Park residents dug into their bank accounts, as choreographers are used to doing. They also turned to a new source of funding for dance: a Kickstarter campaign.
“I never feel great about asking people for money,” says Oleson. But what prompted her to make her first widespread and aggressive Internet appeal for cash was “the idea of paying all the artists.”
A noble and reasonable goal — but often an insurmountable one for independent dancemakers such as Oleson and Olwell. Yet they were able to achieve it through Kickstarter, the most prominent of the “crowd funding” Web sites. Since its 2009 debut, Kickstarter has allowed independent filmmakers, budding recording artists and other creative types to shake down Web surfers for the money to make nearly 30,000 documentaries, albums, smartphone apps and other projects. Lately, these have included dance performances.
If you spend any time on social media, you’ve undoubtedly encountered appeals to “please take a look at my Kickstarter project! Help me meet my goal!!” The funding phenomenon is hardly news anymore. Or is it?
If you dig around on the Web site, you find that it is. For dance, Kickstarter is very big news indeed. Dance is the most successful Kickstarter category of all (and that includes theater, music, film, design and technology). As a result, $2.36 million has come into the dance world through Kickstarter.
This is how the process works: You submit your idea for a project to the Web site’s staff. A few days later, once it has been approved (they mainly don’t want charity appeals or squishy, open-ended causes like an island vacation), you may launch your “campaign” on the site with a project page. This can include posting a few paragraphs about your project, listing rewards you’ll offer donors, and perhaps a short video clip full of passion and personality. (The human touch is important, said Yancey Strickler, one of the site’s founders: “People want to see a face, someone who’s sincere and feels deeply about the project.”)
You also state your fundraising goal and a deadline. The catch? It’s all-or-nothing: You have to raise the full sum by the date you’ve set. Otherwise, you lose every penny that was pledged. If you meet or exceed your goal, cha-ching: It’s all yours, minus some fees. Kickstarter takes a 5 percent cut, and Amazon, which processes the payments, takes 3 to 5 percent.
“It is probable Kickstarter will distribute more money this year than the NEA,” Strickler told Talking Points Memo earlier in the year. He said the site was on track to funnel $150 million dollars to its users’ projects in 2012, which would top the National Endowment for the Arts’s $146 million budget for the fiscal year.
But less publicized is the fact that the odds are against you on Kickstarter. Fewer than half of Kickstarter campaigns succeed. The ones that generate the greatest buzz, raising many times their goals — the TikTok watch that straps your iPod Nano onto your wrist (goal: $15,000; raised: $942,578) or the Ouya game console for television (goal: $950,000; raised: $8.5 million) — are flukes. More than 60 percent of film and video campaigns fail, for example.
Here’s where dance is different — vastly different. More than 70 percent of dance campaigns on Kickstarter succeed.
Suddenly, traditional funders and dance advocates are paying attention. This spring, the NEA responded to Strickler’s boast by bringing him to Washington to meet with its program directors. Two weeks ago, DanceNYC, a branch of the Dance/USA service organization, hosted a town hall meeting with several dozen dance artists and a Kickstarter staffer to glean moneymaking tips.
What’s driving cash-strapped dancers to the site is “the desire for immediate resources, which you can get through a Kickstarter campaign but you can’t get from applying for a grant,” says Lane Harwell, director of DanceNYC.
Why is dance having such success on the site? Theories abound. Dancers generally seek modest sums. (Oleson’s goal was $4,000. She raised $4,030.) Strickler thinks the success has to do with “how community-based they are. A dance troupe is going to have maybe a dozen members, so there’s a lot of support around them.” Cast, crew and designers can spread the word of a Kickstarter campaign, widening the pool of possible donors.
Of course, that pool has to possess a bit of Internet know-how to be useful here. Richard Daniels, 61, launched a successful $3,000 Kickstarter campaign for the third volume of his “Dances for an iPhone” app, a series of brief dance films specially choreographed for the palm-size screen.
“You might think, ‘Hordes of people we don’t know will be giving to us.’ But that’s not the case,” he says. What he realized is that what works best is “a very large social media engagement” and that ease with the Kickstarter format “may fall generationally.”
In other words, this may be largely a young person’s tool.
This is part of what’s fascinating about the Kickstarter phenomenon. Its appeal to the younger, independent self-promoter makes it a perfect funding mechanism for those choreographers who have no interest in the conventional career path taken by company directors such as Paul Taylor and Mark Morris. That path meant becoming an institution, taking on a board of directors, lots of financial responsibility and a good deal of pressure to produce.
The dance field is no longer heading this way. There are fewer full-time companies and more project-based artists, who hire dancers as they need them for specific works. These free-spirited experimenters are typically not incorporated and don’t have boards of directors —which means they don’t have the tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofit status that would make them eligible for NEA funding.
It’s been more than 15 years since the NEA’s single source of funds for young, emerging artists — individual choreography fellowships — fell victim to congressional pressure after an uproar over controversial art. What Douglas Sonntag, the NEA’s dance director, calls the “research and development part of the field” has been hard-pressed to find funding from traditional sources.
But Kickstarter and the sites like it — Indiegogo, ChipIn and others — could be a gold mine for them. The crowd-funding donors “are reaching a part of the field that the endowment hasn’t had access to since 1995,” says Sonntag, “which I think is a real service.”
But you have to put up with a certain amount of stress and virtual pavement-pounding to make it work. Brooklyn choreographer Miguel Gutierrez — a project-based artist who doesn’t run a 501(c)(3) — typically sets forth a yearly letter-writing campaign to help pay for his works. But the most he had ever pulled in from those was $5,000. When he started working on a piece he calls “And lose the name of action,” which has its premiere next month at Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center and includes a video installation and original sound design, he realized that he needed more money than he had budgeted. A lot more.
“I’m trying to run a really professional company,” says Gutierrez, 41. “To rehearse six or eight people with a composer and a video artist is at least $1,000 a day.” So he launched a $20,000 Kickstarter campaign — and an anxiety attack along with it.
“Are we out of our [bleeping] minds?” he remembers thinking. But the breathlessness of possibly blowing it, he realized, is critical. Both the artist and the donors can get swept up in the drama as they watch the donated amount creep up on the site. The time crunch makes arts funding feel like sweating through an eBay auction.
“Oh my gosh, it was so stressful!” says D.C.-based dancer and poet Holly Bass, who this month raised $2,292 on Kickstarter. The money was to help fund a showing of new work at Dance Place with Philadelphia artist Jaamil Olawale Kosoko.
“It’s this perfect storm,” Bass said, “because you already have performer anxiety, and then you become this fundraiser and you have development-director anxiety.”
Therein lies the most interesting part of this developing Kickstarter story. Though their campaigns succeeded and they were delighted with the results, the choreographers I spoke with all attested to some unease with the process. But the reason for that is not what you might think. It wasn’t just that pestering their friends and family for money was awkward, or that the constant reminders and updates they sent out via e-mail and Facebook took up time they could have spent in the studio.
What was trickiest for Gutierrez, Bass and “Vaudevival’s” Oleson and Olwell was the very notion of asking for exactly what they wanted.
This felt quite different from general pleas for support, or from applying for a grant in an amount that has already been predetermined by some foundation. What Kickstarter forces dance people to do is something they are not used to doing, and that is: to consider the universe of possibility for their project — How many dancers would be truly perfect? What costumes would make it just right? — and then make a case for why they deserve those things.
“We’re so used to making do with so little,” acknowledges Olwell.
Hearing this, Oleson laughs and adds, “I get increasingly angry at the resignation in dancers.” She recalls being in meetings with other grad students at Maryland, where the professors would ask them what sets and costumes they wanted for their shows.
“The dancers would say, ‘What’s around that nobody wants? What can I have?’ ”
Gutierrez speaks of a “poverty mentality” in dance. “I don’t blame dance people for that,” he says. “It’s a condition of dance funding.”
“With dance, you have to have experienced a fair amount of success before you can ask to be successful,” he says. “It took me so long so be able to say, ‘Hey, I really need this grant,’ without wanting to claw up my own skin. As a result you see a lot of crappy lighting and crappy costuming in dance. Aesthetically, there are a lot of retrograde things that would never fly in any other field.
“How do we educate ourselves to ask for what we need? It’s a very dynamic and tricky process.”
Kickstarter seems to be helping. The fact that dancers are successfully speaking up for themselves on their project pages suggests that the dance field may be on the verge of, if not a revolution, then an awakening.
“Part of the dance culture is not getting too attached to the exact design details and having a flexible vision,” Olwell says. “Kickstarter might be a cool bridge for dancers.”