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Yes, Kickstarter raises more money for artists than the NEA. Here’s why that’s not really surprising

Forget the NEA. Private donors have always been the dominant funders of arts in America. (Katherine Frey / The Washington Post)

During a session at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Aspen Institute president Walter Isaacson asked Perry Chen, founder of Kickstarter, whether it was true that Kickstarter now funds more arts-related projects than the National Endowment for the Arts.

The crowdfunding site has, Chen told Isaacson, funded over $600 million in arts projects. “And," said Isaacson, "that might be now more than the federal government spent on the arts in a given year?" adding a bit later that "in some ways… you’ve invented something that does what the NEA used to do and can’t quite do now.”

Indeed, people have been saying since last year that Kickstarter funds more art-related projects than the NEA. And it's true! For 2012, the NEA had a total federal appropriation of $146 million, of which 80 percent went toward grants. Kickstarter funded roughly $323.6 million of art-related projects if you include all design and video-related projects, which make up $200 million of the total.

It looks like a shocking disparity between government grants and a technology start up, but here’s why it isn’t surprising.

Individuals have always been the backbone of arts funding. The NEA has never tried to compete with individual donors, and that’s the premise of Kickstarter—it’s a platform that allows individual donors to fund projects. In 2011, individuals contributed $13 billion to arts and cultural charities. According to the NEA, individuals make up 75 percent of all private giving, much more than corporations or foundations. Kickstarter, in essence, simplifies the long-held American tradition of individual private donors giving to the arts.

The exchange also highlights another misconception about the arts: that the U.S. government once funded the arts so heavily as to compete with private donors. In reality, the NEA has always made up a small part of overall arts funding when compared to private philanthropy.

At its height during the Reagan, H.W. Bush, and Clinton administrations, the NEA had a budget that hovered around $165 million, topping out at $176 million in 1992. That’s $284 million in today’s dollars, close to double the current NEA budget. It seems like a huge difference—and it is for the institution—but when you consider that arts nonprofits spent over $60 billion last year, according to Americans for the Arts, it's downright minuscule. Even when federal arts budgets grow, they still don’t subsidize arts in the way that private money does.

There’s no doubt that Kickstarter is a tremendous platform for arts giving. It may even help arts organizations reach the elusive young donors they worry about. But it’s not revolutionizing the role of the individual donors—they were always better patrons than government.