Crowdfunding art across the african diaspora
In many countries, traditional arts funding structures have historically excluded marginalised groups. The independent and seemingly democratic nature of crowdfunding offers the potential to be used as a way of circumventing some of these barriers.
“Popular discourse frames crowdfunding as a way for those locked out of financing opportunities to leverage the connectivity of the Internet to widen their reach beyond their immediately accessible networks and secure funds for a wide variety of projects” - Davidson & Poor
Facing a variety of challenges depending on location and infrastructure, African communities both on the continent and across the diaspora have utilised a number of methods of support, of which crowdfunding is just the latest manifestation.
Indeed, the African Diaspora could be looked at as a ready made crowd, or even an agglomeration of multiple crowds, with a rhizomatic nature, which is much more evident when mapping some of the projects outlined below.
Starting with a selection of crowdfunding campaigns by arts professionals across the African Diaspora highlighted a number of similarities but also unique approaches. The focus here is primarily on projects in the diaspora rather than on the contintent, both for reasons of access, but also of parallels in terms of challenges faced around marginalisation as racialised minorities, as opposed to issues related to the infrastructure and establishment of art institutions.
Andrea Chung is a California-based artist who in 2014 won a residency at an arts organisation in Jamaica which required crowdfunding to support its additional costs. The project Catchin Babies, Colonizing Black Bodies was in partnership with Dr Alicia Bonaparte, professor of Sociology at Pitzer College, and involved researching historical practices around fertility, maternity and child rearing in the African diaspora within a colonial context through archival sources. Andrea frequently explores colonial history within her work.
The campaign was highly detailed in terms of the breakdown of costs, which imbued it with a sense of professionalism and transparency that is to be expected in more formal funding applications. The project was very much dependant on the receipt of funds, particularly since it covered international transport.
An established and widely exhibited artist, Andrea managed the campaign herself using the platform Indiegogo, which does not require the entire target to be met in order to receive the funds. In fact, she was able to exceed the target by over $1000, which was then used to cover un-anticipated costs. Andrea reflected that in many ways raising money through a crowdfunding campaign was easier than applying for a grant, as a result of not having to compete with 'unknown variables' and being able to 'directly draw on the strength of the project.'
The Three Great Loves of Sean Bravo was the first major project undertaken by mixed-media artist Susan Caldwell. Having previously worked for an arts funding organization in New York City, Susan had a considerable amount of insight into the lengthy process that is undertaken when applying for funding through a traditional route. Crowdfunding was appealing to the artist because it was 'seeking funding from the end consumer.'
Using Indiegogo, Susan managed to raise approximtely fifty percent of her goal, which was not based on an outlined budget for specific costs. She explained:
"I considered my amount a form of “help” towards my costs. In other words, I will produce the art anyway, no matter how much I raise, but I will not be able to do it as quickly"
Additionally, the artwork itself is an web-based graphic novel, and so the crowdfunding campaign was also utilised to create a buzz around the launch of the series. Indeed, one of the perks that Susan offered to her backers, and which turned out to be the most popular, was the opportunity to be featured in a cameo role in the series.
Cecile Emeke is a film-maker and lens-based artist who has produced a number of films and series, both fictional and documentary, which focus on telling the stories and experiences of young people of African and African-Caribbean origin.
"Funding is a hard thing to come by for all artists, but that challenge is heightened when you are making content that is uncompromisingly by and about black people. We've all heard the age-old, irrational arguments to justify this; if we exclusively tell our stories then our work will no longer appeal to a 'wider audience' and so forth. We live in a world where dragons and goblins are "relatable" and "universal" but human beings with slightly more melanin in their skin are not.
It's a shame. Regardless, we are determined to keep making content and work that unashamedly and unapologetically focuses on the black experience in all it's various nuances. We want to keep making work with holistic intersectionality at the heart of it. There are a huge lack of authentic, good quality narratives starring black actors on our screens. It is no secret that the Film and TV are industries where black actors, writers, producers and directors are simply not given as many opportunities. We are tired of the shallow characters, lazy stereotypes and boring clichés that often come along with black characters. "'' - Cecile Emeke
She has been very direct in her pitch that the work of black artists is underfunded and underrepresented, and this was a key point in her plea. From my anecdotal observations in conversations and on social media, there is a strong desire for wider, non-stereotypical representations of the black experience which is not being offered by mainstream art, culture and media. As a result, Cecile was able to galvanize a significant social media following and unusual for crowdfunding, many of her donations were not from individuals in her immediate network of contacts. In addition, her work has been featured in a number of high profile international press and media organisations including the New York Times and the TriBeCa Film Festival.
While Cecile felt that her expertise as a film-maker did not give her any additional advantage in attracting supporters and funders, in comparison with other less professional campaign videos, it was clear that the high quality of both the campaign and the work itself were an incentive for potential donors to seriously consider her projects. This is particularly significant as this instance of crowdfunding is on an ongoing basis, in the form of direct donations, rather than towards a particular financial goal, temporal deadline or through an 'official' crowdfunding platform. In this case, the way the funding operates can be seen more as a form of patronage as the rewards are not in the form of 'perks' but in the work continuing to be produced.
This project was unusual in that it was a partnership between an artist and an organisation, which brings to light the issue that funding is being reduced not only for art production but also for it's display and dissemination. How Great Thou Art was an exhibition at Photofusion, a photography co-operative and community arts organisation based in Brixton, South London, of a series of photographs by Charlie Phillips, who has spent many decades documenting African-Caribbean funerals in London. The collaboration came as a result of an extensive archival project of Charlie's work, and the exhibition itself was produced using an Arts Council grant. However, the organisation's decision to publish a catalogue alongside the exhibition meant that there was a gap in the budget. It was proving difficult to obtain additional public funding as the project was considered quite niche, however the organisers felt that having a publication was an important way of solidifying the legacy of the work, and in extending it's reach and lifespan beyond those who were able to attend the gallery during its opening period.
Community Programme Manager Lizzy King explains:
"It’s kind of great, when you have a book published. There’s something very powerful. You’re creating a piece of history, I suppose, that anyone can access."
It was important for the rewards to be manageable and not to incur any additional costs as Photofusion were already working not only to a very tight budget but also a deadline. The project was handpicked by the platform Kickstarter as one of their featured campaigns, and received considerable media attention, and as a result exceeded the target by approximately £2000, although this was reabsorbed in additional costs.
One of the most successful elements of this campaign was in audience engagement, not just in raising funds. Having access to different kinds of contacts which included industry professionals, the general public as well as personal connections, ensured a wide circle of acquaintances from which to generate visitors for the exhibition.
The strength of the crowdfunding campaign for How Great Thou Art by Charlie Phillips and Photofusion, as featured above, was in part thanks to the wide reach of the organisation's contacts. The institutional backing was a way of legitimising the project, as well as solidifying its legacy with a publication. These types of partnerships are becoming increasingly common, allowing artists and institutions to tap into each other's networks and resources.
A similar project currently in progress is At Home With Vanley Burke at the Ikon Gallery, a contemporary art institution in Birmingham, UK. Vanley Burke, similar to Charlie Phillips, is a renowned photographer concerned with the Black British experience, and the exhibition will be a full scale installation of the photographer's flat in the gallery space. Interestingly this campaign was run through ArtFund, not a crowdfunding platform but an arts funding charity, but it is unclear how exactly this partnership worked.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing instances of crowdfunding was Art Basel's initiative to use highlight campaigns by non-profit art organisations across the globe. Initially perplexing, since surely as one of the world's most prestigious and successful art fairs, Basel does not require any financial assistance, but in fact this is a mutually beneficial partnership. Small scale organisations such as Lagos Photo Festival, to tap into Art Basel's huge network of potential donors, while Art Basel maintains an almost paternalistic, overseeing eye on grassroots art activity globally.
For African diasporic communities, the act of archiving is not only part of artistic practice, but of negotiating identity and preserving unrecorded heritage. The collective experience of creating an archive has a parallel with the nature of crowdfunding, both acting as what John Akomfrah deemed a space of intervention, within existing structures of power and knowledge production.
The notion of collective financial support is not a new concept across the African Diaspora. Remittance payments are a way for fragmented communities to maintain trust-based relations across both local and global networks.
Crowdfunding can be seen as another form of remittance payments.
There is absolutely a need for artists and arts organisations to diversify their funding streams. Over-reliance on public funding is unsustainable, as we have seen with both Iniva and The Africa Centre in London. However crowdfunding is not necessarily a long-term strategy, as artists are reluctant to ask their personal contacts for money repeatedly. An organisation such as a gallery or an archive however may be better placed to target different audiences in their network, depending on the project. Furthermore, some projects involving sensitive subject matter or vulnerable participants may not be suitable for such a fundraising campaign.
Neither can the digital element of crowdfunding platforms be understated, as this creates a barrier to entry for those without access to technology. Not unlike many of the technologies through which remittance payments are channeled, there are also often high transaction fees and associated costs.
When presenting crowdfunding as a natural solution to the problem of financing the art production of underrepresented groups, the implication is that because diasporic communities are a ready-made crowd, with a sense of expectation of financial and moral support among themselves, that they are self-reliant. It's a dangerous assertion to make that a marginalised group are inherently entrepreneurial and do not require assistance, although this notion of entrepreneurship and creativity is increasingly an expectation across all segments of society.
1 Nathaniel Davidson & Roei Poor. The barriers facing artists’ use of crowdfunding platforms: Personality, emotional labor, and going to the well one too many times. New Media & Society November 24, 2014
All research conducted by Aurella Yussuf