Using Kickstarter to make fine art without galleries or grand committees or gazillionaires

Molly Crabapple sez, "While cultural institutions, from record labels to newspapers, are crumbling around us, the fine art world has remained relatively unchanged. Medici is The Crowd is an article about how I decided to create large, elaborate, political art without waiting for permission, and to fund it with the speed and populism of the internet. Shell Game, my art show about the financial crisis, whose Kickstarter inspired this article, is here."

Molly is a brilliant and principled artist, and a Kickstarter genius. She's got something to say.

What I wanted to figure out was a way to create work that was funded neither by rich collectors, nor by grant committees, nor by someone's supportive sugar daddy. I wanted to make giant, fancy, glittering art, paid for by small donors, all of whom, even if they couldn't afford the pieces I was making, got something of value in exchange. I wanted to make and fund art with the democracy and speed of the internet.

I decided to turn to the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter, where I had done three other successful projects.

Kickstarter is run on small backers, with most people donating between $20 and $100 dollars.

Here was my plan to give them something awesome:

I broke my rewards into four categories: "Access," "Artifact," "Art Objects," and "Art." "Access" was livestreams and parties and interactions with my backers. I wanted to hear their thoughts, and give them mine. "Artifact" meant the brushes, drawing scraps and paint battered palates that went into making giant paintings. I got the idea watching baseball players sell their baseballs. For "Art Objects," I made postcards, art-adorned poker chips, and other reasonably-priced reproductions.

Comment: Medici is the Crowd (Thanks, Molly!)


  1. This kickstarter was fun to watch. Molly worked the crowd like a pro. The most exciting moment was when Neil Gaiman mentioned the project glowingly on Twitter and funding jumped from 12k to 21+k in an evening. Overall I give the experience 5 of 5 stars, would watch again.

  2. Turning “fine art” into performance art and whoring the process out for anyone with $20 rather than $20,000 just seems exploitative. If galleries won’t have you, maybe you need to consider that you just may… well, you know.

    1. Is this whimsical sarcasm or parody?

      It’s like the “don’t give milk away until he pays for the cow” speech but with a socio-economic tinge (“We don’t fuck hoboes, honey”). Are you equating artistic process to anal/vaginal-usage permission? And what do the galleries represent? Are they the lords of the realm who decide what shall be a legal sexual-relation?

      I know the common adage that a joke’s not funny if one has to explain it but an explanation would be appreciated.

      1. “Is this whimsical sarcasm or parody?”

        It’s a mix, but overall sarcasm. Without verbal inflection it doesn’t quite work. Must try harder.

        On a slightly serious note though, I’m not sure that replacing the gallery system (which, as noted below, is far from ideal) with a peanut gallery makes for better art. Of course “better” and “art” have a heck of a lot of wiggle room.

          1. Ideally, you shouldn’t need either. I was going to make a cheap jab about “wealthy people with taste” being oxymoronic, but that’d be 1/cheap and 2/only true most of the time.

            Around here (Santa Clara, CA) there are galleries for the wealthy and the safe/edgy stuff they claim to like, and others for anyone who has something interesting. It’s far (far, far) from perfect — but just getting people into a gallery / venue / whatever to look at shit is a major challenge.

            Note that I have no solutions to any of this. I just love to add the whine to the cheese.

    2. Molly has shown in galleries, and is disillusioned with the restrictions it imposes. She is *choosing* to create a new business model. There is a difference.

        1. Did you look at the Kickstarter “prizes”? You pay for tidbits that surround the creation of the large scale art, like composition studies,  giclée of the final piece, or access to livestreams of her painting. Typically none of this ephemera is monetized, and in doing so, she is not only NOT devaluing the final large-scale pieces, but actually enhancing their worth because of the publicity. And all this without relying on galleries for exposure or exclusive patrons to commission the product and influence what is created. AFAIK that is a new business model.

          1. I don’t want to be made out a villain here, but:

             The fetishization of the art making process isn’t that new.  Prints and drawings and posters and studies are things I’ve seen before.  Brushes?  No, not seen that one.  I’ve seen Kickstarted films give out the actors annotated scripts and bits of costume stuff, I don’t see that as being so different.  Parties and stuff, seen that too.

            There have been other artists and illustrators who have Kickstarted projects, the ain’t-no-gallery claim isn’t interesting. 

            What I DO think is interesting is how a lot of game writers are making their Kickstarters participatory, ACKS was letting medium level donors describe pieces of artwork for the book.  That was new enough that it made me uncomfortable.

      1. she’s complaining about the “fine art” world, though, in relation to this project in particular; i personally read between the lines that she’s calling her own work (or at least this project/series of projects) as “fine art” by extension.

      1. That is wonderfully self-referential sir! 

        But to be honest, the 40%-60% mark-up for the gallery is pretty well established. That’d be OK I guess, as after all the artist still gets their 60%-40% — but where it really gets shitty is in the exhibition fees common for most galleries: if you want to show a painting for $1,000 that doesn’t sell, you still have to pay 2% to 5% of that price just to have it shown. Sucks.

  3. There’s nothing wrong with stepping outside of the gallery system, and I applaud her as a person selling things that people want to own, but I wonder if the “need” was there. 

    According to her Wiki:

    “From her auto-didactical beginnings in a Parisian bookstore—where she cultivated her signature aesthetic by copying pages from A Tart’s Progress—Molly sketched her way through Morocco and Kurdistan.”

  4. I think putting Art and Need in the same argument makes this whole discussion invalid.

    I’m sorry if this sounds like I am trying to troll Tim H, there was no snark intended.

    1. I don’t think that’s trolling at all.  As an artist, I’ll be the first to say that real needs like food and water and shelter and internet connections come before the need for art.  But what I was referring to was this artist’s need for money.  Is Kickstarter a sales tool or a way to tap people for startup capital?  Based on the artist having what sounds like a very expensive set of “auto-didactical beginnings” and that she states that she could “look out her window and see the Occupy movement”, it sounds like she has dough already.  I am, of course, assuming that she literally means she could see the Occupy movement out her window in NYC – I don’t recall any significant gatherings which weren’t in areas where it was expensive to live.It’s cool that the artist has enough people interested in owning her prints that they are willing to pay out, but if the artist is already monied then I question the ethics of her using a Kickstarter as a way to do presales – she’s thinning out the funding herd for artists who might actually need the dough to do something. 

      1. Around Wall Street is one of the cheaper places to live in Manhattan (not talking doorman buildings). There is no night life, no restaurants with character, and limited subway service on the weekend. It’s mostly a ghost town outside of business hours.

        1. If you know where she actually lives then you have more direct experience with her than I, and I certainly can’t hold up speculation against personal experience.  But you just hit a point of personal interest of mine. 

          The Financial District is expensive.  Very expensive.  I base this on my own personal experience:  For the past six years I’ve been working with a non-profit that deals with real estate below Canal Street.  I’ve seen the post-911 regentrification, I’ve seen an endless succession of small businesses pushed out of office and work spaces by the condo-izaton of the downtown. 

          I also know people who lived downtown pre-911, it WAS surprisingly cheap.  The few who weren’t scared away in the post-911 clean up were kicked out by the same gentrification wave I mentioned above.  I also know people who rode that wave, who happily plopped down more money than I’ll make in ten years on purchase type deals down there. 

          The buyers and renters I know down there all THINK it’s cheap, they think that because they live in a radically different financial strata than I do.  I live in Brooklyn near a superfund site and still feel guilty for what I pay in rent, the cheapest apartments in the Financial District are fantastically expensive compared to what I consider reasonable rent.  At the same time, my rich acquaintances all see the Financial District as cheap because they have Upper West Side or East Village type rents in mind, “I get more space for my money!” they all say.  I think the qualifying “in Manhattan” is damning.

          Harlem is a cheap place to live in Manhattan, the Financial District generally isn’t.  Not, of course, that people don’t luck into sweet deals… 

  5. One thing that needs to be said, though, is that artists have been seeking and finding alternatives to official galleries since there have been official galleries. Or at least since artists have been selling art market-style. In the 19th century, you have of course the Salons des Refuses, but also artists creating even less formal spaces to show their work. In a sense, modernism in art was pretty much about getting away from official academic art, finding your own space, and just showing your work. In the 20th century there have been many instances of artists working outside the museum/gallery system, from Dada performances to artist-run spaces in the 1960s and 70s. Hell, in Canada the idea of an artist-run space took off so well that it basically became formalized and official.

    I don’t say this to take anything away from this artist. I’m all for people doing their own thing. She’s found a good niche and all the power to her. This won’t replace official art, however. The reason “the fine art world has remained relatively unchanged” is because the art world doesn’t function like normal businesses. Yes, there’s a market, but to get to the top, to be in the history books and the museums is more complicated than just market economics. I don’t pretend to have the answer.

    If none of this makes sense, I apologize, since I’m beyond tired as I write this, but I found this article interesting and I’m interested in the ways DIYism works with, and sometimes against, other cultures.

    1. Yep, there is nothing unique in wanting to get away from the artworld and there’s nothing unique in selling posters of your artwork to people.  Pre-internet it was harder for people to negotiate the gap between a buyer and an artist, now with the internet we are seeing all sorts of ways for this to happen. 

      You’ve gotta remember that a good artist wants to sell work and make money to do money-stuff with, the Molly person is just being a good businessperson with this, all idealism aside. 

      Spencer Tunic is a good example of an artist who worked with galleries but then successfully translated himself into his own selling platform.  He cut out the galleries and sells directly to anyone who wants to buy, saving himself that 50% cut.  I believe he has a full time handler who he pays that takes care of his sales.  Tunic is still part of the ‘high art’ world, but does it on his own terms. 

    1. Just to be clear, that bill is for equity investments. Kickstarter doesn’t do equity investments; they sell things (the premiums you get for investing).

  6. “I wanted to make giant, fancy, glittering art, paid for by small donors, all of whom, even if they couldn’t afford the pieces I was making, got something of value in exchange.”

    What a pompous ass. The above could be rephrased as “I want to find a way to make money off of people who can’t afford to buy my wonderful stuff that they wouldn’t appreciate anyway.”

    1.  Wait, no.  Well, yes, but no.  Where do you get the “wouldn’t appreciate anyway” stuff?  She’s using the Kickstarter to sell posters of her artwork to people who think it’s okay to trade money for posters of artwork. 

      1.  Yes, you are correct, I added that in there incorrectly. I think she has every right to do this obviously, and I’m sure a lot of people like it, and I was being too harsh. I just think it comes off as a wee bit pretentious. Just the way I was raised, I guess.

  7. Kickstarter and art galleries serve two totally  separate purposes – but they are both tools that artists can use to reach their goals. Kickstarter is a project funding tool. Project funding is one thing that galleries are patently bad at doing, unless the project takes place under their roof.

    Also, kickstarter is  a great way to expand an artist’s audience. I think Molly’s project is pitch-perfect for right now, it evokes both the artists’ frustration with “the system” as well as the general public’s frustration with another “system”.

  8.  Or you could rephrase it as “I want to find a way to involve hundreds of people into a single large work of art, get them excited about it, and still make sure they got something tangible out of it.”

    How many people funded Michelangelo’s “David”?  Who got to take one home?  This artist wants to make large paintings, but doesn’t want to rely on one single rich person to pay for the one single large painting.  What’s pompous about that?

    Obviously, there are at least 511 people who think it’s not so pompous.

  9. I sort of dislike the implication that she had to “ask for permission” to create whatever art she wanted. She may have had to ask for funding, or for permission to exhibit at a given place, but I don’t see how she was previously under any prohibition to create.

  10. Is there a Kickstarter-like setup for low-cost public art? For example, if I said I wanted to raise $200 for some paint and rented scaffolding to do a mural, it seems like Kickstarter wouldn’t care.

  11. I love the idea of crowdsourcing artistic endeavours and cutting elitist taste makers out of the equation. Her statement suggests she wants to explore more challenging pieces that would discomift a wealthy clientelle. However the image in the painting is hardly challenging or edgy at all. The mildly satirical statement is softened by the use of comforting cartoonish imagery. This painitng is about on the level of an editorial illustration for a mainstream magazine – technically proficient but lacking any real bite. 

    I’d like to see some artist use Kickstarter to promote some really challenging work.

    1. The trouble is that it isn’t people Kickstarting difficult work, it’s people buying posters that they want to own.  The “pop surrealism” movement is often described as illustrations without the articles, and it CAN be challenging in content but seldom in form – the whole point is aping the styles of those who came before.  People aren’t saying “smash the system” with a pledge, they are instead buying stuff they like to look at.  That’s great, but I too would love to see those same people each pledge money to something that is outside of their comfort zone.

      1. by the way, what is a “principled artist”. Are there un-principled artists? If so, I’m guessing _they_ would just pander to what is “hot” with the hipster crowd. Amirite?

        1. According to an article Molly’s rhizome article she spent time doing stuff for Occupy Wallstreet.  That certainly is noble. 

  12. “It doesn’t seem right to make an art show about the way financial elites screwed us up and only sell things that financial elites can afford.”

    supply and demand, honey.  if you make ginormous art, and want to sell it for what you consider to be a fair (and large) price, guess what?  someone with a lot of money to spare is gonna be your customer.  as a non-professional artist myself with a non-artistic full-time job, i know that it’s frustrating that you can’t just sit back and do what you enjoy for a full-time living, but that’s just how things are and always have been for artists or anyone with a hobby they enjoy.  if you want to make your hobby profitable, you have to make something someone will want to buy.  financial elitism has nothing to do with it.

    “Your support in this project will help me cover the cost of creating spectacular art that’s meant for everyone to enjoy. And help me do it without asking the permission of rich people. ”

    you don’t have to “ask permission” to make art.

    this kind of silly emotional appeal adds to my existing general dislike of this artist and her work.

    1. And, yet, she has found a way of doing what she enjoys as a full-time living. One could be forgiven for speculating that this might be what is fueling your “existing general dislike” of her.

      1. I read that as ‘existential general dislike’. It actually makes more sense that way.

  13. I want to see an Art Library, everyone from major artists down to lesser known artists contributing original artworks and prints anonymously (but the less commercially successful artists able to recieve modest subsidy) with a charitable funding network to pay for print production along with creative solutions for framing. Unemployed and OAP’s can hire original artwork for something like two or three months with the option to buy prints, subsidised by donation. Employed etc can use the service but pay a modest fee per loan and the full cost of print production for prints purchased. Some art work will go missing or be damaged but for the most part people would look after it. It’d be worth it for people to be able to afford a regular influx of art into their lives. Every genre from ‘high art’ to grafiti.

    Something like that.

    In the future (I can’t afford to paint at the moment, haven’t painted anything for about four years) I’d like to start the idea of introducing original art into commercial galleries which is not priced or attributed but which would be available for no charge to that person who falls in love with it but can’t afford it. Anonymart.

    And to put my money where my mouth is, every piece of original art of mine which I’ve produced in the last couple of years (pencil, chalk and drawings) I’ve given away, mostly to interested strangers in the street. Feels good.

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