The Crowd, the Community, and Patronage

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Dear ones, I have a Patreon. It’s just launched.

Patreon is crowdfunded patronage: it’s a way for lots of people to regularly support an artist a little bit each, all of which adds up to a reliable income. Patreon’s particularly popular with musicians on youtube, webcomic artists and game designers: people with online followers, who frequently release art for free online and are looking for ways to make that liveable. For me, it’s an experiment in whether the same model could work for live art.

We don’t talk about the language of patronage much in the arts any more — which is funny, because it’s pretty much how the idea of the artist was created. Having wealthy supporters (or family) is what enabled people to become artists, is what enabled the field of “the arts” to emerge. But now state patronage is called “public funding”, and corporate patronage is called “sponsorship”, and private patrons are “donors” or “supporters”. We don’t want to make supporting art sound fusty and inaccessible.

I like talking about patronage, though, and I like the idea of opening up what patronage can be. I like making it clear that art is not something that just happens, is not something that other people decide to make happen, but rather something that we all have a stake in making happen, and in making happen in more radical ways. For me, Patreon is a way of not asking single entities for patronage, but asking the crowd — or the community — for support. Like all crowdfunding, it’s a means of circumventing various power structures and barriers to survival, but unlike Kickstarter and most crowdfunding sites, the regular contribution makes it more about sustainable support, long-term income, and a relationship with the people who like what you do.

It’s also just about the only way I can think of to make the art I really want to make. Possibly because I grew up on the internet, making lots of things and giving them away feels natural to me. I don’t just want to make the art that sells, and I don’t just want to make the art that meets the targets of state funding bodies: I want to make the art that I believe in. And I don’t just want to make big monolithic state-of-the-world art projects (though sometimes they’re fun): I want to do little things, and silly things, and radical sparks, and awkward moments that drive a wedge into difficult politics. And I don’t want only the people who can afford it to be able to enjoy my art: I want everyone to be able to enjoy it, and then pay me if they like it. I think I’m good at making art like that. Maybe I want too much. Maybe that’s not the world we’re in together. But I’d like to try, and this seems like a good way of asking everyone if I can.

Who is that “everyone”, though? Who is the crowd? Is there such a thing as a community online? Who am I asking for money? I’m not entirely sure. I’m doing three things to launch this campaign: I’m designing the Patreon page itself, which will trickle through the website’s own internal social network; I’m writing to a bunch of arts friends about the project and asking them to tweet about it; and I’m writing this blog post with some more open thoughts. I’m consciously presenting myself differently to each of those constituencies in the way that, horrifyingly, artists and other hucksters all have to learn to do. I’m writing to my friends as friends, as people who might do me a favour, and who I’d like to share my feelings and desires with. That’s one community — predominantly a disparate community of artists and producers who like and support each other’s work. I’m writing this blogpost, which will reach a wider audience: the people who actively follow me, who are interested in the things I write, and so for you I’m sharing my thoughts and ideas and concerns. That’s a sort of crowd, but mostly a crowd who already knows me. And the Patreon page is written in the most confident and accessible way I can manage, appealing to the completely anonymous crowd who might stumble across my work without knowing anything about me. In these roles, what I’m doing is completely different to a bard being supported by the local community, because the “communities” we’re talking about, if they can really be called that, are disparate networks, geographically diffuse, linked by degrees of separation, joined by family resemblances. Is that really a community I can appeal to  for support — or want to? This is a way of discovering what community means online.

(And obviously, writing stuff like this — exposing my anxieties and thought processes, admitting the multiple presentations, being honest, is itself simultaneously both the truth and a strategy for launching the Patreon and making it more appealing to a certain demographic. This is the horror of the social web. But let’s not get too caught in anxiety loops: there are more important things.)

I’m not totally at ease with all this, as you can tell. For one thing, while Patreon circumvents the power structures of state and capital, it still leaves other structures, like social power and media privilege, totally intact. For another, monetising your social networks is emotionally gruelling: it makes it clear the degree to which people are able to support you, and comes with all sorts of horrible status anxiety, and has a way of invading your relationships if you’re not careful.  And for yet another thing, it’s so clearly all a part of the neoliberalisation of arts funding: the expectation that artists have to become solo entrepreneurs, that we have to be our own producers and fundraisers and marketing departments, that governments no longer believe in grassroots art for the public good, that some work is unfundable.

But look: let’s believe in each other. Let’s believe that art matters. Let’s say that the way we make art matters, and that who makes art matters, and that who we make art for matters, and that we should experiment with all those things. I believe that anyone who wants should be able to make art, and make a living from it if they want to, even (or especially) if it’s completely unprofitable and has no discernible utility. I’m going to keep cobbling together my income from all sorts of different sources, like most artists do, especially most artists trying to make radical art in a radical way, but I have a hunch that this might be an important part of doing it. You could do it. We could do it. (Let me know if I can help.) I have a hunch that building this direct relationship between artist and audience — ideally a relationship that collapses both roles into each other so that we don’t know who’s who — could be important for how we do art. Could, rather than narrowing and narrowing who has access to making and enjoying art, rather than setting up another kind of gatekeeper, open art out. We need to build systems of support for each other, and make that support welcoming.

I’m terrified, frankly. What if it fails? What if nobody cares? What if, politically, it’s the wrong thing to do? The way I was able to make myself do this is to say that it’s an experiment, and one that’s not just for me but for the sectors that I work in. Can live artists and poets make a reliable income from the crowd? Can I be part of launching this for my artforms? Can we make art in a different way, and for each other? Can we set up community relationships of artists and art-lovers supporting each other? Is this a way to have a conversation about what’s important about art?

Let’s find out.

My Patreon has launched. You can support me from a buck a month. I have gifts for you, whatever level you support me. If you can’t support me financially, then just send a tweet about my Patreon, or this blogpost, or crowdfunding in general. And even if you don’t like the idea at all, then share this blogpost with your own thoughts about why I’m wrong, because we need to talk more openly about money. I’ll be writing here and elsewhere about money, and about how this new project progresses. I hope you’ll follow along.

photo (c) Guido Mencari, SPILL Festival of Performance 2014

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