1 October 2015

Let’s Kickstart culture


Back in 2007, the Observer ran a remarkably self-aware article asking a very pertinent question: where are all the right-wing playwrights?

It’s an eye-opening read, especially the interviews with people actually involved in the theatre.

Their views range from the candid – that state funding begets a certain ideological bent, and they’re more likely to fund productions that flatter their prejudices – to the shockingly ignorant (there are clearly one or two who heard the question as “Where are the evil plays?”), testament to the bubble some arts types live in.

It reinforced a lesson I first read in Nick Cohen’s excellent What’s Left, published the same year, about how the overwhelmingly anti-Conservative tone of plays, books and TV both in and since the Eighties has had a powerful effect on how Thatcher, her legacy and her successors are perceived by the public.

At once enlightened and irritated, I flipped over to another tab to engage in one of my favourite browsing activities: window shopping in Kickstarter.

Then I had a thought: if the current model for distributing arts funding offers excessive influence to a handful of gatekeepers and privileged recipients… why not apply the crowd-funding model staring me in the face?

For those unfamiliar with Kickstarter, the premise is very simple. People draw up proposals for creative projects, from books and games to shows and works of art, and put them up on the site, along with a pitch video. These proposals include the sum needed to fund the project. Kickstarter users can search using various categories including type, time and geographic location.

Proposers nearly always include a system of rewards designed to encourage people to pledge money. In my experience (overwhelmingly board games, since you ask) this can include anything from freebies and Kickstarter-exclusive content to opportunities to engage with the creator, and even contribute directly to a project or product.

There are often also so-called ‘Stretch Goals’, wherein the creators set out how they can take their project further if it exceeds its initial funding goal by X or Y amount. If a project fails to reach its stated target, it receives none of the money and nothing is taken from those who pledged.

It seems to me that this model could be quite neatly be used to break the power of elite gate-keepers and democratise the arts budget. The mechanism would be almost identical. The Government would establish a Kickstarter-like site (or use a pre-existing one, perhaps), and anyone who wanted funding for an artistic project could draw up a proposal and submit it.

Does your band want to record that studio demo? Want the funds to put together a comedy night? New props for your local theatre? Rent exhibition space to display your paintings? Make your pitch.

The Government could then invite anyone with a National Insurance number to register on this site for an account. On a given (suitably-hyped) day, the Department distributes whatever portion of the arts budget it was prepared to relinquish equally between every registered account.

Obviously, not every project would be funded and not everyone who registered for an account would use it. No problem.

The system could operate in, say, two or three rounds: after the first round, inactive accounts have their funds reclaimed and redistributed amongst the active accounts, and projects that failed to hit a certain percentage of their funding goals are pruned out. This then puts the remaining money in the hands of active users, and confines their options to projects with a realistic prospect of getting funded.

I feel that this system could have several advantages.

First, as mentioned above, it breaks the stranglehold of elite gatekeepers on funding. This is politically astute for the Tories – as those interviewed by the Observer confessed, it’s no coincidence that state-subsidised art has a big state bias and there’s no denying its drip-feed influence.

But it’s also morally right. In a time of recession, spending on things like nights out at gigs and shows is surely one of the first things hard-pressed taxpayers trim from their outgoings – but they’re still paying the tax that subsidises elite cultural outlets and niche political theatre.

This would represent a much fairer compromise: the money is still earmarked for culture, but falls to the citizen to decide what culture they consume (and therefore greatly increases the odds of their consuming it).

Second, it would help to drive popular engagement in the arts both by empowering consumers and by co-opting a huge range of producers.

Normally, Government initiatives are announced on the internet, get a bit of news coverage and maybe a poster campaign.

Yet with this model, suddenly a great mass of bands, theatre groups, artists, authors, comedians and more all have a deep vested interest in spreading the word far and wide. “Remember to register so you can back my project! Only a few days left!”, or variations thereof, would resound across social media.

It would also give whoever introduced it a chance to reach out to a huge new audience. Is it impossible to imagine the Culture Secretary, for example, outlining the plan in an interview with NME, or even PC Gamer?

These producers would also be steered towards producing things like stretch goals and backer rewards which would allow for deeper interaction between producer and consumer than the mere sale of a fixed, finished project by bringing consumers, in one form or other, into the creation process.

This would include the likes of political theatre and the opera, who might need to put their considerable resources towards crafting a really attractive set of rewards to broaden their appeal and sustain their funding.

By offering a clear pathway to potential funds and audiences, it may well also incentivise more people to enter the creative sphere, breaking open what can be quite a narrow and politically homogenous ‘arts world’.

From the consumer side the incentives are also clear. It can be hard to get the public to really engage with the abstraction ‘public money’, but it’s entirely different when you can either sign up and get given your share of the arts budget or have it given to other people.

If the search criteria are as granular as they are on Kickstarter, it will also make it much easier for people to explore creative pursuits either in the area they live or their area of interest.

It may even encourage people to contribute to the Arts budget – it seems quite painless to include an option to allow someone to top up their account, and easy to see why many would if a diverse range of interesting projects and attractive backer rewards were available.

At a time when money is tight, this is a policy that could make a big difference and receive a lot of attention without involving new spending – just an imaginative and empowering approach to spending what we have.

Henry Hill is the Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.