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Supporting the Arts with a New Patronage

About a month ago I got an email from an old friend and ended up posting my response here as an excellent summary of my plans for the Consortium. You might remember that.

He wrote back right away to ask me for some more details, and it has taken me a month to answer. But once again I’ve impressed myself with my own eloquence, and I wanted to share with you some of the gritty little details I’m taking for granted when I say I’m aiming to “establish a new patronage.”

Here’s the question I was answering:

I’m a fan of the notion of patronage. I see it as an idea whose time has come around again. Do you see a Kickstarter/Indiegogo model where people can “fund” an artist for a given period or a more general non-profit structure that pools donations and “employs” artists?

The answer is the latter. We’re already registered as a non-profit, and we’re within a couple months of really starting to build up our pool. One of the issues I kept running into when I started on this idea was the problem of blockbusters and bestsellers–the record labels signing two dozen bands in the hopes one will pay out (and cover the investment across all the losers).

That works out fine for the labels, but it sucks for the losers. They’re left with a punishing contract, the guilt of an unearned advance, and the realization they’ll probably never see another penny from all future sales of that album. It’s exactly the same way for writers, and that’s all because the funding of art has been through risk-based investment.

Funding the Production (Not Investing in a Product)

I fix half of that problem by going non-profit. It’s not an investment, it’s a public service. But that’s still going to leave the emotional (and value) judgments of winners and losers. To some extent, that’ll always be true, but I don’t want the fickle randomness of the marketplace to determine (and limit) the viability of our projects.

So we’re funding the company through an endowment. That makes startup costs a lot harder (I have to generate sixty bucks for every dollar I want to spend), but it’s a difficulty directly measurable in dollar value, and there are an awful lot of dollars out there to be got. On the other hand, working off an endowment makes the art a whole lot easier to make.

With a million dollars in the bank (speaking in very rough estimates), I could hire a journeyman artist full-time at $50,000. His salary’s coming entirely off spendable interest, which means all the work he does is already funded. By the time he finishes a painting, or a novel, or a radio single, it’s already completely paid for. It was paid for when the money went into the endowment.

His only commercial obligation is to keep making new art (and to keep improving in his craft); there’s no extra (personal financial) incentive to make a product that will turn a quick profit, or to release something before it’s ready–to pander or to spend his time making things that are profitable instead of making the things that make money.

Of course, there’s some merit to having to produce work into a competitive marketplace. It drives people to grow and improve, and that’s critical for any artist. I’m just not convinced the free market provides very good direction for the growth of an artist. Instead, we’re building our company around progression and mastery.

Mastering Your Craft

That’s the other half of the Renaissance model we’re borrowing: apprenticeship. Our employees will apply for admission to one (or more) of our Schools of Art, so a new Creative Writing grad joining the Consortium might come on as an Apprentice in the School of Writing. She’d have a Journeyman as her mentor, and it would be part of the Journeyman’s job (along with producing work and improving his craft) to train up the Apprentice.

And, likewise, every Journeyman will be studying under a Master. I’d like to pay something on the order of

  • $20,000-$40,000 a year for Apprentices
  • $40,000-$60,000 a year for Journeymen
  • $60,000-$120,000 a year for Masters

For my organization, I’d love to have six or seven Schools (Writing, Painting, Photography, Programming, Film, Performance, Music…), with three to seven Masters per school, three to seven Journeymen per Master, and three to seven Apprentices per Journeyman.

That is, of course, extremely long-range thinking. I’d also love to see the Consortium concept take off. I considered franchising it, but I’m thinking I’ll just evangelize it instead. I want there to be a Consortium Austin, and a Consortium San Francisco, and a Consortium Brooklyn.

And I love the idea of every one working under its own structure. Some will use strict patronage (no direct percent of sales royalties go back to the artist), some will use a mix, some will just be meeting-places for artists looking for traditional work.

For now, we’ve got two Schools (Writing and Fine Arts), and about two dozen artists. Probably half are Masters and half are getting there. For now we’re all working for free, but I think I might have enough reliable income to go full-time sometime late next year, and after that I think really exciting things will start to happen quickly.

KickStarter and Other Fundraising

In the meantime, I’m strategizing and building brands. And partly thanks to that first email, I even checked out KickStarter again. My Director of Marketing has been big on KickStarter for a long time now, so I worked with him and we decided to start putting up campaigns for all our book launches (there should be one a month next year). Once we get the hang of it, we’ll start expanding it out to Fine Arts projects, too.

I’m also in a pretty good position to pursue arts grants, thanks to my years of Tech Writer experience. And since we are focusing on the localized Consortium (ours being Consortium OKC), I think there’s a pretty good chance we could get some support from local government and businesses, once we’ve established some credibility.

But ultimately, I’d much rather fund our company through proceeds from our products than through direct fundraising (because you have to spend so much time asking for money instead of spending it on your mission). That said, we have some pretty huge ambitions and if the commercial angle doesn’t cut it, KickStarter could be a very cool way to fill in the gaps.

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