Microfunding: A little goes a long way
by Amber Landgraff
I first came across FEAST (Funding Emerging Art with Sustainable Practices) when I found one of their dinner menus in the Temporary Services art collective’s free newspaper ART WORK. ART WORK provides a forum for discussing responses to the current economic climate, both theoretical and practical. FEAST makes use of the action of eating a shared meal in order to raise funds for projects that directly affect and are made by members of their community. While FEAST is based in Brooklyn, there are many other examples of microfunding community dinner events that use a similar structure across the US, including versions in Chicago, Portland, and Minneapolis. FEAST’s menu proposes community driven microfunding as an alternative source of support: immediate financial support as well as an on going structure within the community. Part of a growing culture of coming together over a community meal as a way of drawing communities closer together, FEAST uses the modern day pay-what-you-can dinner event as a site for a positive intervention into the economic crisis. Community and art initiatives are funded directly through community interaction and everyone involved decides together how the money they collect will be awarded. The process is completely open and transparent, happening through immediate face-to-face presentations.
Before each event, FEAST collects proposals by artists and community members for projects that are intended as positive community interventions. In order to apply for funding, artists need to be present at the event to pitch their ideas over dinner. After dinner, everyone votes to select the project that they would like to fund. The chosen artist is provided the funds made from the dinner, minus enough money for FEAST to pay itself back and fund the next event. At their most recent dinner Melanie Jelacic proposed Shower Room, a decorative and functional work of art intended for the showers at the Metropolitan Pool. Jelacic described the project’s intended impact on the community: “The Metropolitan Pool is a social center of Williamsburg’s diverse community. It is a remarkably affordable facility available to anyone in the neighbourhood, a rare place where people from all walks of life converge for leisure and exercise. This project will have a widely felt impact on the pool’s 11,000 members not to mention its employees. Tiles will create a clean, colourful and welcoming environment” . For the following dinner, on April 24, Jelacic provided documentation of the finished product, the process of tiling, and a brochure of local tiling resources. Grants typically end up being between $400 –$1000, amounts that are contingent upon the presence and generosity of the community members attending the event. A supportive community (both the presence of the community at the dinner and donations of food from local businesses) becomes integral to the success of FEAST’s granting process: the more people that come out to dinner, the larger the grant amount ultimately ends up being. Since 2009, FEAST has funded 14 projects, and granted over $8500.
Of course FEAST’s model of microfunding is only one possibility. I found a number of other projects by artists, curators, and communities that demonstrate other models. While the structure of the granting process may differ from group to group (some fund discrete, ephemeral, and public projects, others are set up to fund projects that will have a positive impact on their community, and others make use of a larger internet community to find funding) one thing remains consistent across the board: when everyone shares a small amount of the little that they have, it can add up to a lot. These grassroots funding initiatives are interesting because they are predicated on a process of sharing. Rather than providing large sums of money to one artist, these projects offer smaller grants to many. They often involve a community-based collection and decision-making processes that draws a direct relationship between those providing the funding and those receiving it.
Another funding model can be seen in both Josh Greene’s Service Works and Marissa Neave’s Tiny Grants, which offer small grant amounts to fund more discrete projects. Both projects work on the basis of sharing what little money is available to support both artists and non-artists, often funding projects that would not have been eligible for support from larger granting bodies. Greene shares his own earnings in order to fund his grants and Neave makes use of PayPal donations from supporters.
With the creation of Service Works in 2006, Greene began offering small grants to people in order to connect his non-artistic labour to his art practice. While working as a waiter at an upscale restaurant in San Francisco, Greene set aside one night of tips per month, typically about $200, in order to fund a small project. Service Works functions as both an artwork and a funding opportunity, and as such Greene has specific requirements for the chosen projects: they must be accomplished with the amount that he earned that month; they must be completed within the month that the grant was earned; and each completed project is documented on his website along with a short description of his experience at work the day he earned the grant money. In Greene’s case, he was the one who was making the decision as to what projects would be funded, and he specifically chose projects based on things that he liked, or projects that claimed to explore themes similar to those found in his own art: relational and political practice. I particularly enjoyed Helena Keefe’s $256 Project, which put out a call for people to imagine a speech given by George Bush that would make him the president of their dreams, and Kara Hearn’s $231 Project, a series of home made reenactments of Hearn’s favorite movie scenes, which she inserted into a local video shop as bonus disks.
For Greene it is important for the projects to be accomplished with the amount that he can provide from his tips, in order to draw a distinct and direct connection between his labour at the restaurant and the making of the work (the grants that turn out to be larger than the amounts of his tips are often due to unsolicited donations from people supportive of the project). As Greene points out in an interview, “Part of the structure is that these grants are small. So if you apply for a $200 grant, most likely you could probably do your project anyways” . Greene continued Service Works only as long as he could directly connect his labour (the tips made during one night of work) with the grant that was provided. His dissatisfaction with the grants that were made through donations, as well as the projects where the connection between his labour and the funds provided was less distinct, eventually led to him putting the project on an indefinite hold. While Greene may not currently be funding projects, the idea of an artist supporting artists by sharing their earnings can function as a model for anyone interested in exploring microfunding.
Marissa Neave’s more recent Tiny Grants, created as her undergraduate thesis project at the Ontario College of Art and Design, awards small grants to short-term, creative interventions. Her intention with the project was to fund small, ephemeral projects in Toronto’s public spaces — interventions that would encourage public participation and provoke imaginative interactions in the city. In order to be eligible for Tiny Grants, proposed projects needed to be completed for under $300, with the stipulation that the funds could not be applied to funding an aspect of a larger project. Four projects were chosen: Josh Cleminson’s $36.00/hour, Leigh Nunan’s Tiny Snowmans, The Pocketology Collective’s On Site, and Cynthia French’s Monster Pole. Josh Cleminson’s intervention is particularly prescient in a discussion about the cost of art practice, and the value of labour in general. For $36/hour Cleminson worked out how many pennies could be picked up over the course of an hour, and scattered 3600 pennies in downtown Toronto. An industrious person undeterred by the repetitiveness of the task could make $36 for an hours work, highlighting that the compensation for participation ended up being much higher than minimum wage and higher than most workers can actually hope to achieve as an hourly wage. While Tiny Grants is Neave’s first foray into microfunding, the infrastructure exists for the continuation of the project. Neave was able to make use of a wider internet community in order to solicit donations to fund the project, a move that allows for a larger community to draw upon for support.
Kickstarter, an all-or-nothing web-based microfunding project offers another alternative model that also makes use of a larger internet community in order to fund projects. Kickstarter works on the basis that “a good idea, communicated well, can spread fast and wide,” and that “a large group of people can be a tremendous source of money and encouragement.”  Project pages, posted for between one and 90 days, describe the project and what funds will be used for, as well as offering fun incentives in exchange for support (often these incentives include a public “thank you” to all backers). People are able to pledge backing for projects that they would like to support. If at the end of the posting period the project has received 100% (or more) of their proposed grant, the grant is awarded. The benefit of Kickstarter is that a much larger community is accessible to the artist, so larger funding amounts can be achieved. It works on the assumption that interested backers will pass project pages along to their friends, creating buzz about the project, and making it possible for more people to offer their support.
The projects described here are only a few examples of a larger movement — there are endless possibilities for models of community-driven support systems. While these initiatives cannot and should not be expected to replace larger granting systems, they do provide positive alternatives for funding projects, as well as much-needed systems of community support. When nobody has enough money, it can feel disheartening to try to fund an ongoing artistic practice, yet what these microfunding projects demonstrate is that it isn’t necessary to give a lot in order to support fellow artists. Instead, they prove that when people come together, a little goes a long way.
Amber Landgraff has recently come to the end of her MFA in criticism and curatorial practices at the Ontario College of Art and Design. She is planning on starting a local version of FEAST in Toronto.