In the Lead: Art-fully funding projects

Cultural groups find Kickstarter and Indiegogo add different elements to their traditional strategies of fundraising

In running a Kickstarter campaign to crowdfund a cartoon book written entirely in Pittsburghese, Joe Wos did one thing wrong: He lost a bet to a Cleveland-born artist.

Mr. Wos, executive director of Downtown's ToonSeum, turned to Kickstarter to raise funds for "The Three Little Pigsburghers," a book of cartoons inspired by the fable.

But he bet that he could do better on Kickstarter than Scott O'Brien, whose coloring book "Why is Daddy Sad on Sunday?" is based on images of disappointing moments in Cleveland sports history. Mr. Wos brought in 360 percent of his initial $3,000 goal, but the Cleveland book drew $23,965, or 1,198 percent of Mr. O'Brien's $2,000 goal.

"There's a lot of disappointed Cleveland fans," conceded Mr. Wos, who will have to wear a Browns football jersey as punishment.

It was one blip in an otherwise flawless campaign, which concluded April 1 ("I wanted it to end on April Fools' Day").

The cartoonist's success is one example of how crowdfunding is changing the landscape of funding for the arts and culture in Pittsburgh and beyond.

Websites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo have allowed artists, musicians, designers and other creators to bring their projects directly to the public. The platforms have become an increasingly important player in the market of arts funding — and even flattened it.

Brooklyn-based Kickstarter provides funds only to successful campaigns. If a project reaches its goal, the backers' credit cards are charged when the fundraising period ends. Otherwise, no one is charged. Kickstarter takes a 5 percent cut from the total amount raised by successful campaigns.

As of the beginning of April, more than $1 billion has been pledged since Kickstarter launched in 2009, with half of that amount promised in the past year, said spokesman Justin Kazmark. Roughly 90 percent of those pledged dollars go to successfully funded projects. Kickstarter has pocketed almost $45 million.

Forty-four percent of all the website's projects are successful. In Pittsburgh, 49 percent of 715 projects have been funded, with more than $3.3 million pledged overall.

That's small compared to Pittsburgh's deep-pocketed foundation community, of course. The R.K. Mellon Foundation doled out almost $110 million in grants in 2013, the Heinz Endowments distributes $60 million every year, and the Pittsburgh Foundation shelled out almost $30 million in 2012, according to the foundations' websites.

Like the Kickstarter projects, that money didn't all go to arts projects.

The most popular categories for Pittsburgh-based Kickstarter projects were film/video, music and publishing, which matched the country at large. Pittsburgh fundraising is above the average, but it's difficult to compare by region, Mr. Kazmark said.

Mr. Wos attributes the success of his most recent campaign in part to Pittsburgh's strong sense of community, civic pride, and deep tech and creative cultures.

Overall, the most common Kickstarter pledge is $25 and the average is $71. For Mr. Wos's project, 242 backers chipped in an average of $44.62. Rewards for backers included signed copies of the book and the opportunity to be drawn into it.

The democratic nature of such websites adds another avenue to the traditionally vertical arts funding industry, which is largely dominated by middle men such as grantmaking organizations, studios, labels and publishers, Mr. Kazmark noted.

Even established institutions are crowdfunding.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra recently raised roughly $30,000 to help pay for a trip in May to Carnegie Hall in New York.

"I don't know if it's a trend or an emerging trend, but I think what cultural institutions are realizing is that Kickstarter can be part of the mix," Mr. Kazmark said. The online campaigns also allow the organizations to reach new audiences and build community support while allowing backers "to voice the kind of culture they want to see exist."

"It's creating thousands and thousands of individual foundations," Mr. Wos said.

That's not to say the cartoonist has forgone more traditional avenues of funding.

Mr. Wos is receiving $5,000 from oil and gas driller Range Resources to fund a print run of the book and put a copy in every library in Allegheny and Washington counties. Charlie the Tuna will be drawn into the book somewhere, thanks to a $500 contribution from North Shore-based StarKist.

Mr. Wos has launched four Kickstarter campaigns on behalf of the ToonSeum, one of which was successful and supported a new gallery in the museum. He also raised funds on Indiegogo — the site allows projects to receive funding below their target goals — to create the world's largest hand-drawn maze.

The cartoonist has learned a few things along the way.

"You must do a video. This is a visual, visual age," especially since videos provide backers with the confidence in an otherwise nontangible product. Mr. Wos also added updates to the project website, including videos about Pittsburgh English and a cartoon on baseball's Opening Day.

He did plenty of work outside of Kickstarter, too: tapping into social media networks, sending out email blasts and press releases, encouraging friends to share the project, and distributing posters and bookmarks throughout Pittsburgh. Even entering into that lost bet worked in Mr. Wos' favor, since it resulted in added publicity in Cleveland.

With the extra money, he's turning "The Three Little Pigsburghers" into a hardcover book and publishing more copies. "And I'm probably going to throw a party," complete with chipped-chopped ham sandwiches and Iron City beer.

He plans to launch future campaigns to fund a new location for the ToonSeum and possibly another book — this time, "Little Redd Up Riding Hood."

"You don't take the money and run," Mr. Wos said. "It's not about making money. It's about making art."

— Elizabeth Bloom: or 412-263-1750. Twitter: @BloomPG.

First Published May 13, 2014 11:26 AM

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