Art making has always required resources, as a materialistic medium, and today access to materials almost always requires funding. For centuries, artists have found ways to get cash, coming up with a variety of solutions. Historically, Patrons were one way in which an artist was able to gain enough money to create their own work. The kings, popes, and the wealthy were who the artist served.—As German Objectivist painter Max Beckmann wrote in his sardonic The Social Stance of the Artist (1927), “A reverence of critical authority must dominate [the artist’s] life. He must strictly adhere to his subservient standing, and never forget that art is merely an object the purpose of which is to facilitate the critics realization of his critical potential.”
Today there are more options. One option is Patreon, an open crowdfunding website that seeks to pay users a monthly salary while taking 2.9% + 0.35 of a crowdfunded amount. (Though recently and controversially, the user can opt to wait a full month before having to pay the artist, allowing them to essentially get an optional 30 day “free trial” to the artists work). The objective is to foster the growth of independents looking to experiment with their practice. Yet Patreon is a complex ecosystem in which jokes, admiration, and commodities are exchanged for money. The majority of users engage with their patrons an impressive amount: some offer their sketchbooks to patrons that donate more than $10, in-progress work, pictures of their daily life/ personal information about them, and access to private videos, chats, and a variety of other offerings.
The truth is that this logically creates several by-products. The artist creates a cult of personality for themselves, requiring them to be charming and personable, yet interesting enough to warrant fans wanting to know about their personal lives, or talk with them one on one. And as I’ve described, that’s an incentive to donate a certain amount of cash—access to locked content, hidden streams, and one on one conversations with the artist (omg). To succeed on the platform, artists have to become small scale internet celebrities.
Of course, Patreon is nothing but another revenue stream. It isn’t social assistance by any stretch of the imagination, but a business venture seeking to tap into the large quantity of unemployed/underpaid/unpaid artists across the world. It is not a safety net in the slightest, nor should it be treated as such. The case of the person unable to afford insulin after falling $50 short of his $750 GoFundMe campaign is one example of the issues with treating crowdfunding as a safety net. While medical programs fall short, programs like the National Endowment for the Arts are planned to be cut by the Trump administration. It’s in the interest of artists to be proactive, and while there a wide variety of grants to be accessed by artists, not many can cover all the expenses. One grant that actually does this is the Artist Opportunity Grant, that seeks to let artists “improve your work, pay for childcare while you acquire those skills, document your work, ship your work, buy a plane ticket, pay for a residency and lesson fees, and other expenses that other grant programs do not cover.” Crowdfunded sites don’t have as many restrictions as the traditional grant association- instead, crowdfunded sites are populist driven—it conflates asking people for money with the ease of a craigslist post (in a much more shiny, technical, and regulated way, as in Patreon’s new anti-porn rules). Rather than ask people in person, especially people you’ve never met, you can accelerate the process and make potential patrons in a more comfortable manner by dividing a screen between the two of you, beginning with depersonalization and ending with the potential for access to a new virtual friend, devoted and in love with you for donating money to them.
Though this commodification of friendliness is usually self-aware for Patreon users, it can quickly not be, and it has resulted in a friendliness economy, where the most friendly and personable people propel their way to the top of Patreon, meaning they get front page views. In addition, it is difficult to find new users without already knowing their names, as the website requires you to search by username. Though you can opt to donate very small amounts, even less than a dollar is allowed and, Patreon is thus not a platform for people without portfolios or fans. Users must be somewhat established or accessible. All in all, it rewards those who are at an intermediate stage in their artistic career, who have already created enough content to be searchable and appreciated for a while. The most successful Patreons were creating hours upon hours of content before becoming users. Thus, a game is introduced—- how much scrounging can I do to utilize the most of my funds to create interesting content, interesting enough to entice people with the prospects of having a higher budget and at that point create a Patreon to give them access?
The extension that this applies to fine art is tenuous—a gallery artist would not have time to inform their gallery attendees of their Patreon and expect them to donate to it. I would think that most gallery goers are there with the intention to view the art or buy it, and because of the insular culture of the gallery scene, I have reservations about if people would willingly participate in this kind of interaction with the artist online. Patreon really taps into the creation of small scale celebrities online, which is a different beast from artists in the gallery. The artist in the gallery is much more concerned with presenting themselves to intellectuals, rather than to a more niche and informal audience that can come with the internet.
Interestingly, with the internet, an interesting thing emerges—the possibility of anonymity. The artist can have an internet self, able to create content designed for digital users, with each user contributing an indubitably small amount, and a gallery self, making content that can be bought at high prices by elites—and have neither group know the other exists. This allows the artist to have multiple revenue streams, perhaps even not needing to take the ubiquitous day-job to support their practice. I believe the path to independence for the artist is in the internet—however, it should not be forgotten that we trade one master for another. Patreon recently (and by this I mean today) announced a $0.35 charge for every donation + 2.9% of every donation. This would destroy individuals that have most patrons paying a dollar, giving them $0.63 instead of the $.90 old patreon guaranteed. And it would reward users who have more people giving larger donations, giving them for $10: $9.27 instead of $9. This further supports the hypothesis that the only people that Patreon believes should succeed on their platform are those who have the greatest cult of fans willing to donate the most money.