Crowdfunding a way for artists to stay autonomous

Look to small donors and a larger community for funds

When the state is the largest sponsor of the arts, as is the case in Singapore, it is a double-edged sword for both donor and recipient. Reaching out to larger pools of small donors may be one way for artists to pursue autonomy.

Last month, Sonny Liew made history as the first Singaporean to win top prizes at the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards.

This was followed by an online backlash against the National Arts Council, which in 2015 withdrew a grant meant to fund the publication of the winning graphic novel, The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.

The council cited "sensitive content" which "potentially undermines the authority or legitimacy of the Government and its public institutions". Epigram Books went on to publish the graphic novel anyway.

Liew still benefits in various ways from state patronage. He occupies a subsidised studio at Goodman Arts Centre. His first theatrical production, Becoming Graphic, is part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts this month, which is commissioned by the arts council. So he is supported - just not unconditionally.

This is a situation typical in Singapore, where artists overwhelmingly look to the state for funding and naturally worry about attendant restrictions on their art. Currently, private donations are only a fraction of what the Government spends on arts.

Former Nominated Member of Parliament Calvin Cheng said online last week that the state should not be expected to fund the arts. The authorities should promote donations through the private sector to avoid being placed in an "impossible situation".

The problem with this argument is that governments around the world have a vested interest in funding the arts. Lauded arts companies are symbolic of a country's cultural capital - think the Mariinsky Theatre of Russia or Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company. Artist exchanges are used to promote international goodwill. Musical exchanges between Russia and the United States were signs the Cold War was thawing.

The arts have been and will continue to be used by governments to influence the population towards what are considered to be the best interests of the nation.

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Zhou Long set political announcements to tunes for the radio during the Cultural Revolution in China, before he moved to the US.

In the 1970s, guitar maestro Alex Abisheganaden was asked by Dr Goh Keng Swee, then head of the Ministry of Education, to develop a programme to teach music on television. He told The Straits Times in 2011 that this was to offer a wholesome alternative to young adults "just wasting their time" in Orchard Road and Selegie Road.

Around the world, the arts has been and will be co-opted to suggest or promote ideas in keeping with the biggest patron's purposes and tastes. Much of Shakespeare's writing was produced for his royal patron Queen Elizabeth I, also known as the Virgin Queen. This may explain his many strong female heroines and does explain the compliments paid to a "fair vestal" (virgin) in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The best way to defuse the power dynamic between sponsor and artist, then, is to diffuse it. Crowdfunding platforms such as Indiegogo and Kickstarter make it possible for arts groups to reach out to a larger community of people, who may have only small amounts to give, but are whole-hearted supporters of the artist.

This route makes for a project-based income, which can be unreliable. Or maybe it just requires more planning and a different sort of budgeting mindset.

A survey conducted by the arts council last year noted that only 2 per cent of donors in Singapore had donated to the arts.

The chief reason for not donating was low awareness of the arts. The biggest reason to donate was to support a specific event. Donations were tied to event tickets - the very model crowdfunding operates on.

In Singapore, comedy revue Chestnuts has relied on crowdfunding to put on shows at the Drama Centre Theatre.

Directors Danny Yeo and Li Xie last year raised more than $12,000 on Kickstarter (via fewer than 50 donors) to fund Body X - The Rehearsal, an immersive Mandarin theatre whodunit. The first version of Body X was commissioned for the Singapore Writers Festival in 2014 and was performed in English and Mandarin. Body X - The Rehearsal was created to respond to demand from the directors' Mandarin-speaking followers. The money raised through Kickstarter paid 20 per cent of the creators' costs.

Crowdfunding allows artists to respond directly to demand and to create a sense of community that will hopefully bring donors back to sponsor future projects.

Arts groups already know that forging a personal connection with the audience is the best way to loosen the purse strings. The Esplanade and Singapore Symphony Orchestra have membership programmes where members get to meet the featured artists. Most theatre companies have sponsorship tiers where those who give are entitled to perks from discounted tickets to dinners with the artists.

Moving forward, more artists in Singapore are going to have to turn to this type of funding model if they want to decrease their reliance on the state as major donor. It may take more time for a work to reach completion, but at least it will be funded without pre-conditions.

In the US, producers of the musical Allegiance raised close to US$160,000 over four years to fund the production about internment camps for Japanese in the US during World War II. Key to the success of the fund-raising was the backing of Allegiance actor and Internet personality George Takei.

He played Sulu on Star Trek: The Original Series on television and is a vocal champion of minority rights. Allegiance is based on his own memory of being a child in the internment camps.

He used social media aggressively to court donations for Allegiance. He offered gifts and merchandise to those who donated.

Allegiance was a huge hit and the screening of the live production brought in US$1 million in ticket sales in about 600 theatres, the LA Times reported.

Takei often cites Allegiance to counter anti-immigration and anti-Muslim rhetoric from the current US administration.

This is a good example of how crowdfunding puts the power back with the people. Social media and small donors let artists tell the story they want told.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 01, 2017, with the headline 'Bring in the crowds for the arts'. Print Edition | Subscribe