BY Kyle Chayka in Opinion | 15 SEP 20
Featured in
Issue 214

Kyle Chayka on Patreon and New Artistic Funding Models

Does the crowdfunding platform live up to its promise to ‘change the way art is valued?’

BY Kyle Chayka in Opinion | 15 SEP 20

Anna Haifisch
Specially commissioned illustration by Anna Haifisch, 2020. Courtesy: the artist

The art world has depended on patronage arguably since the first paint was daubed onto cave walls: someone with more power, authority or capital enabled someone with less – the artist – to execute their work. At first, compensation might have been access to the cave; but, over millennia, it evolved into the bestowal of money. The patron perhaps suggests a few themes, foots the bill and gets their name associated with the result. In the 15th century, the patronage of the Medici family helped usher in the Renaissance and sustained the career of Michelangelo. In the 21st century, advance funding from collectors like Bill Bell brought us Jeff Koons’s Play-Doh (1994–2014) sculpture – not yet an icon of civilization, but still worth showing at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. 

Patronage is also what the crowdfunding platform Patreon offers in its very name. The technology start-up was launched in 2013 by developer Sam Yam and musician Jack Conte, of the band Pomplamoose, who wanted a better way to monetize the viral videos he was publishing on YouTube. Conte figured that some portion of his core fans would support him financially, so he became Patreon’s first account. Through the platform, viewers, readers or listeners are not just followers of a creative voice, as on Twitter or Instagram, but patrons who pledge a certain amount of money based on either the volume of new content published or a monthly charge. In return, patrons receive ‘rewards’, which can range from paywalled blog posts to souvenir tote bags. 

Patreon processed more than US$500 million in pledge payments in 2019. Its business model, like that of other crowdfunding companies, is to take a percentage of the pledges as a middleman between fan and creator. Its users are writers, artists, musicians, vloggers and podcasters. The pop star Amanda Palmer has more than 14,900 patrons, while the infamous leftist podcast Chapo Trap House has 34,700, netting its creators at least US$155,000 per month. The most prominent artists on the platform tend toward the commercial – illustrators, comic artists and video-based painting instructors – but the artist Brad Troemel offers reportage and studio visits to his 1,900 patrons. With pledges ranging from US$5 to US$50 a month, Troemel’s Patreon alone provides a comfortable living by any standard. (Users can choose to hide the monetary total of their pledges.) 

Artists whose practices emerged on the internet have taken to the platform more readily. In November 2018, Artie Vierkant launched a podcast called Death Panel on Patreon, with Beatrice Adler-Bolton, Vince Patti and Phil Rocco. The project covers healthcare and public policy from a left-wing perspective, but Vierkant sees it as contiguous with his artistic practice of abstract digital ‘image-objects’ made physical. Patreon’s model gave Death Panel ‘by far the greatest degree of autonomy’, Vierkant told me. ‘In many parts of the art world, that’s not even something you can find.’ 

Patreon’s software isn’t particularly unique – a paywalled blog with integrated email newsletters – but its language of ‘creators’, ‘patrons’ and ‘pledges’ bestows a certain gravitas on the act of paying for something on the internet, which is helpful when so much content is already available for free. Patrons are not just consumers but supporters who feel they are participating in the creative process. This vocabulary is adopted from cultural philanthropy, which at the highest levels allows elites to launder their reputations or their capital through the arts. Patreon extends that sense of privileged charity to a wider audience – in spirit, if not in letter.

Artists tend to commodify their practices by joining Patreon, according to Kelani Nichole, the founder of Transfer Gallery in New York, which specializes in digital art. It essentially demands that art be turned into product, since Patreon only makes money when its creators do. ‘It’s surveillance capitalism,’ Nichole told me. Patreon isn’t a large-scale alternative to the collector-driven model of art-making so much as an ancillary content feeder. A decentralized form of capitalism is still capitalist, especially when it’s wrapped up in a venture-funded tech company. ‘You’re asking for money from your community; there’s no redistribution of wealth happening,’ Nichole said. ‘It doesn’t feel like a way to get new money into the ecosystem.’

An artist might conceptualize a Patreon reward as a fragment of their practice – a print or open digital edition. But, for other parts of the art world, it’s harder to make the system work. Magda Sawon, the founder of Postmasters, launched a Patreon for her gallery in 2018. The experiment generated headlines, but the project has only resulted in 40 patrons. The incentives don’t work for the exhibition of art in the same way as for its creation. ‘Everything I would deliver as a reward on the site would be completely peripheral to what I do,’ Sawon said. ‘I deliver content through the gallery, not through the website.’ 

Until recently, I was also a Patreon client, using it to manage a writer collective. In my experience, the platform can be as capricious as a shady dealer. Over time, it raised the commission it takes from pledges to as high as 12 percent, without doing much to update its core product. The data it reports are also unreliable; the snapshots of gains, losses or new users aren’t necessarily accurate in real time, as Patreon staff informed me. It’s harder to depend on income from patrons when you don’t know how much you can expect to get at the end of the month. By turning creative practice into a hustle like any other, Patreon places itself firmly in the context of exploitative gig-economy labour in which too much power and value is absorbed by the proprietor of the platform instead of the value creator. Ultimately, the company dictates how creators can use its platform, which makes it difficult for artists trying to challenge legal or social norms. Patreon has already suspended or banned sex workers and other creators of explicit content. 

OnlyFans and its many replicas echo Patreon’s subscription model: users pay in order to access products ranging from pornographic photographs to instructional fitness videos. Success on these platforms depends on the extent to which an artist or performer’s work adapts to a paywall; it’s easier to offer free teaser clips to draw in new subscribers than to preview an oil painting. GoFundMe, on the other hand, has emerged as a home for requests without a productized end goal in mind. Beyond attempts to compensate for the anaemic US healthcare system, it now hosts many campaigns to support marginalized voices, particularly spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement. At its best, crowdfunding connects the creation of art back to the logistics and economics of living for the artist, rather than hiding it all behind the pristine facade of a gallery. 

Internet patronage does have one major advantage over the earlier model of elite favour. Though the monetary pledges are smaller, the number of patrons is much larger, so each pulls far less weight when it comes to dictating art’s subject matter or giving feedback. It seems the founding editor of Wired, Kevin Kelly, was right when he claimed, in a 2008 essay, that you only need 1,000 true fans, each pledging you an annual US$100, to thrive as a creator. Plus, while you couldn’t afford to offend the Medicis, you can always lose a few followers if they don’t like your latest direction. The system can afford visual artists, podcasters and writers some more freedom over their work, at least until they run up against the demands of the ultimate patron: Patreon itself.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 214 with the headline ‘Many More Medicis’.

Kyle Chayka is the author of The Longing for Less, a book on minimalism in art and life, which will be published by Bloomsbury in January 2020.