Blog / 2016 / The Magic of Regular Microdonations to Artists

June 22, 2016

When I talk about regular microdonations, I’m talking about sums of money, large or small, that individuals send to artists on a regular basis. There are a number of sites that make this super easy to do, including Flattr, Tipeee, and Patreon, but Patreon is the one I really get, because I have a profile there.

It works like this:

  1. An artist sets up a Patreon page, choosing to receive money either every time they publish a new artwork or once a month.
  2. The artist promises thank-you gifts for the pledges and invites patrons to follow their career closely by sharing with them on this special platform.
  3. People sign up to give whatever amount they’re comfortable with, knowing that it can be changed at any time.
  4. Patreon charges the patrons, then sends the money to the creative.

And voilà! Patreon is a semi-dependable source of income for an artist, which is nothing short of a miracle.

For me, the decision to ask for regular donations wasn’t easy. What really ate at me was the possibility of rejection and specifically public rejection. What if I asked for financial support and nobody gave it and everybody could see that nobody was giving it?

I know this concern is natural and it’s doubtless something that many artists struggle with, but, in reality, it isn’t even the biggest difficulty with making Patreon work. As long you market your work consistently, you will eventually succeed in connecting with your audience, on whatever platform. The special challenge with Patreon stems from the fact that the whole concept of microdonations for creatives still feels very new and different.

drawing of a heron
Gwenn Seemel
Heron
2015
marker on paper
6 x 6 inches
(Prints and prettey things with this image are in my Redbubble shop.)

Patreon is a modern invention in the sense that the technology to accept these financial gifts only became viable more recently. But the idea of regular communal support for artists is as old as art-making itself. After all, in a world where humans were struggling to hunt and gather with stone tools, you better believe that artists wouldn’t have been creating anything unless their social group supported their efforts.

Things have obviously changed in the last ten thousand years, but the essential facts are still the same. Art is still a necessity for life, just like it was for our ancestors. So why do so many people—both artists and non-artists—insist that it’s a luxury? Why do they say that, if they had to choose between spending money on art and spending it on something practical like food, shelter, or medical care, they would spend it on the practical thing?

The explanation for their “art is a luxury’ belief is actually pretty straightforward:

People are convinced that they don’t really need art to live for the simple fact that they’re getting the art they need without even realizing it.

Mostly, they’re receiving their daily art in the form of television. It’s true! Whatever you may think of the boob tube, it qualifies as art by providing people with storytelling, expression, and connection. Viewers become obsessed with their shows without understanding why they’re so drawn to them. They don’t see that television is fulfilling their basic art need.

Of course not everyone uses TV. Some people bring art into their lives through style, through what they wear or how they decorate their home, and some do it through books. People have different ways of fulfilling their art need, but they all do it every day and they all spend a lot of money to do it, because art really isn’t something we can live without.

So when people say that art spending is frivolous spending, what they actually mean is that art made by independent artists is unnecessarily pricey. The reason they think this is because art made by independent artists is more expensive than the stuff produced by art factories.

Hollywood, the design industry, and large publishing houses can crank out their art more cheaply because their money-making machine is diverse. They don’t just sell products. They auction off their audience’s attention to advertisers, and they partner with each other to cross-promote and make sure that people remain loyal consumers of big brands only. In the end, people may be paying less out-of-pocket for factory-made art, but the cost is enormous.

The belief that art is a luxury is a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of art in our lives. And it doesn’t bode particularly well for independent artists. It’s why we’ve come to the place many artists are at, struggling to make ends meet.

But there is good news! With the help of platforms like Patreon, we can begin to shift things. Artists can begin to make a bit more money and people can begin to support them at a price point that feels more do-able, even if that’s one dollar per month. This, in turn, will begin to unravel the “art is a luxury” ideology.

And regular money flowing towards independent artists isn’t just a good and necessary adjustment of society’s mentality towards art: it’s also making art better. The monthly gift directly from supporters fosters an intense awareness that your art impacts other people’s lives—an awareness that is scary and really pretty raw, but also powerful.

(If you’re looking for some guidance in approaching the fabulous world of Patreon, some of my favorite artists on the platform are Kat Blaque, Shayla Maddox, Zahira Kelly, Erika Rier, Susie Cagle, and Sophie Labelle.)

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