The Failures of Crowdfunding: No, Kickstarter Cannot Support an Opera Company

A $1 million experiment looks likely to fail. 

On Saturday night, the New York City Opera performed Anna Nicole, a musical work making its American premiere. In the words of the New York Times, it was about “yes, that Anna Nicole” — the model and reality TV star who died in 2007.

Anna Nicole was the first production of the company’s season, and it received good reviews. It is also, however, likely the opera company’s final production, ever.

The opera company’s closing is a tragedy by itself — the death of an egalitarian institution in profoundly un-egalitarian times. But for those interested in the culture enabled by and built around the Internet, the company’s story also exemplifies the failures of Kickstarter.

Established 70 years ago by Mayor Fiorella La Guardia as “the people’s opera,” the New York City Opera has struggled financially for the last decade. As the Times has reported in a series of stories this month, since 2008, the City Opera has left its longtime home at Lincoln Center, slashed its performance schedule, and borrowed against its endowment. Its endowment, too, now produces less than $200,000 a year, according to the Times. It used to produce millions.

Early in September, City Opera saw an upcoming financial cliff. $20 million was required, it said, for it to be able to fund itself through the year; $7 million was required for the company to survive September. It turned to private donors for much of that amount, but, to raise $1 million, it opened a Kickstarter.

Which makes a little bit of sense. Kickstarter has cachet among a certain young and affluent demographic, a group that arts organizations struggle to reach. Maybe Kickstarter even makes not-having-enough-money-to-be-stable a little cool. City Opera was bootstrapping it.

Its appeal combined start-up rhetoric with an argument for the public good. “For 70 years,” its Kickstarter read:

The People’s Opera – New York City Opera – has focused on producing unique works, showcasing emerging young artists, and educating the next generation of performing arts lovers.

Throughout its history as The People's Opera, NYC Opera has made opera accessible and affordable. And now NYC Opera needs help to produce its upcoming season.

But can you really raise money for an opera company through a Kickstarter, though?

The answer — at least for this large an amount, in this city — appears to be no. With 12 hours to go, City Opera has raised only $286,440 from its Kickstarter, more than $700,000 short of its goal. The company might even announce bankruptcy proceedings before the goal ends. The Kickstarter failed to attract the major attention that it needed to “be a thing”; the young, solvent donors associated with Kickstarter did not toss sufficient funds at the company.

Will Robin, a critic and musicologist (and a friend of mine), doubted the Kickstarter’s success from the beginning:

He’s right. Massively successful Kickstarter campaigns tend to be two things. Check this list of million-dollar Kickstarters from May, and you’ll see either media projects, in which patrons essentially fund the production of an album or movie in return for a future copy (like they did for the Veronica Mars movie), or gadgetry, which, again, patrons fund to develop in return for an eventual copy. Though Kickstarter’s leaders clarified a year ago that “Kickstarter is not a store”, its most successful projects tend to be, well, a bit quid pro quo.

Those projects also tend to support anyone, anywhere. Kickstarter’s advantage is its geographical distribution; it’s hard to benefit from that variance when you’re an arts organization which benefits one region and municipality in particular.

Kickstarter is large and important. It makes many difficult things easier, and it has brought into the world some projects which wouldn’t have otherwise existed. Perhaps other urban arts groups, seeking smaller sums, find more success with it. But, for a local arts institution, large and important itself, Kickstarter cannot replace — Kickstarter can barely even supplement — local philanthropy, a strong endowment, and an economic environment kind to organizations which seek to be “of the people.”