Follow the Money
Let's just say it: crowdfunding kicks ass. According to my research, funding for photography, at least for individual photographers, over the last five years has been completely dominated by Kickstarter, which brought in at least $17.4 million in funding for photo books, gear, and projects. When you add in the money raised through Indiegogo and other platforms, crowdfunding support for photographers is almost 10 times that of the next highest funder of individuals, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. That's a really impressive accomplishment for a group of institutions that didn't even exist eight years ago.
What does this say about the state of funding for photography? First, it shows that there's a very dynamic array of individuals who, in spite of or perhaps because of having their own cameras in their pockets almost all the time, really like looking at and being involved with photography. As I recently noted, Kickstarter alone recorded 160,000 people who supported one or more photography campaigns during these same five years. By any standards, that a giant audience that wasn't able to be reached before crowdfunding came along.
Second, it means that there are now more opportunities than ever for photographers to find funding for their work. Right now Kickstarter and Indiegogo are at the top of a growing inventory of crowdfunding sites, but there are new startups almost every week. The competition is already brisk, and it's only going to get tighter as new companies and organizations try to claim their share of the market. With the coming blitz of equity crowdfunding, crowdfinancing, and other forms of alternative fundraising, the crowdfunding stage will continue to get more clamorous, and, ultimately, it will provide even more ways to fund a photobook, exhibition, or photo project.
“Crowdfunding doesn't just provide a way to raise money–it's the all-in-one multiplier that photographers have long needed.”
Finally, crowdfunding doesn't just provide a way to raise money–it's the all-in-one multiplier that photographers have long needed. Until recently photographers have been limited to applying to foundations, arts councils, and various government entities for funding. While this has been better than no support at all, unless someone won the funding lottery by getting a MacArthur Fellowship the funding was often long in coming and quick in going. And when it was gone, it was time to start all over again.
With crowdfunding, however, photographers can build and expand upon a base of followers who have already shown an interest in investing in their work. Smart crowdfunders know how to engage that audience and keep them hooked throughout the course of their project. The photographer not only gets the initial money, they get a database of responsive people who might want buy some of their work, take a workshop or training course from them, and, ideally, invest in their next campaign. That kind of multiplex opportunity didn't exist just a short while ago.
So who else in in the mix of the biggest photography funders? Between Kickstarter and Guggenheim are three big foundations that very generously support photography, but they each do so in their own way. I've previously written about the magnanimous Hall Family Foundation of Kansas City and their generosity to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in their city. The sheer size of their financial support alone is enough to hold them in awe, but the Hall Family rises above all other photography funders for their long-term vision and commitment to the art. However, all of their funding for photography goes to the Nelson-Atkins, period. As a result, the museum's Photography Department is one of the best in the world, and for those fortunate enough to travel to Kansas City their collection, on-going exhibitions, and curatorial staff are true treasures.
The Lisa and John Pritzker Family Fund are relatively new kids on the block, and like the Hall Family Fund they have a highly concentrated focus. For the past five years almost all of their funding for photography has gone to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), specifically to the recently opened Pritzker Center for Photography. John Pritzker, who is also on the Board of Trustees at SFMOMA, has repeatedly been named one of the most influential photography collectors by Art News, and he brings both a connoisseur's eye and a financier's mind to the world of photography funding.
The fourth biggest funder, the Terra Foundation for American Art in Chicago, focuses primarily on support for museums. Over the past few years the foundation has substantially stepped up its support for photography with multi-hundred thousand dollars gifts to support exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Morgan Library and Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, and other major institutions. As the audiences at major photography shows have become larger and more sophisticated, the Terra Foundation's increasing support is a welcome endeavor that ultimately benefits us all.
This brings us to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation ("Guggenheim" for short), which is both one of the oldest and one of the most prestigious funders of individual photographers. It was their very first grant for photography, to Edward Weston in 1937, that inspired the name of this website, and since then they have been a rock-steady source of funding for both image makers and scholars of photography. Their fellowships usually range between $20,000 and $40,000, but perhaps more important is the prominence imparted by winning one of their fellowships. For decades the greatest indication of a photographer being a real artist would be to read "Guggenheim Fellowship" on their résumé. It's still a great accolade today, and the board and staff at the foundation deserve a lot of credit for their longstanding support of the art and craft of photography.
Four other funders were among those whose five-year total support for photography eclipsed $1 million, and all of this funding went to large organizations like the International Center of Photography, the George Eastman Museum, and the Carnegie Institute Museum of Art. There are a dozen or so funders that have also been regularly supporting photography with very important grants, and that list includes the Alexia Foundation, Aaron Siskind Foundation, Annenberg Foundation, W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund, Open Society Institute, Honickman Foundation, McKnight Foundation, New York Foundation for the Arts, Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and the Heinz Endowments, among others.
It's important to recognize that any list like this is taken from a snapshot at a given moment in time, and all the amounts, organizations and foundations continually change. I believe the amounts I've tallied for this analysis represent the minimum investments made by these funders during this period, and in some cases the total contributions may be more than what I've listed due to slight differences in the dates when I collected specific data.
Note: Two of the long-time funders of individual photographers, the Magnum Cultural Foundation and the National Geographic Society, are missing from the data I analyzed to write this article. That's because both organizations refuse to make public the amounts of their grants. This is a frustrating and ultimately short-sighted approach at a time when there is a growing call for increased transparency among grantmakers. It's likely that neither of these organizations would have made it into the list of top funders, but it's discouraging that these two big guns of photography are among the least forthcoming about how they spend their money.