Friday, 20 June 2014

The Kindness of Strangers - Survey Results

"Encyclopaedia Xenopelagica Plate VII" : Digital painting : Copyright © 2005 by Martin Herbert

Crowd-funding is the modern 'internet-savvy' equivalent of the Amish barn-raising.  It's all about community.  Friends and neighbours rally round and donate their labour to accomplish a big task which the farmer would have no chance of ever completing on his own.  Because there are many hands, not just a few, the seemingly impossible is achieved in just a day or two.  Actually, though - all those willing friends, neighbours and family are not completely working for nothing - they are plied with ice-cold home-made lemonade, fed wholesome food, and talk into the evening around the fire, cementing community bonds which benefit everyone. Most importantly, that community spirit means that the next time a barn needs building, everyone will be there again, knowing that a warm glow of achievement and camaraderie will be theirs as reward.

Crowd-funding has a similar philosophy. Instead of the host trying to accomplish the impossible (typically, raise thousands of pounds for a new enterprise) on their own, or trying to recruit a few people to support them (making significant financial investments, loans or gifts), they prevail upon hundreds of family members, friends, neighbours, acquaintances, business colleagues or philanthropically inclined strangers to  contribute a few pounds each, ideally reaching their target in a short space of time with the help of many. But... where is the lemonade, the hog-roast, and the ice-cream?  Well, nobody (ideally), expects something for nothing. It is down to the host to offer people something engaging, fun, or valuable in return for their contribution.  In the case of tech startups, it's typically a discounted early-access version of the gadget for which they are trying to fund the development or manufacture. Film-makers might offer a signed and numbered copy of their finished DVD, self-publishing writers a dedicated copy of their book, and so on. As an artist, I'll be offering cards of my art, CDs of my music, fine art prints and completely unique original paintings in return for people's investments. At the end of the day, the barn-raisers all go home tired and happy, and hopefully with a renewed sense that with enough people, and the proper community spirit, all things are possible.

"Serenity" : Oils & egg-tempera on canvas : 5" x 5"

Being in the midst of starting a new career as an artist in middle-age, it became apparent that my credibility in the Fine Art world, saleability of my work, and therefore financial independence, would be enhanced by studying at art school. I could, of course, have chosen to do this at the age of 17 instead of 57 - actually, I'm glad I didn't, and sensibly studied sciences and went into computer programming instead. I know that life experience and the artistic knowledge I have absorbed and painstakingly learned along the way are going to make me a better artist, and mean that I really do have a chance of achieving something of artistic significance. Had I gone to college to study art at age 17, I believe I might have made a decent jobbing illustrator - nothing wrong with that, but ultimately I have my eye on the Venice Biennale, not the cover of a paperback. To start to acquire the credibility required to fulfil that sort of ambition, experience is not enough. Study at a recognised art school and a degree show (preferably reviewed and sold out) are also necessary.  So - I have a place to study for an MA in Fine Art starting in September, and a hell of a lot of determination.  I need to raise, by my reckoning, around £6,000 to cover 2 years' part-time tuition fees, materials, books and travel expenses, as I'll be commuting from home while continuing to work at my own art practice and do part-time work to help pay the bills.  I aim to make that £6k by a variety of means - I'm currently working my way through a list of around 50 possibilities including, but not limited to:

Part-time work in arts admin (pending the organisation in question getting the grant they've applied for!)
Freelance website design
Selling my artwork - some old digital print work wholesale to shops, and new paintings via dealers and galleries.
Selling some existing portrait work to the sitters at a reduced price, if they're interested
Making ACEO (Artist Collectible Editions and Originals) trading cards and auctioning them on eBay
Selling personal possessions on eBay
Applying for a career development loan
A credit union loan
Applying for postgraduate bursaries
A pop-up gallery in a closed-down high-street shop
Putting on one or more gigs with the aid of other musician friends
... and - running a crowd-funding campaign.

One thing is certain - I'm NOT expecting crowd-funding to cover the whole of my costs - I believe that is both unrealistic and lazy.

Having settled on as the ideal platform for a campaign, I last month sent out a survey form to around 1,500 people via mailing lists, social media, etc. to gauge attitudes to the idea in general. The results were at once illuminating and disturbing. I have to say, although the numbers were encouraging, I wasn't prepared for some of the comments which respondents added at the end of the form.

There was a total of 51 responses (3.4% - sounds pitifully low to me, but then I've never tried this sort of research before)

Of those who responded:
63% had heard of crowd-funding before and had some idea of how it works.
90% indicated they would be likely to contribute to a campaign raising money towards my tuition fees (yay!)
Of those who were prepared to contribute, most said that a contribution of around £10 - £20 seemed appropriate. To be fair though, I had made it a multiple choice question, and the lowest amount people could select was £10. A couple of people commented that a contribution level of one or two pounds would make them more likely to join in - noted!  The maximum possible contribution anyone selected was £100.

"Design for a Flying Machine to Escape the Bank Manager"
Ink, pencil, gouache & transfer on handmade paper
What was, however, unexpected was just how vitriolic were the comments of some of the remaining 10% who were NOT interested in the concept...

" ...if you are going to study an MA in an arts-related subject and consider yourself an artist already ..., why have you not sold enough work / earning enough income from your work to fund the course yourself ?"

" It would be useful to know why, at the age of 57, you are so short of money.  I don't mind helping anyone who has worked hard all their life and still had a struggle to make ends meet ... but I do object to helping people who are too lazy to get off their back-sides."

" Most of us would love to do some sort of hobby, (And that's what it is, your hobby, no one else will benefit) ... I think to ask for money for this is selfish. Children are going without food/clothes, elderly are going without heating, ALL charities are suffering and you want to spend our money on paint!"

" At 57 you should have enough experience to fund your own course..."

" Too many people trying to get money for themselves these days. i would rather give to a good cause/ charity or to a young person starting off in life doing art ."

It was apparent from these and other comments that there were two things in particular which worried people. The first was that the whole concept of crowd funding was in some way 'begging' - that people who use it are just selfish and are offering nothing to the wider community. In my case, and all cases, it is, of course up to the potential contributor to make their mind up just how valuable a cause is.  To be fair, the survey asked about attitudes to crowd-funding in general, which made that difficult to decide about. My campaign video and profile text goes to great lengths to explain that I'm not at the stage of having randomly decided to change career, but that in the last couple of years I've been short-listed for awards, received support from the Arts Council for my work, exhibited in public galleries, etc, and that the MA is but one step on the way to (hopefully) a career in the arts which will eventually have significant public benefit (as well as enabling me to make a decent living in a geographical area where jobs are more-or-less non-existent, especially if you happen to be over 50). My hope is that sufficient explanation of my motives and goals will win over anyone who distrustfully suspects I'm only in it for their money. Actually, I should point out that although I need around £6,000 in total, the crowd-funding campaign is seeking to raise £2,300 to guarantee I can pay the first year's tuition - at least that means I know I can start the course. The campaign funds are paid directly to the university - I don't get it myself. The rest of the money - well, I basically need to sell a lot of art!

The other big problem that people seemed to have was that I was just too old to be wanting to go to college, and besides, I should have enough savings at my age to pay for it myself without having to resort to strategies like crowd-funding.  Again, hopefully those attitudes are mainly down to lack of information. We all make life decisions - some good and some bad, and one of mine, 15 years ago, was to leave behind a £40k a year job, move to Mid Wales, and follow the dream of becoming an artist. I opened my own gallery, found a print publisher, and via many adventures and misadventures eventually made the move over to being a full-time professional artist. My work was commercial and niche-market in nature, and I made some sort of living for a while, then a couple of years ago it became apparent that things weren't going so well any more. In the 'current economic climate' art is not the first thing people think of buying. Nope - we make considerably less than what the Joseph Rowntree Foundation considers a 'poverty level' wage, we have debts instead of savings - the house is mortgaged as far as it will go, and something constructive has to be done about it. (Or should I just be "too lazy to get off my backside...")?  I made another decision - drop the work and the marketing methods which were no longer making me a living and change to a fine-art focus, admitting that trying to be a salesman is a waste of valuable time, and that I needed to do high-value fine-art work and find dealers and gallerists to do the work of selling for me (and thankfully the response so far has been encouraging). That probably constitutes a 5 year plan - and gaining more market credibility via academic qualification is just part of the process.

My decisions are mine, and nobody owes me a living. That's why I'm looking for help in building an independent financial future, not charity. In return for small contributions, I'll be offering pieces of art (see more at - whether people think that's going to worth 10 times more in a few years when I'm established is their call. Personally, I think it's a worthwhile investment to lend a hand in raising that barn.

(The crowd-funding campaign to help fund my Master's studies starts on the website on Friday 11th July.  If you'd like to know more, please sign up for the newsletter here.)

Update: 6th August 2014 - For several reasons, I've decided to delay running a crowd-funding campaign until after I actually start the course. At the time of writing, I've raised around 25% of the total funds needed for the course, through selling art and services such as website design. If you'd like to donate anyway, you can always do so via PayPal to martin [at], or email me to discuss work for sale, painting commissions etc.


Peter Hughes said...

Martin, I was and remain fully supportive of what you are attempting to achieve. That 90% of respondents were also supportive is great. That 10% of respondents were negative may be what one might expect. I like the fact that you have read their negative evaluation of what you presented and shaped your 'offer' so that it addresses their criticism. Don't forget that a proportion of the people (not euphemistic for 'me') who said that they would support you will also have some doubts, so it is valuable that you are presenting your offer more transparently, and will improve the eventual conversion-rate of potential into actual supporters. It is also worth being aware of the fact that many people in full-time paid employment find it very difficult to understand why someone would want to take a leap of faith and do something different with their life. We are almost eleven months into our relocation from Durham to Kent, and the work-colleagues I left behind when I cut adrift and paddled off continue to do what they have been doing for years (or in many cases decades) and will continue doing so until they retire - they have no intention of jeopardising their security or their pension. So, perhaps if you received negative criticism from only 10% of respondents, you were doing remarkably well. With best wishes,

Kay Rennie said...

Crowd funding in this case should be regarded as arts patronage rather than charity. In days gone by, artists couldn't live without patrons. This is a modern form of the same thing. Good luck with your quest.

Martin Herbert said...

Update: 6th August 2014 - For several reasons, I've decided to delay running a crowd-funding campaign until after I actually start the course. At the time of writing, I've raised around 25% of the total funds needed for the course, through selling art and services such as website design. If you'd like to donate anyway, you can always do so via PayPal to martin [at], or email me to discuss work for sale, painting commissions etc.

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