NYC museums turn to Kickstarter to open exhibits, connect with community

After much delay and anticipation, the Jim Henson exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, will finally open on July 22, 2017.
After much delay and anticipation, the Jim Henson exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, will finally open on July 22, 2017. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

It’s not easy being green — and for arts institutions across the city, it can be a challenge finding some, too.

Carl Goodman, the executive director of the Museum of the Moving Image, knows this all too well. The Queens-based museum is opening its permanent Jim Henson exhibit to the general public on Saturday, a showcase featuring sketches, photographs and costumes from the legendary puppeteer’s career, alongside restorations of his iconic Muppets and other creations.

But despite raising millions when the project was announced in 2014, the museum fell short of a few thousand dollars, which opened an opportunity to both close the gap and create a marketing campaign for the exhibition.

So, in April 2017, Goodman turned to the community with a plea: $40,000 to propel the project toward the finish line. The museum enlisted the help of Henson-fanatic Neil Patrick Harris, and set up a page on Kickstarter.

The response was overwhelming: within a couple days, the campaign had reached its goal, and after continuing to fundraise for a month, the museum ended up with more than three times the amount they had hoped for.

Goodman said he sees the value not just in dollar amounts, but in the buzz the campaign created around the city.

“Especially for the arts, the fact that Kickstarter is not just a way to make money but also [to] create relationships with people who support your project is very important,” Goodman said.

But the museum is not unique in this respect. As traditional streams of funding seem to be a little drier than normal, more and more groups are turning to crowdfunding to give them a boost.

The Lowline project, an underground park which has been in the works for years, raised more than $200,000 through Kickstarter. And the Queens Museum recently completed a campaign to get its Never Built New York exhibition off the ground.

“To be able to democratize the funding of a museum project is something we were intrigued by at the time,” said Queens Museum deputy director David Strauss.

He emphasized that this sort of fundraising creates a community around a project that is difficult to cultivate in other ways. And it’s a good entry point for those who feel like their small dollar amounts can’t do much to assist a local institution.

It’s certainly not about to get easier; President Donald Trump’s budget proposes massive cuts to national arts and humanities endowments.

“If President Trump had his way, there would be zero federal support for culture and the arts,” said City Council member Jimmy Van Bramer, who heads the Cultural Affairs, Libraries and International Intergroup Relations Committee.

The city has typically been supportive of these efforts — a few years back, the City Council opened a Kickstarter page aimed solely at highlighting projects the body deemed worthy of funding.

Van Bramer thinks crowdfunding works even better when institutions spearhead their own campaigns, acting as both a means of funding and a platform of advocacy for a project.

But he warns against assuming that the phenomenon of crowdfunding should act as an incentive for government to lessen its contribution to the arts, as the pendulum swinging too far in the direction of the public could be fatal to many smaller institutions.

“I would want to push back on any notion that the private support can and should make up for public support, because I know it’s a place that folks go to,” Van Bramer cautioned.

Crowdfunding isn’t something that every museum has the option to do, either. These types of campaigns are often limited to projects that have a broad appeal to the community, in order to reach as big a pool of possible donors as possible.

But Strass doesn’t see the success of these projects as an indicator that other means of funding such as larger-scale philanthropy are being rendered less vital; the truth is quite the opposite, he said.

“Philanthropy has always been a public-private partnership, and that leverage is important for us,” Strauss said. “If the government says the arts aren’t worth funding, it’s a question of how does that encourage the public to pick that up?”

Both Goodman and Strauss acknowledged that crowdfunding wouldn’t work for every project. There is a good amount of effort that goes into maintaining a campaign, including the back-end work it takes to curate one and entice as many people as possible to toss a few dollars toward it.

“Is this a model for future projects?” Goodman asked. “I don’t know. Every project has to be looked at from the ground up.”

More from around NYC