What if we fund artists the way we fund startups?

Margaret Atwood has a new novel coming out in 2114. You read that correctly: the bestselling author of The Handmaid’s Tale will publish her last book Scribbler Moon long after we are dead. We won’t get to read it, our kids won’t get to read it, but maybe their kids will—and that’s kind of the point.

The book will be published as part of Katie Paterson’s Future Library—a collection of 100 books written between 2014 to 2114 and held in a trust until the library’s opening date, one century after a forest was planted in Norway that will be harvested and milled into the pages of those books. 

Paterson’s library is a meditation on time—illustrating the slow process that is growing a tree until it is mature enough to be harvested and milled into the pages of the books we read. The process can’t be rushed, trees grow slowly. Books take a long time to write, too. For something really beautiful to happen, it takes time. And it’s worth the wait.

To place the long arc of time into perspective, The Long Now Foundation aims to build a 10,000-year mechanical clock, perched upon a mountain in Nevada. The designer Danny Hillis says the century hand will advance every 100 years and a cuckoo will emerge at the millennium. In other words, we might be able to see the clock move once in our lifetimes—and most likely we will never see the cuckoo. 

These artists are building masterpieces that will outlive them—that will be enjoyed by the generations to come. But creating art that takes time—in some cases centuries—requires money. And funding something with such a long-term return just isn’t as desirable to investors as a startup that might go public in five years.

The patronage model funded masterpieces

There is a scene in The French Dispatch (highly recommend to all writers—it’s my favorite movie of all time) in which the wealthy financier Julian Cadazio decides to invest in the murderous and imprisoned artist Moses Rosenthaler. The investor spends three years drumming up interest to the point that, when the installation is finally debuted, it is indeed the talk of the whole town.

This is a great example of how the art world functioned for much of antiquity, though particularly during The Renaissance. Being the patron of some new, yet discovered artist and then catapulting them into fame and fortune (while quadrupling their own investment) was how the rich jockeyed for position and influence. As one Medieval scholar put it, “Those super-rich citizens of cities like Florence, Venice, and Rome could show how sophisticated (and rich) they were by funding artists and poets.” 

And artists benefited from that competitive jockeying. Through commissions and patronage from wealthy individuals (like Ludovico Sforza who funded Da Vinci and The Last Supper) and entities (like Pope Julius II who commissioned the Sistine Chapel or patrons of the Florence Cathedral who commissioned the David), artists were able to earn a living from their craft and spend years creating their masterpieces. Leonardo da Vinci spent three years on the Mona Lisa, another three on The Last Supper. Michelangelo spent four years painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, three years sculpting the David.

They also were able to spend decades refining their craft. There’s no doubt that someone who can afford to practice their art full-time (say 40-hours a week) will master it much more quickly than someone who can only afford to practice their art as a side project (say 5-10 hours a week)—that is the whole concept behind Outliers. According to the book, it takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery at something. If I spend five hours a week at my craft, I’ll achieve mastery in 38 years. If I spend 40 hours a week at my craft, I’ll achieve mastery in five. 

In other words: the only difference between me creating a masterpiece in five years or 40 is money—whether or not I can earn a full-time living doing it and can thus afford to write 40 hours a week instead of five or 10. And today, that is a very difficult thing to do

In the years following The Renaissance, we turned to different signals of wealth: owning fancy homes, cars, clothing. Being a founder or entrepreneur or angel investor. Having enough wealth to build a rocket and go to the moon—or Mars. Having enough Twitter followers to influence the stock market with a single tweet. The rich still jockey for position, but with technology instead of art, and that has significantly benefited the automotive, aerospace, and tech industries.

But we no longer pay someone a salary to paint a ceiling for four years. Instead, we hire a muralist who can stencil it and put it up in one day. 

The creator economy funds constant creation

There’s a move now to bring the patronage model back. Dubbed “the creator economy” the idea is that instead of getting one patron to spend $100,000, the artist gets 1,000 patrons to spend $100, thus funding an artist's salary for a year so they can create art. I’m experimenting with this idea right here in my newsletter, hoping I can earn a living writing with just 1,000 patrons willing to support my work. (By the way, my annual subscriptions are 20% off during the month of January if you’re interested in supporting my work as a writer.)

But I also worry that changing how we fund art has changed how we make it. One wealthy individual spending $100,000 might have no qualms as to the deadline because ultimately they want to be the owner of a masterpiece. They want to hang the Picasso on their wall when it’s done or have a first-edition leather-bound version of the book when it’s complete. And those works better be an artists’ chef-d'œuvre!

By contrast, one person spending $5 a month, say to subscribe to this newsletter, is constantly bartering with their money. They might think: for $5/month, I don’t think getting two articles is enough. For a reader to “get their money’s worth” I have to keep churning out content week after week without end. And if I want to take a month off, I have to be ready for everyone to stop paying their $5 for a month—as the Patreon writers Shirtaloon and Zogarth both found.

But it takes me a lot of time to write two articles. Believe it or not, even this article was very time-consuming to write. I’ve spent probably 15 hours wrestling with it over the past month or so—and it did not even come close to reaching my standards for a well-researched piece (I’m missing a lot of quotes from people who could have contributed to this conversation in a meaningful way, and I would have loved to deep dive into Da Vinci and Michaelangelo’s finances for a bit, as well as several modern case studies).

The only reason I published this article in its unfinished state is, as I’ve learned through Substack’s fellowship program, the better (and more lucrative) strategy is to come out with shorter, less research-intensive stories that I can put out every week, rather than one long, research-intensive story every month. It makes sense: In this model, paid readers get more value for their money and unpaid readers have more opportunities to become paid readers.

(To my earlier point, it’s worth mentioning that if I were writing this newsletter as a full-time job as opposed to a side project, I would have the time I need to put out more research-intensive stories more often. Even at 30 hours per story, I could put out one each week! Definitely not the case while it is a side project with only 5-10 hours to devote to it each week, and without enough income to quit my job and devote more time to it. It’s a very chicken-and-egg scenario.)

But if the creator economy is good at funding short-term bursts of art—it doesn’t exactly fund long-term masterpieces. I spent three years writing the novel that is now serializing via my newsletter, my next book might take three years more. And because our current publishing model only rewards an author once their book is done, the author has to keep up a relentless pace to even remotely earn a living doing it. “In order to fully harness [Kindle Direct Publishing’s] promotional algorithms,” Mark McGurl once said in an article for The New Yorker, “an author must publish a new novel every three months.” 

That kind of funding model doesn’t lead to masterpieces, it leads to burnout. 

Angel investments could fund the next Renaissance

But I have a hypothesis: What if we get the wealthy in on the creator economy—essentially marrying the old world patronage model (which funded longer-term projects) with the new school creator economy model (which funds shorter-term projects). 

What if an artist’s salary is made up of: 1) a few large investments from angel investors that cover the rent and keep the lights on so the artist can focus on making art 40 hours a week, and also, 2) smaller investments from fans that provide living expenses and the exponential opportunity to increase their income (new school creator economy style)?

The Bucket List family is a good example of how this could work in practice. Garrett and Jessica Gee amassed 2.6 million followers as @thebucketlistfamily on Instagram and 1.32 million followers on YouTube, and when they pitched their idea for an animated series to Netflix and Disney they received a $10 million offer―but they turned it down. The couple knew they would bring more to the table (like a built-in audience) than any network would be able to provide them―so they opted for a hybrid model. 

The Gees raised a $7 million round from VCs and accredited angel investors, then crowdfunded the remaining $3 million from 30,000 fans who contributed $100 each using Republic―a funding platform similar to Kickstarter but where supporters are making investments instead of donations. The wealthy funded the project, the fans supported it, and in one fell swoop the project was fully funded and a subset of the couple’s YouTube and Instagram followers became seed-round angel investors. 

I think this hybrid model could be a more sustainable way to fund art. With the rich getting involved because they want to invest, and the fans getting involved because they want to support—and with this sudden influx of capital into the arts, we could fund a new Renaissance—with artists able to devote themselves to their craft, and finally have the time to create the next great book, sculpture, screenplay, theater production, masterpiece. 

Here’s my pitch: We create an angel investment fund that will directly fund artists, providing a minimum salary so that they can quit their day jobs and create art, but with the caveat that those artists also have to also produce a salary on their own using creator economy principals. The investors will earn a share of those profits depending on what percentage they own of the artist’s art.

Just like in the startup world: an author (or painter or musician or screenwriter or opera composer, etc.) would pitch what they want to create, how long it will take to create it, and how they plan to grow their audience and earn money doing it. The artist would then retain a certain amount of equity in the project, and the investment fund would own the other amount of equity (depending on the size of the investment).

But this article is not done. I’m going to be more thoroughly researching this idea in the months to come, making a few Republic investments to see how it works, reading The Minimalist Entrepreneur by Sahil Lavingia who is doing something similar, interviewing influential people and angel investors who are already investing in the arts, and researching existing case studies (Substack’s Pro program which advances writers a $100,000 salary, TikTok collab houses which provide free room and board and earn a percentage of occupant’s incomes, etc.) so that I can start fleshing out this idea in greater detail.

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