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Sharpe didn't specifically mention Kickstarter, but the company — and its reach — runs just below the surface of nearly every conversation about the Bay Area arts economy these days. The self-described "world's largest funding platform for creative projects" has, in its three-year existence, raised more than half a billion dollars for more than 90,000 projects and is getting more popular by the day; at this point, it metes out roughly twice as much money as the National Endowment for the Arts. And though hard statistics are difficult to come by, it's clear that this is a funding model that's taken particular hold in the tech world, even over traditional mechanisms of philanthropy. "Arts patronage is definitely very low," one tech employee said. "But it's like, Kicktstarters? Oh, off the map." Which makes sense — Kickstarter is entirely in and of the web, and possibly for that reason, it tends to attract people who are interested in starting and funding projects that are oriented toward DIY and nerd culture. But it represents a tectonic shift in the way we — and more specifically, the local elite, the people with means — relate to art.
"A lot of this is about the difference between consuming culture and supporting culture," a startup-world refugee told me a few weeks ago: If Old Money is investing in season tickets to the symphony and writing checks to the Legion of Honor, New Money is buying ultra-limited-edition indie-rock LPs and contributing to art projects on IndieGoGo in exchange for early prints. And if the old conception of art and philanthropy was about, essentially, building a civilization — about funding institutions without expecting anything in return, simply because they present an inherent, sometimes ineffable, sometimes free market-defying value to society, present and future, because they help us understand ourselves and our world in a way that can occasionally transcend popular opinion— the new one is, for better or for worse, about voting with your dollars.
Kickstarter is, after all, an essentially consumerist-oriented form of charity, one that rewards entrepreneurship and free-market values: Don't donate, invest. Don't give someone a fish, don't even teach him how to fish — take a look at his fishery's business plan, decide if you'd like to support it based on a video and some short copy, and then make a one-time payment of whatever amount you'd like, most likely in exchange for some kind of concrete reward. It's not even, really, philanthropy at all, but it's increasingly being considered as such. Kickstarter and sites like it have been praised for democratizing entrepreneurship — which they have, in large part, and which is a good thing — but they're not necessarily a direct analogue to the old-school-style charity they appear, in part, to be replacing.
"Kickstarter is fun," said Medak. "Kickstarter has proven to be a fun way to get people involved in small projects. It can capture a small bit of philanthropy. What it hasn't necessarily proven it can do yet is build steady supporters for projects that are more sustained in nature, and even small arts organizations need that. It's not the long-term solution to philanthropy. It's very much driven by whatever tickles my fancy at the moment."
Medak calls this phenomenon "impulse philanthropy," a sort of charity equivalent of the aisle in the grocery store closest to checkout, the one with the candy and glossy magazines. And if you look at the projects being funded and the products being bought right now, they are, more than ever before, tech-oriented, flashy, and novel. Perhaps the most successful Kickstarter campaign in history was Pebble, a "smart watch" that connects to a smartphone via Bluetooth; it was talked up heavily in the gadget press and ultimately raised more than $10 million in a matter of weeks. Earlier this month, a campaign to create a "ten-year hoodie" — that is, a hooded sweatshirt made with cutting-edge textiles and technique and meant to last at least a decade — launched; at press time, it had raised nearly half a million dollars, or almost ten times its goal, with more than a month of fundraising to spare.
Both of those projects appeal so squarely to tech money that it's almost laughable, but this isn't just confined to Kickstarter, or to the arts. In a free market, people with money drive demand, which then drives supply. A few of California's forty-niners got rich panning for gold, but many more made their money by starting auxiliary businesses that served this new (and newly rich) population. As Solnit noted in her essay, "supplying the miners and giving them places to spend their money became as lucrative as mining and much more secure. Quite a lot of the early fortunes were made by shopkeepers: Levi Strauss got his start that way, and so did Leland Stanford, who founded the University that founded Silicon Valley."
And in this case, when the bulk of a city's wealth lies in the hands of a similarly specific group of people, something similar happens. Just as East Coast bankers have established their own signals and codes about which brands signify status and which don't, so, too, has the tech world, which is often ruled by what one tech employee described to me as "this postmodern desire to define ourselves by our possessions." The Levis Strausses of California's contemporary gold rush are companies like the luxury denim brand Earnest Sewn, which is well-known for being a favorite of Twitter and Square founder Jack Dorsey. Another is Betabrand, a Mission District-based online clothing retailer that sells products like "dress pants sweatpants" (a sort of San Francisco analogue to pajama jeans) and "bike to work pants" (which boast "cuffs that roll up to reveal super-bright reflective material") for upwards of $100 each. A third is Cubify, one of many companies that manufactures that tech-world toy of the moment, the 3D printer, and whose products retail for more (and sometimes much, much more) than $1,000 apiece, materials cost not included.
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