Kickstart My Art: Local Projects Find An Audience on

Providence Monthly, August 2011

Three friends on Federal Hill dream up an arts and literature magazine for gay men. A Providence-based filmmaker documents the untold story of her uncle. A self-described "architectural artist" begins work on a West End garden collective and cooperative grocery store in one of the toughest business climates in Rhode Island history. This patchwork of disparate projects all share a common thread: Each was partially funded through a website called Kickstarter. 

Launched in April of 2009, Kickstarter is a "funding platform" where artists and other cultural creative's can receive donations to help "kickstart" a project. Each project has a monetary goal and a deadline to reach that goal. If the goal is not reached, the funds are not released. The site calls this "all-or-nothing funding" and the concept has motivated artists to spread the word about their ideas and goals. Fundraising amounts vary widely; some are a couple of bucks while others aim for thousands of dollars. Kickstarter encourages artists to create a video message that explains the project and requires "backer rewards", usually a product produced by the project itself or some other creative "thank you" sent from the artist to their supporters who fund the projects.

All in all, the site's D.I.Y. ethos captures the Zeitgeist: Enriching local culture by using the tools of global Web 2.0 community outreach. Here are three local success stories:

Headmaster Magazine

Last year, at a private book reading in New York City, writer Matthew Lawrence met one of the founders of Kickstarter and was intrigued by its visionary concept. Lawrence returned to Providence and shared what he learned with his friends, Jason Tranchida and Matthew Underwood, both talented graphic designers based on Federal Hill. The three men had been bouncing around the idea of a new magazine for gay men; a glossy biannual of art, writing, and photography. But as with most ambitious projects, start-up money was tight. Motivated by the stories Lawrence had heard about Kickstarter, they decided to give it a shot.

With little to no expectations, they named their magazine Headmaster and their Kickstarter page began taking donations in the late spring of 2010. Their page plays on the school theme; Backer reward levels had titles such as "honor roll" and "valedictorian" and rewards included pencils and notebooks with the Headmaster name on them. Their video shows a man in academic tweed frantically typing a letter to a lost love. Droll, yet oddly compelling, the video explains nothing about the magazine at all. When asked about the cryptic message, the three men laugh.

"We didn't know what the magazine was going to look like until we saw how much money we made," Lawrence said.

"It was a hell of a lot more fun than sitting around a table explaining why we wanted to do a magazine," adds Tranchida.

The combination of smart writing, quirky outreach, and fun rewards paid off. On June 15th, 2010, Headmaster Magazine became the first funded Kickstarter project based in Providence. Funds came in from all over the globe, from Providence and New York to Ireland and Australia, primarily from backers the Headmaster crew didn't even know. When the deadline was reached, the men were both heartened and astonished. They exceeded 64% over their initial goal, with funds adding up to nearly $5000 in total. The donations helped pay for printing and distribution costs and the inaugural issue of Headmaster Magazine is currently distributed to cities across the United States and Europe. The group is currently near completion of their second issue and is available for pre-order.

The Man is Dead: The Peter Kelley Story

Promises within families can have unsettling consequences, but Ali Boyd made a promise to her adopted sister to unravel the secret history of Peter Kelley, her sister's father. Kelley had abandoned his daughter when she was a child and was subsequently raised by Boyd's parents. It was a promise of unlikely fulfillment. Boyd had grown up to see her uncle as "a shadow in her life" and only fragments of a story existed, like a tale whispered through tin can telephones across family tree houses. Was he really a hash smuggling kingpin wanted by the F.B.I. for selling acid at the University of Rhode Island? Is it true that he got a major label record deal as a gritty 1960's folksinger?

Choosing the documentary film as the medium to tell Kelley's story, Boyd recruited two local notables, Alec K. Redfearn and Ben Leadbetter to assist her. The group convened a budget meeting and as the cost of the project became clear, Boyd turned to Kickstarter as a way to raise money for her film. Confident the project would be successfully funded, Boyd kept the pitch simple, adding a short video introduction and a taste of mise-en-scène through a fascinating, seductive trailer that leaves the viewer craving the full story. Reached via email while traveling the Pacific Northwest doing interviews for the film, Boyd expressed gratitude to everyone involved.

"I was pleasantly surprised [at first], then not surprised at all that we exceeded our goal," she writes. "This story has moved people to donate their time and resources. It made sense that we got the financial support we did. It's become a labor of love for a lot of people."

With each new interview, each new reel of 8mm footage and studio outtake discovered, and each old friend or acquaintance relating their memories, the messy disentangling of man and myth has become a story that Boyd, her film team, and her Kickstarter backers have begun to feel heavily invested in. In many ways, Boyd's film is Kickstarter's mission incarnate: a place where art, commerce, and community intersect to help create something special and unique.

Boyd's generous backers on Kickstarter (she raised over $5,000) helped ease the high costs of filmmaking, such as travel, equipment, computer hardware and software. Again, Ali Boyd:

"The cost of travel and lodging, memory and backup is prohibitive and was holding up the process. Now I can move a little more freely in booking interviews because we've got funding.  I'm also getting ready to [spend Kickstarter funds] to have some footage restored. So, the money is going a long way. It's a beautiful thing."

Fertile Underground Grocery

Imagine a collectively owned garden with an adjoining grocery store that sells fresh food and other healthy products, all conveniently located on the West End of Providence. The dream is one step closer to reality, thanks to Michael Giroux and his supportive backers on Kickstarter. Fertile Underground is burgeoning cooperative business that is collectively owned, built, and maintained by a team of thirty gardeners, artists and trades people. Giroux is becoming a local pioneer of "co-ops"; focusing on how alternative commerce can survive, even thrive, in a global capitalist economy. He has studied alongside well-established cooperative groups located in the Bay Area and Western Massachusetts. Now, he aims to bring that spirit of collaboration and community to Providence. Start-up money for any business, especially in these dismal times, is hard to come by, but on a whim, a supporter from the West Broadway Neighborhood Association suggested Kickstarter to Giroux:

"She had heard of people raising funds for other projects, so she figured we could raise money [through the site]."

With nothing to lose, Giroux decided to try. One challenge for his collective, as with any Kickstarter project, was agreeing on a donation goal. If the goal is too high and you fail to meet your number, you receive no funds. Yet, the group needed a certain amount to really get their project off the ground, especially for "build out"; building materials for the grounds and the grocery store.

"Our original goal was $15,000 and then we [decided] to try for less so we could reach our goal," Giroux said. "Really, $15,000 would have been what we needed to do it comfortably, but we understand this is not going to be comfortable. This is a process."

The group aimed for a goal of $8,800 and was successful in raising over $13,000. One unanticipated benefit of Fertile Underground's success on Kickstarter has been the credible leverage it has given the business as they navigate the labyrinth of city licensing and traditional lending sources. By showing their ability to raise money on their own, banks have been more willing to give their business plan a second look.

"It's been great to have this amazing show of support. That is really helping us out in trying to convince lenders that the community is behind us. They don't necessarily want to invest in a place like this. To say we have 177 people who chipped in with real cash -- that's what the conversation is about with lenders. That's been invaluable in showing legitimacy to the project."