Seed accelerators occupy an essential position within the startup landscape. Problem is, if you aren't a tech company, you might as well forget about the seed money and expertise that comes with them.
Jeremy Bailey, a Toronto-based new media artist, was feeling left out. "Nurturing mentorship, community support, funding," he says, "it sounds like a dream to an artist struggling to negotiate fifty percent commission with their dealer while they work two jobs to live in a city among millionaires who don't buy art that doesn't match their couch."
This week, he's attempting to change that by launching Lean Artist, a "seed accelerator for artists" who are trying to turn their artistic ideas into startups.
Bailey, who is also creative director at FreshBooks, which creates accounting software for freelancers, is still building out the structure and long-term vision for the accelerator, which is in itself a startup. But he says his experience leading at a successful startup, along with reading "dozens of product design and business books," and a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek satire, has prepared him at least to "make things fun" for the first cohort. The workshop begins on Friday at an art festival in Hamburg, with a three-day "startup-style" bootcamp, a 300 Euro grant to all participants, and a 3,000 Euro prize to the winner as picked by an audience of investors.
"There is literally going to be zero time where all 10 artists and myself are not furiously collaborating toward our goal," Bailey wrote by email: "presenting 10 pitch presentations to what I'm told should be a pretty rowdy audience of investors and festival goers at the end of our sprint." (At art shows and conferences, he often slips into his tongue-in-cheek persona, whom he insists be called Famous New Media Artist Jeremy Bailey, or FNMAJB.) "This is going to be SO MUCH FUN!"
There are "a few artist unions and artist support networks," but none of these programs provide the sort of acceleration that Bailey wants
To keep things a little serious too, Bailey has enlisted four coaches who are joining Lean Artist as mentors: Stephanie Pereira, director of community education at Kickstarter; Olof Mathé, founder of Art Hack Day and a startup called Mix Max; Moritz Philip Reck, a Hamburg-based entrepreneur who is helping Lean Artist connect to the local startup community; and Julia Kaganskiy, director of New Inc, the New Museum's cultural incubator.
New Inc. which began in 2014, is one of a number of recently-launched programs focused on incubating new media art projects and creative startups; Bailey also points to CARFAC, a Canadian non-profit that promotes artists, among them. There are "a few artist unions and artist support networks," he says, but none of these programs provide the sort of acceleration that Bailey wants—one that parallels that of Silicon Valley.
To pick the first class, Bailey reviewed a review of answers that artists submitted in an online application. He selected multidisciplinary artists willing to travel to Hamburg "who had an interesting social/political problem to solve," and were willing to share equity should Lean Artist move forward and launch a business together. (It wasn't immediately clear how much equity Lean Artist is seeking.)
If the schedule for the first Lean Artist weekend bootcamp sounds cheeky, it's because it might have been ripped from a brochure for a prototypical tech accelerator. Day 1 is "all about learning from customers, defining the problem, ideating and building a prototype business plan and product." Day 2 involves testing prototypes and "challenging business assumptions in a realistic scenario," then iterating a finished product, business plan and funding pitch. And, rather fittingly, Day 3 is "demo day," during which participants will pitch their ideas to an invite-only VC audience who will have an exclusive opportunity to invest.
"After that we'll file the paperwork to register the businesses that chose to move on," says Bailey. "Then begin the process of continuous iteration toward market fit and hopefully accelerated growth!"
Lean Artist grew out of a smart cities-themed workshop he was invited to build for Hamburg's three-day tech-art festival A/D/A, which starts Friday. To Bailey, a smart city is basically a city modeled on a startup, and it is also part of the undeclared but implicit race to attract "startup culture" for what he sees as a "monorail solution to a post-industrial economy."
"Oddly, while cities have bent over backward to attract startup culture they have been equally determined to defund arts culture."
He sees a paradox in the new economy's emphasis on startups and apps, while the public arts—and spaces to house them—face funding shortfalls and rising rents.
"Oddly, while cities have bent over backward to attract startup culture they have been equally determined to defund arts culture, especially in Europe," he adds. "Lean artist is basically my attempt to correct this wrong, by misusing the tools and processes of startup culture to support, um… real culture."
Sure, the art world offers grants, residences and gallery representation, and even corporate titans like Google and Microsoft offer artist residencies, but Bailey believes this arts infrastructure is vastly under-supporting artists. From his perspective, these institutions have not succeeded in creating cultures that support growing "sustainable careers" for the vast majority of cultures. One might argue that this isn't their mission, and it would probably be correct. But it's for that very reason that he's all the more intrigued by the prospect of Lean Artist.
Regular people want to nurture culture, he believes: they just don't have the proper mechanism to do so. But he also thinks that further erosion of the old art world economies will have to happen before new ideas in funding creative culture can take over.
"The artists who survive will be good at experimenting economically—failing and learning from failure," he says. "If we don't try new things we'll never get out of this mess we're in."
"My art career is not your business model—artists need to be the capitalists." —Famous New Media Artist Jeremy Bailey
Working alongside artists and iterating on Lean Artist itself as a startup "will help me find new ways to fix the art world funding problem I care so much about, and highlight the value of artists in general as primary actors of social change."
Still, art and business can be a corrosive mix, especially if an artist adopts the fundraising model of tech companies. "I think the pressures on a tech business means that it would be very difficult to maintain the project as a true artwork, particularly if the company has received outside funding," Hrag Vartanian, a curator and founder of the art website Hyperallergic, told Motherboard last year. "VC funding will mean that the artistic intent will almost certainly be compromised for business reasons."
He cited the case of Social Print Studio, a company artist Benjamin Lotan created for an exhibition that Vartanian curated in 2010 called '#TheSocialGraph.' Meant as a kind of satire, the company automatically produced printed grids of all of a Facebook account's friends. Five years later, Social Print Studio is a thriving business printing out Instagram-derived photo books and greeting cards. The company may no longer be a work of art, but Lotan has expressed interest in helping to "support art professionals," said Vartarian.
In Bailey's opinion, platforms like Kickstarter have shown the promise of investment-like funding models for art. He also sees value in tech and media companies sponsoring new art, like Electric Objects' $100,000 Art Club Fund. But he thinks that any platform that tries to build a walled economic garden around creativity is destined to fail.
"My art career is not your business model—artists need to be the capitalists," he says. "Grants are great, but they rarely offer more than money for production to artists early in their careers and, as I mentioned, they're being defunded across most of the world (50% across most of Europe)."
"I don't think there is a strong precedent for 'art incubation,' at least not in the way that Jeremy is approaching it," Kaganskiy, the New Inc director, wrote in an email. "And even less of a precedent for 'acceleration,' which in some ways feels antithetical to the often slow and laborious process of art-making."
Kaganskiy does consider artist residencies that give artists space, resources and often mentorship—at organizations like New Inc, or the Brooklyn-based Eyebeam—a type of "incubation." She also points out that similar acceleration strategies have been used for rapid prototyping art projects, like the Free Art & Technology Lab's Speed Project. Meanwhile, programs like Creative Capital, Creative Many in Detroit, and the Center for Cultural Innovation in LA are incubators that offer business coaching and professional development to artists.
Then there are, as Kaganskiy explains, programs that focus on business in the creative industries. These focus on media and design or tech companies that service cultural organizations, like Gaite Lyrique's CREATIS incubator or the Creative Startups incubator in New Mexico. In Brooklyn, a collective of new media artists has incorporated as Dark Matter Manufacturing.
"They take a variety of different approaches to how closely they follow the popular (i.e. Silicon Valley) model of what an 'incubator' or ' accelerator' is," Kaganskiy wrote.
For Bailey, the best existing artist funding model is the artist collective. These, as he says, start from the democratic assumption that all members are equal. Lean Artist is founded on the same principle.
"When we invest in each other we all win," Bailey says. "This commitment starts with the initial 3,000 Euro in funding, which is 100% of the artist fee I was promised when A/D/A first approached me to do a workshop."
While the initial seed funding is modest compared to tech startup accelerators, Bailey believes in the idea, and is already confident that he will do it again. Not simply because he wants to, but because others have expressed interesting in helping out. And Bailey is promising each artist in the cohort continued mentorship and opportunities to earn additional funding based on a set of success indicators.
Already, Bailey has adopted the ethos of the Valley, or at the very least, its language.
"This is an experiment, it might be a huge failure, but I'll learn and build something better," says Bailey. "A huge success would be that we find a way to launch at least one sustainable career. I can't think of a more rewarding outcome at this stage in my own career than helping someone else find success."