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Artists, entrepreneurs ride crowdfunding wave

COAST CITIES — Encinitas artist Manuelita Brown wants to create the sculpture of her dreams. Finding funding for the project, a tricky endeavor in this economy, is the only thing that stands in her way. Her solution? Join the crowdfunding trend.

Brown, a longtime sculptor, once looked solely to private donations, foundations and government grants for her pieces. Due to a down economy, those sources of funding have largely dried up, but a new one has emerged.

Like so many artists in the last few years, Brown recently turned to Kickstarter, a national crowdfunding website where local artists and entrepreneurs can ask friends, family and strangers to finance their projects.

Artist Manuelita Brown with a scale model of Sojourner Truth, a former slave who became an abolitionist and women’s suffragette. Brown has embraced the crowdfunding trend in hopes of creating a full-scale statue of Truth. Photo by Jared Whitlock

“Kickstarter has been a blessing for people — a real alternative for artists,” Brown said.

Since mid-October, 32 people have pledged roughly $3,900 to Brown’s vision — a life-size sculpture of Sojourner Truth, a former slave who became an abolitionist and women’s suffragette.

Like all Kickstarter projects, funding is an all-or-nothing proposal within a set time frame, meaning Brown won’t get anything if her project fails to reach the $18,000 she’s requesting by Nov. 17.

“I’ve been humbled by support and hope I can get there,” said Brown, who plans to donate the statue to a park or school should she secure enough funding.

Another reason Brown chose crowdfunding: She’ll have total creative control over her project. Those who pledge to Kickstarter projects aren’t given a stake of the project and don’t share in any profits (if there are any); however, they receive “rewards” in exchange for support — in Brown’s case that means a disc of photographs documenting the sculpting process for those who provide $25, or on the higher end, a small bronze sculpture specially for people who contribute $2,500 or more.

Brown said she’s proud of past commissions and grateful to those who provided funding. But money from outside groups or individuals sometimes requires compromising on her artistic vision.

“I wanted to do this one my way, and I’m happy people are buying into my idea,” Brown said.

Like Brown, Carmel Valley filmmaker Pierce Kavanagh wanted to create something entirely of his own mind, and Kickstarter has helped him do just that.

Kavanagh’s first Kickstarter raised more than $16,000, which is $7,000 more than he originally requested for “What the Sea Gives Me,” a documentary that will highlight those with a lifelong connection to the ocean.

Kavanagh said he was reluctant to try Kickstarter, because he “didn’t want to ask for a handout.” But he came around to the idea of crowdfunding when he realized most donations were small and backers got something in return.

“Seeing people support independent filmmakers is amazing,” Kavanagh said, adding with a laugh: “Small filmmakers are typically passionate to the point where we would set up a lemonade stand if we had to. It’s good to know we have something like Kickstarter too.”

Kickstarter is the largest of a dozen or so crowdfunding websites. Since it was founded in 2009, 77,000 projects have been launched in the U.S., 32,000 of which were successfully funded. Projects that met or exceeded funding goals have raised nearly $350 million. In San Diego County 238 projects were successfully funded, bringing in more than $2.5 million, according to Kickstarter’s stats.

According to Justin Kazmark, a spokesman for Kickstarter, the most common contribution for projects is $25.

Some have suggested crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter could supplant publishing houses, film studios, venture capitalists, private funding and government grants. Kazmark, however, sees Kickstarter’s role as being one that, “complements the current ecosystem for arts funding, not replaces it.”

And there is a major distinction between venture capitalists and those who back projects on Kickstarter, he said. Profit and shares motivate venture capitalists, while Kickstarter supporters are “mainly interested in seeing the project come into existence.”

“These are the people who will be the first to try your product or will be at the opening night of your film,” Kazmark said.

“It’s not investment or donation; it’s the intersection of commerce and patronage,” he added.

Preston Caffrey, an entrepreneur, said he’s been surprised by the amount of aid he’s been given by people he’s not acquainted with.

Caffrey launched his Kickstarter late last week and has until Dec. 7 to bring in $35,000 for a line of coffee-inspired teas he’d like to launch. He’s off to a strong start; 75 backers have provided $4,300.

“Friends and family have contributed, most are people I’ve never met,” Caffrey said. “People go on the Kickstarter website just looking for people to donate to.”

The support has made him into a crowdfunding convert.

“This wouldn’t be possible without Kickstarter,” Caffrey said.