Exclusive Interview with Society6’s Justin Wills
Art in the era of commerce, or what crowdsourcing has to do with the risk of selling out.
By Maria Popova
Yesterday, we looked at Kickstarer, a bold effort to fund creative endeavors.
Today, we’re pickings the brains behind society6 — a revolutionary platform for empowering artists by connecting them with supporters and matching them with grants.
Co-founder Justin Wills dishes on everything that makes this movement brilliant, and then some.
Hey Justin, good to have you. Tell us a bit about your background and your relationship with the art world.
Thank you so much Maria, glad to be invited for a good ole’ brain picking. For a little background, society6 is a collaboration between Justin Cooper, Lucas Tirigall-Caste and myself. My partners and I are each an equal mix of artist, patron, entrepreneur and geek. We have collectively built many web sites & applications, led creative teams, started businesses and, above all expressed, our creativity through various forms of art and design. None of us are art world insiders by any means, in fact I would say we are definitely outsiders of the “art world”. That said, the recent movements in the arts and creativity have been trending away from this establishment, making society6 even more relevant.
What was the original inspiration, that first a-ha moment, behind society6?
Our good friend, who also happens to be my wife, had an opportunity to show her project during the prestigious Art Basel show in Miami. The project, titled HEROES & VILLAINS, includes photographic portraits of nearly 200 artists from all over the world.
At the time, she didn’t have the money or resources to pay for the show’s prints and framing. She tried to raise the money from sponsors directly, seeking funding from brands and grants, writing proposal after proposal. When this was unsuccessful, she simply wasn’t able to attend and show her project at that time.
This is when we knew there was a problem.
Artists with great talent and great work were not getting access to the resources and opportunities they needed and deserved. In fact, there was a huge number of both emerging and established artists being underserved all over the world. We felt that this also kept supporters of the arts from experiencing art they would otherwise enjoy.
So we got together and decided to create an ecosystem for artists and supporters from all over the world. As we did this, we were very conscious of a few things: 1) involving peers and supporters in the process and 2) not requiring artists to create spec work to submit to these grants.
We wanted artists who are already doing great work to get the money and resources they need.
Traditionally, both the artist’s creative process and the art consumer’s internal dialogue with a work of art have been private experiences. But Society6 seems to bridge the two in a social context, harnessing the power of crowdsourced art curation. What are the advantages and challenges of this approach?
Many people experience art as a final product. Generally the artist’s process is largely hidden from the viewer and, frankly, this is one of the reasons many people think creating art is simply a talent and not a labor or learned skill. We really wanted to bring art lovers and supporters into the process. That’s why we created the Studio feature of society6. Supporters and peers experience the virtual studio of the artist, where an artist can share their process as well as the end result. If they experience the development of the artist and their work, we believe that everyone will increase their appreciation for both.
Previously, we worked on an online platform that helped companies use crowdsourcing to improve their products and services. What we learned from this experience has been quite helpful in designing society6 and led us to take this approach to curation.
The benefits of involving everyone in the curation of the work is that it expands the audience and increases their emotional connection to the art and the artist. The challenge lies in keeping it merit-based and not just a popularity contest. The most popular stuff tends to stay popular and the things that appeal to the broadest audience dominate. We have worked to avoid this issue when building our system.
Our Charts are one example of how we have tried to solve this — they show Top Studios only show within the last 7 days, so there is decay to the promotions they receive. At the end of the day, you won’t stay on the Charts unless you are continuing to contribute good work.
Secondly, when it came to the grants system, we wanted to make sure we harnessed the community to help filter the grant applicants without this becoming the deciding factor in who is awarded the grant. Community nominations create the finalist list, but ultimately the grant-giver selects from this list to make the award. It’s about balancing the use of a system with an individual point of view in order to achieve a fair and manageable result.
Tell us a bit more about the “business model” behind society6 and how you envision the future of art in the context of the financial backing that sustains it. The future of creativity in the era of commerce, if you will.
We are working to create a marketplace of money and opportunity. We are always designing so that everyone who participates in society6 is both contributing and receiving something in return. We are focused on creating the most useful and mutually beneficial system we can. Keeping this focus will create numerous opportunities for us to sustain society6.
As people become more engaged in the arts and more in touch with the artists they enjoy, more artist will be able to sustain themselves through direct relationships with their supporters.
I am sure we will see a change in many of the organizations that are currently in place in the arts, whether they’re non profits, galleries, stores, or something else. As artists become more connected to their “customer” and more self-reliant, these entities will need to adapt.
Our hope is that society6 is both the driver for this change and the platform for everyone’s continued involvement and success.
Do you approach sponsors and prospective grant-givers, or do they approach you? Do you have any selection criteria, or can any company offer a grant?
The concept of anyone giving a grant by way of a simple online form is a novel one. So, today, we do approach many of the potential grant givers to introduce the concept. We have had a few grants given without soliciting them and we believe this will increase as we grow and eventually be the dominant behavior.
We have very little in terms of restrictions for who can give and what the grant can be. Any individual or organization can give a grant of either money or an opportunity. At the end of the day, if it is not a good grant, people won’t apply.
The only strong suggestion we have for grant givers is not to solicit submissions as part of the grant.
It’s not a contest and we want artists to be able to apply with their studio and feel that their existing work is what is being evaluated, not a submission created specifically for the grant.
It’s more of a rolling process that favors the way in which artists like to operate. We want the grants to be in the best interest of the artists. Let’s face it: As a grant giver, you are going to be doing good, but you are also getting some promotion out of this so be creative and generous in your grant.
It’s tricky to talk about creative output and commerce in the same breath. Even though society6 is community-driven, some would argue the mere knowledge of prospective funding may alter artists’ original work. How do you think society6 is walking the line between art supporters simply financing original art, and grant-givers being pegged as mere corporate sponsors “commissioning” creative work? The sell-out risk, in other words.
Because no work is being specifically produced for the grant, the artist can post and show work parallel to the grant and not just because of the grant. That said, it is certainly true that we hope the presence of the grants encourages people to post often and consider the quality and depth of their work.
So far, we ‘ve been pleased to see that people take advantage of society6 and use the full breadth of the platform, including things like our Twitter integration. The presence of money and opportunities has not disrupted the community and the positive interaction between the members.
Thanks for letting us pick your brains, Justin. Any parting thoughts left unpicked?
You’re welcome, it’s a pleasure to have our brains picked.
A few parting thoughts: At its core, society6 is a simple and powerful platform for artists to share their work and for their supporters to interact with them. Many people are enjoying it without participating in the grants, which are only part of the overall platform.
But it’s also important to note that we are not a non-profit and have made this choice in order to work outside of the constraints of this traditional system. That is not to say that we don’t feel non-profits are necessary and useful, we do. It’s just that we believe we’ll be more nimble and offer greater opportunities if we can continue to operate with fewer restrictions.
Our only stakeholders are the artists and creative people around the world. We listen closely to them and do what we think will best serve their interests.
Published June 3, 2009