Stephen Pusey on Sun, 8 Mar 1998 08:20:56 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> Funding Digital Culture

I'm both intrigued and irritated by this adaweb saga.  Intrigued because it
highlights a need for discussion about funding online arts entities and the
pros and cons of their formulas for survival.  Irritated, because of the
fuss concerning adaweb's of decision simply to stop just because their one
source of monetary nourishment terminated - to quote Benjamin Weil "...
they said 'We don't have any more money to fund this,' and then it was our
decision, more or less, to stop. You know, how could we do it without
money?"  Obviously sucking on that one corporate teat for the last three
years produced a mindset that cannot tolerate an existence without its
regular dolce latte. 

At the end of '94 and beginning of '95 a number of arts websites appeared
among them The Thing, PLEXUS, artnetweb, adaweb, and others.  The
principals of these organizations had prior acquaintance from dialogue on
pre-web dial-up BBS's like The Thing.  There was, however, a fundamental
difference between adaweb and the rest. They were a wholly owned part of a
parent corporation - one of the cherries on the cake of John Borthwick's
start-up, WPStudios, an ambitious conglomerate of online publications. The
rest of us were "independents" that had little or no corporate or state
funding, and therefore had to constantly devise new ways of paying the
bills and keeping the marshalls from closing our offices, while at the same
time building online environments to promote discourse and digital culture.
I am not declaring financial poverty to be a virtue here, just that
hardship has been a factor that has necessitated a diverse approach to
survival, albeit a slower and perhaps erratic development.

Adaweb enjoyed three good years supplied with office, equipment, and wages,
which has enabled them to concentrate single-mindedly on producing and
promoting a beautiful and extraordinary arts environment. Weil and his
crew surely must have suspected from the outset that this would be a
short-term venture. Borthwick is a pragmatist who knows that pigs get
slaughtered in the market.  He put together an attractive hip package and
sold it before he lost his investment. Inevitably, AOL's Digital City got
out their calculators and realized that some pieces of what they bought
were not going to spin a penny and so ditched Total New York, Spanker, and
adaweb: a predictable outcome.

My purpose here is not to put the boot in when the man is down; adaweb has
made an important contribution and I sincerely hope that Benjamin Weil
finds a new way of continuing its mission. There are, however, lessons we
can draw from their dilemma. Obviously, the first is to avoid corporate
ownership, unless you control the corporation. In seeking corporate
sponsorship, success lies in identifying to the donor the ways in which
your purpose and their strategy are mutually aligned. This may cause you,
especially if the potential financial rewards are really high, to reform
your philosophy to match theirs. The same is also true of state sponsors,
who may be tempered by political pressures that prohibit them from
sponsoring certain kinds of expression, like sexually explicit material.
Finding the right sponsorship, indeed any sponsorship, can be a full-time
activity.  If an organization wants to avoid compromising its charter it
has to draw from a broad portfolio of funders.  The other solution is to
evolve a business model that supports the organization's agenda without
outside interference. I assume TT does this with some modicum of success,
by using the profits from its ISP. Another option that could prove
effective in the long term is collective action. Perhaps an organization
like the Foundation for Digital Culture, reformed with
an international constituency, could be an organ through which we
collectively lobby and inform government and corporate funders to support
progressive digital culture?

PLEXUS Art and Communication
"only connect ..."

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