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News / November 1, 2018

Digging Deeper into the AGO’s Effort to Crowdfund a Kusama

The Toronto museum has made headlines with its attempt to raise $1.3 million in just 30 days in order to acquire a new Infinity Mirror Room. But what are the implications?
Yayoi Kusama, <em>Infinity Mirror Room—Phalli’s Field</em>, 1965. Installation view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2017. Sewn stuffed cotton fabric, board, and mirrors. Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts,Tokyo/Singapore; Victoria Miro, London; David Zwirner, New York. Photo: Cathy Carver. Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirror Room—Phalli’s Field, 1965. Installation view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2017. Sewn stuffed cotton fabric, board, and mirrors. Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts,Tokyo/Singapore; Victoria Miro, London; David Zwirner, New York. Photo: Cathy Carver.
Yayoi Kusama, <em>Infinity Mirror Room—Phalli’s Field</em>, 1965. Installation view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2017. Sewn stuffed cotton fabric, board, and mirrors. Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts,Tokyo/Singapore; Victoria Miro, London; David Zwirner, New York. Photo: Cathy Carver. Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirror Room—Phalli’s Field, 1965. Installation view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2017. Sewn stuffed cotton fabric, board, and mirrors. Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts,Tokyo/Singapore; Victoria Miro, London; David Zwirner, New York. Photo: Cathy Carver.

With a big media splash, the Art Gallery of Ontario spread the word this morning that it was kicking off an unprecedented museum crowdfunding campaign. By 9 a.m. Eastern Time, the Globe and Mail, CBC, National Post and CTV News were all reporting the news: namely, that the AGO is hoping to raise $1.3 million in 30 days to purchase a new Infinity Mirror Room by Yayoi Kusama. (The AGO already has $1 million from an unnamed private donor, but needs to raise more than that amount from the public in order to secure the art for $2.3 million in total price.)

“There are millions of lights, dots or globes within Kusama’s art,” AGO director and CEO Stephan Jost tells Canadian Art, emphasizing parallels of connectivity between the art and the crowdfunding campaign. “She is always expanding her universe. I love the idea that there will be thousands of people contributing” to the acquisition, Jost says. “I think it’s a nice opportunity to be part of something that is big and positive.”

But the need to crowdsource funding also speaks to financial pressures currently affecting museums in general and Ontario cultural institutions in particular. It also raises the question of how much museums are redirecting their funding onuses back upon the publics they are ostensibly supposed to serve.

The AGO is likely to meet its $1.3 million goal easily, given that 165,000 people turned out to its very popular Kusama exhibition earlier this year, and each of those attendees would only have to chip in $10 or less for the AGO to meet its target. To boot, the AGO has lined up a variety of smart donor incentives: donors at the $25 level will have a chance to see the Infinity Mirror Room in person before it opens to the general public. Donors in the first five days of the campaign will be entered into a contest for a sleepover at the AGO with five friends, including early access to (though not slumbering in!) the Infinity Mirror Room. Donors at the $100 or more level will receive a tax receipt. And as funds are raised, the AGO will unveil pieces of a photo of the Infinity Mirror Room that is to be acquired.

But in many ways, the Infinity Room acquisition is just the short game. The long game can be read as an effort to cultivate and start generational relationships with younger, newer donors and patrons at a time when what CIBC calls “the country’s largest-ever transfer of wealth” is imminent.

“I believe welcoming participation at all levels and all forms is a good thing for us,” says Jost. “The example I give is the Tintoretto we bought in 1958, [Christ Washing His Disciples’ Feet c. 1545–55].  You could buy a square inch for 10 bucks. The number of people involved with the gallery who have told me, ‘Oh, my grandma helped buy that’….And one of the people who bought a square inch was Michael Koerner. It was his first donation.” Koerner has since become a major donor, delivering at least $10-million in support to the AGO, becoming an AGO trustee emeritus and even sponsoring Jost’s own directorship position.

“I don’t know which 23-year-old out there who gives us 10 bucks for the Kusama will eventually be on our board,” says Jost. “But I think there will be some.”

The AGO is almost certain to reach its Kusama fundraising goal. What is less certain is how this will play out in museum funding strategies in future.

Crowdfunding may also be viewed as a hedge against a current governance environment in which public funding is under increasing threat, particularly in Ontario. On June 7, 2018, Doug Ford was elected Premier. In just the first few months of his leadership, Ford and his majority Conservative government have made major cuts: $100 million previously budgeted for needed repairs to public schools and $217 million for three university campuses that had been years in the planning process are just two examples. It isn’t just provincial funding Ford and his caucus have slashed: they’ve also stopped a $1 increase to minimum wage,  touting “fiscal responsibility” as the watchword all the while also affecting, by implication, low-income Ontarians’ ability to contribute to microdonation initiatives such as “InfinityAGO.”

“We do receive most of our public funding from the province,” Jost admits when asked about potential threats to said funding. “We haven’t really thought about it [the crowdfunding] as offsetting public funding, whichever way that goes. I have no ability to predict what the government is going to do on that front. But I do know that having many more people involved and being very popular with our audiences—we have 170,000 members—is a positive thing.”

Certainly being able to raise more money privately, and demonstrate populist appeal, would be positive in the current political environment. In 2016–17, prior to Ford’s election, the AGO received $21.7 million in public funding from the Government of Ontario, which made up 24 per cent of its total revenues and the largest public funding amount. In that same year, donations and bequests only amounted to $10.2 million, or 11 per cent of revenues—but few of these were targeted, like the new Kusama campaign, to specific, crowdfunded goals.

There is also a growing interest in crowdfunding among museums internationally, especially since the 2008 financial crisis. Studies have identified “crowdfunding as a key tool to engage Generation X and Millennial donors,” as Melanie Bump puts it, and it was reported as a “trend to watch by the American Association of Museums” in 2011. Bump also notes that the Louvre made headlines in 2010 when it raised the equivalent of $1.6 million USD from more than 7,000 donors “to acquire a 16th century oil painting, The Three Graces by Lucas Cranach.” The Louvre also used then used crowdfunding to raise $0.6 million for an acquisition in 2012. The Smithsonian, the Royal Academy of Art, and the Dallas Museum of Art, among others,have also undertaken crowdfunding campaigns for exhibitions, restorations and related phenomena.

Despite these well-known museum sector trends, Jost says the idea to do a big AGO crowdfunding effort didn’t come from looking at other institutions; he insists it came the AGO’s own history with the Tintoretto and from a board member, Jen Lee Koss, who besides being a Julliard cellist has tapped the power of e-commerce as co-founder of craft retailer Brika.

“I told our new board member Jen Lee Koss the story of the Tintoretto,” said Jost. “And she was like, ‘Well, what is today’s equivalent?’ And I felt like, ‘Stefan, it’s right in front of you,’” as the AGO had the Kusama show up at the time of their conversation. “The 1958 success of the museum got me thinking, and Jen kind of put out a challenge.”

Interestingly, in 2016–17, the AGO spent $1.3 million on purchases of works of art—the same amount is now seeking to crowdfund for the Kusama.

Yet crowdfunding for the Kusama Infinity Mirror Room in particular also raises the philanthropic question of how to recognize donors on a wall label, a typical practice in the museum field for artworks acquired via donation. When asked, Jost says that donors of $2,500 or more will have their name permanently listed next to the Kusama artwork when it is installed. Those donating $25 to $2,499 will have their name listed on the AGO website for a limited period of time.

It’s also unclear right now how much time visitors—donors and public included—will get to spend in the new Infinity Mirror Room. “Kusama will tell us that,” says Jost. “I’m hoping that she’ll be generous.” (During the 2018 Kusama exhibition at the AGO, most room experiences were limited to 20 to 30 seconds at most, though different Kusama rooms elsewhere have 45-to-60-second opportunities.)

Jost says that should the crowdfunding campaign be successful, he expects the Kusama Infinity Mirror Room to be on view to the public in late spring of 2019, within a reinstalled AGO collection of 20th-century art. Jost also hopes it will be on view there for several years, though it will eventually be available for lending to other exhibitions.

“It’s really hard to talk about things like minimalism, pop art, and performance art together,” says Jost in addressing significance of Kusama’s work to the AGO permanent collection. “They’re always seen as three separate things from the ’60s and ’70s. But Kusama is the only artist who really brings those things together. You can make the argument that Warhol is really important that way too, but I don’t think art history in the ’60s and ’70s makes sense without Kusama. We have major Judds and Warhols [in the collection], but if I dare say, there is also the history of gender bias to deal with.”

Jost also hopes the long-term install of the Kusama Infinity Mirror Room will eventually offer publics ample chances to revisit—though the usual gallery admission fees, currently set at $20 for adults, will, of course apply.

“My hope is that there will be, in five years, a quiet Tuesday morning where the Infinity Room will be yours to experience” without a big lineup, Jost says. He also says: “Since we are $20 to get in, for just $5 more [in donation this month], you can get access to the Infinity Room before the general public does.”

Donations of all amounts are welcome now through November 30 at ago.ca/infinityago.

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is news and special sections editor at Canadian Art. A graduate of NSCAD University and McGill University, she has also written for the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail. She welcomes tips, corrections and comments any time at leah@canadianart.ca.