Museums such as the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and the Currie Dinosaur Museum in Grand Prairie, Alta., have turned recently to crowdfunding to raise money for programs, acquisitions and new construction.
Crowdfunding sites such as Indiegogo and Kickstarter have a proven track record at raising funds for individual artists through online donations from fans, often in return for small rewards, such as a free CD or a bit part in a film production.
That success has attracted the attention of larger institutions, which are eager to tap any potential source of donors.
The Smithsonian recently began a crowdfunding campaign on San Francisco-based site Razoo.com to raise money for Yoga the Art of Transformation, an exhibit planned for October.
$125K for yoga exhibit
The museum, which set a fundraising goal of $125,000 US, said the money will be used to pay for exhibition production, web content, catalogue printing and free public programs. This is the first time the Smithsonian has used crowdfunding technology on a large scale, but it argues it is not unlike any other fundraising it might do.
"While federal taxpayer funding covers some of our costs (mostly operating costs, such as keeping the galleries clean and the lights on), private and public support — whether from donors, sponsors, or grants — cover the majority of expenses related to exhibitions and programming," the museum tells potential donors on the site.
After successful crowdfunding programs, such as the campaign for a Veronica Mars film on Kickstarter, it was only a matter of time before large institutions tried it, said technology journalist Jesse Brown.
"I guess I felt it was inevitable that these big organizations and institutions would turn to crowd-sourcing because they hear these amazing success stories of everyone from independent artists to big Hollywood producers, putting their projects on Kickstarter or other platforms and sometimes wildly successful to the tune of millions and millions of dollars," Brown said.
"So it's a bit of a gold rush , why not us too? And for cash-strapped organizations, you can’t blame them for trying."
Alberta campaign didn't reach goal
But crowdfunding campaigns do not always reach their goals. The Currie Dinosaur Museum hoped to raise $1 million Cdn through Indiegogo to help pay for construction of the new museum, but was only able to raise $34,000.
The museum was able to raise awareness about the proposed project through its campaign, but turned to more traditional donors and municipal and provincial grants for most of its funding. Construction began in April.
Even the Louvre has tried crowdfunding, raising more than $1 million toward the cost of two 13th century ivory figurines seen as national treasures.
In artistic circles, there is debate over whether the institutional players will ruin the party for smaller artists, such as a musician raising funds for a first recording or a theatre troupe asking for support for an upcoming production.
But with ambitious arts organizations willing to try anything that works to raise money for programs and acquisitions, crowdfunding has become an attractive option for museums.