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Crowdfunding Culture: Namaste, and Welcome to the Smithsonian

This Monday, the Smithsonian was scheduled to wrap up the biggest crowdfunding campaign ever undertaken by an American museum. The subject of the exhibition in question? Yoga. At the time of this writing, the Freer Sackler Galleries have decided to extend their month-long campaign another week, and have already surpassed their $125,000 goal by over $4,000. Clearly, this is one show the population of D.C. will pay to see. As a spokeswoman said, “There are between 20 and 40 million yoga practitioners in the United States, and an ethos of community that already surrounds yoga. If ever there were a time for us to try crowd sourcing, this was it.” Put another way, this show appeals to such a clear demographic that Whole Foods decided to match donations on the Freer Sackler site. The Yoga-Whole Foods-Industrial complex sinks its claws into yet another aspect of our avocational lives.

The cheesy pandering of a fundraiser that calls itself “Together We’re One” and signs off “Namaste!” aside, it’s hard to fault the Smithsonian for going this route. It would have put the show up in October even if no one gave a penny, though with fewer brochures and no accompanying free yoga workshops—and by all accounts, the exhibit will be a good one: Nine years in the making, it’s the first to trace perceptions of yoga through visual art. The Smithsonian already gets about 70 percent of its budget from federal dollars; why not give the taxpayers a chance to vote with their pocketbooks? 

Then again, let’s not give them too big a vote. The Smithsonian has used crowdfunding twice before, with varied results. It raised a few thousand dollars for an exhibition on another populist topic, the “Art of Video Games,” in 2012; that show also raised hackles in the art community when the curator crowdsourced suggestions of games to include. The same year, the institution tried to raise money from the public to bring Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei’s sculpture to the Hirshhorn gallery, and scraped together only $555 of its $35,000 goal. To its credit, the museum went ahead with that exhibit as planned, but the campaign’s painful flop is a premonition of what would happen if the Smithsonian ever trusted the whims of the public, not the judgment of curators, to determine its schedule.

This may be alarmist, but consider that a Freer Sackler spokeswoman, enthused by the campaign’s success, has speculated that crowdfunding “could be the wave of the future” for museums. At the very least, it is the wave of the tight-belted present. As austerity has borne down on Europe, even the Louvre has resorted to it. On this side of the Atlantic, it’s no secret that the recession was a blow to budgets at arts institutions in general, and at the people’s museum in particular—though the Freer Sackler swears its copycat Kickstarter tactics have nothing to do with sequestration.

In this case, it’s clear that the Smithsonian’s artistic and scholarly interest in a broadly accessible topic guided it to a fundraising gravy train, and not the other way around. What’s more, the broad appeal for contributions will surely bring in patrons who don’t frequent the museum. But before we get too starry-eyed about the potential of crowdfunding, let’s remember that we don’t want all the exhibits at the world’s largest museum to be about video games and yoga.

Nora Caplan-Bricker is an assistant editor at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @ncaplanbricker.