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As Federal Budgets Tighten, Smithsonian Launches Crowd Funding Campaign

posted May 24, 2013, 11:50 AM by Sallar Khorram   [ updated May 24, 2013, 12:03 PM ]

Joel Grey signs the donation form at the Smithsonian National Museum Of American History on February 22, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Joel Grey signs the donation form at the Smithsonian National Museum Of American History on February 22, 2013 in Washington, DC.

The Smithsonian Institution has announced its first major crowd funding campaign. Starting May 29, the organization will be accepting donations toward "Yoga: the Art of Transformation," an upcoming exhibition about the visual history of yoga, to be put on in the Smithsonian's Freer and Sackler galleries of Asian art in Washington, D.C.

Though the fundraising effort comes just months after drastic sequestration budget cuts took effect, the Smithsonian says that there's no causal link between the two.

"It's not from sequestration," says Allison Peck, a spokesperson at the Freer and Sackler galleries. "Sequestration money doesn't affect our exhibition schedule as of right now."

However, one official familiar with Smithsonian fundraising does say that longer-term federal budget tightening has definitely caused the museum to be more dependent on grants and donations. The Smithsonian has been aggressive in fundraising in recent years and bounced back strongly from the recession, when donation levels fell, to having its two biggest fundraising years in the organization's history in 2011 and 2012, with donations hitting around $11 million last year.

Though this is not the Smithsonian's first attempt at crowd funding, it is the largest attempt the organization has ever made. The Smithsonian also tried crowd funding for a 2012 Ai Weiwei art exhibition.

Crowd funding has gained prominence through websites like Kickstarter, where people seek out funding for all manner of projects, from helping their bands record new albums to starting small businesses. It's an all-or-nothing proposition: Those seeking out donations set a fundraising goal but do not get to keep donations unless the goal is reached.

The Smithsonian's crowd funding project deviates from the Kickstarter approach in this respect, as the exhibit will happen even if the $125,000 goal is not realized. Peck says the galleries will prioritize getting the exhibition up and running, but that a shortfall of funds could mean cuts in other areas surrounding the yoga exhibit, such as the number of programs printed or the number of related events, like concerts, that will be held.

While crowd funding may be new to the Smithsonian, the museum and research organization has always depended to some extent upon private donations. Generally, federal funding goes toward operations -- keeping the lights on and the buildings open -- while donations and grants tend to fund individual exhibits.

The Smithsonian has just over a month to get the $125,000 to fund this particular exhibit. The crowd funding campaign kicks off May 29 and runs through July 1. If successful, it's possible that the campaign could prove worth repeating, Peck says. And just as big names like fictional private investigator Veronica Mars and musician Amanda Palmer have drawn big bucks on Kickstarter, Peck thinks big museums could be next.

"I definitely think that crowd funding could be the wave of the future," she says. "It's been small organizations for now, but I don't see why big organizations wouldn't be able to do it."

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