I am hoping to start a discussion here on Raw about Rhizome's financial
situation and a possible solution. This email is rather long, but I'd
appreciate it if you'd take the time to read it through, give it some
thought, and let me know what you think.
First, some background information. It will cost about $400,000 to operate
Rhizome.org this year. Here's how we spend it: $6,000 on administrative
fees (mostly processing credit card gifts); $122,000 on operating expenses
(phone, rent, web hosting, office supplies, etc.); $177,000 on payroll
costs (salaries, health insurance, payroll taxes, etc.); $93,000 on
professional fees (writers, commissions, consultants, etc.). These numbers
may seem high to some of you, but we actually run a very lean, efficient
operation. It simply costs a lot of money to run a nonprofit organization
that offers as many programs to as many people as we do.
In the past, most of our revenue has come from foundations, but foundation
support is shrinking. We had hoped to make up the difference through earned
income from web hosting and online education, but those services are
getting off to a slow start. We have also, as you surely know, tried asking
for voluntary contributions. But so far this year only about 1% of our
19,000 members have made gifts.
The Rhizome Board of Directors met for its quarterly meeting last Friday.
The main topic was how to solve our financial problems. I proposed putting
the organization into hibernation mode. This would entail shutting down the
office, laying off the staff and discontinuing most of our programs. We
would keep the web site up, ask the SuperUsers to continue to publish
texts, and keep Raw online. But everything else would stop: no more Digest
or Net Art News, no more commissions, no more events. We'd stop adding new
projects to the ArtBase, stop improving the web site (we have a long list
of bugs to fix and features to add) and stop planning new programs.
The Board felt that hibernation would be a big mistake. Once we went into
hibernation, they argued, it would be very hard to re-emerge and rebuild
momentum. Foundations would lose confidence in us (not to mention the fact
that we wouldn't have anyone to write the grants). Most important, our
ability to fulfill our mission would be compromised.
Then someone suggested charging a membership fee. This idea has been
proposed before, and I have always opposed it. Rhizome is for everyone, I
argued, not just for those who can afford it. I argued that we'd lose
thousands of members and that our community would become less diverse.
Then we looked at the numbers. The gap between our expenses and what we can
raise from foundations, the government, earned income and other sources is
about $100,000. That's about $5 per member. If every member gave $5,
Rhizome would be financially stable. We could continue to grow and serve
The board argued that we pay to subscribe to magazines, to enter museums
and to see performances. We pay to attend festivals and conferences. Why
shouldn't we pay for Rhizome? Because it's online?
Consider this hypothetical scenario. Let's say we introduced a
sliding-scale membership fee starting at $11 per year with "thank you
gifts" (T-shirts, etc.) at higher levels. By paying $11 a year (or more if
you could afford it), you get access to everything: Raw, Rare, Digest, Net
Art News, the Calendar, Opportunity Listings, ArtBase, Commissions, etc.
Maybe we'd keep Raw free. Maybe we'd give new memebers a free trial period
so they could check out the goods before they have to pay.
Would you pay the fee?
What do you think about the idea of a sliding-scale membership fee for
Rhizome.org? Good idea? Bad idea?
Do you think it would be better to go into hibernation?
I am eagerly awaiting your responses.