Community Supported Art Harvests Creativity

BY Molly Finnegan  August 26, 2010 at 5:19 PM EST

Community Supported ArtIn Minneapolis, two arts organizations — mnartists.org and Springboard for the Arts — have taken a business model created by small, independent farmers and adapted it for the visual arts. Just as Community Supported Agriculture (or C.S.A.) programs connect growers directly to the people buying and eating their food, a new Community Supported Art program assists artists in selling their work to local patrons through a kind of seasonal subscription.

For $300, anyone can become a shareholder, though there is a limit on the number of participants per season. Once a month for three months, shareholders pick up a box containing three original and randomly selected works of art.

More than 150 artists — including painters, bookmakers, potters and printers — applied to create works to be sold through the C.S.A. during the first season, but only nine were chosen. For 50 individual pieces of art (one for each of the shareholders), many of which were inspired by themes of environmentalism and the local food movement, those artists receive a $1,000 stipend, as well as a chance to meet and interact the people buying their work at the regular monthly pick-up party. The pick-up isn’t just an efficient way of distributing the work, it’s also a social event that connects people in the community.

The summer season ended August 19, but the C.S.A. is gearing up for the fall, with 75 shareholders already signed up and 18 artists contributing their wares.

On a visit to the Walker Art Center, Art Beat talked to Laura Zabel, executive director of Springboard for the Arts, C.S.A. participating artist Andy DuCett, as well as shareholder (and arts writer) Paul Schmelzer, about how they’re enjoying their creative bounties:

A transcript is after the jump.

 
Editor’s Note: Twin Cities Public Television provided us with footage of the C.S.A. pick-up.

ART BEAT: It’s Saturday morning here in Washington and the farmers market it bustling. Neighborhood residents are looking to buy fresh fruits and vegetables directly from the people who grow them. When we think of buying local we usually think of food. The local agricultural movement has revived the American outdoor farmers market and spawned farm share programs commonly known as CSAs, as in Community Supported Agricultural. When you join a CSA you invest in a growing season. You pay a lump sum to a farmer in the spring and get weekly boxes of freshly picked fruits and vegetables. It works for food, but what about for art? That’s the intriguing question now in Minnesota where two local arts organizations are using the model that helped support local farmers to support local artists.

LAURA ZABEL: Community supported art is exactly what it sounds like. It’s based on the community supported agricultural model.

ART BEAT: Laura Zabel is one of the people heading Minnesota’s new community art initiative.

LAURA ZABEL: The conversation a lot of times went like, something like a CSA, we should do something like a CSA. And then finally we just decided, let’s just do a CSA. Let’s just take that idea pretty much exactly as it is. We kept everything pretty much the same. The shareholders of each paid for a three-month share, and each month they get a box of whatever is fresh and whatever is local from the nine artists that were selected for the program.

ART BEAT: Here is how it worked. Interested consumers called shareholders paid $300.00 at the beginning of the summer. In return they received nine new pieces of art, three a month for three months. As for the artists, they could make whatever they wanted as long as they met certain criteria.

LAURA ZABEL: We looked for things that really felt that they were a good fit for the program, things that did have some connection either to the community or to food so that the shareholders were really getting nine pieces that were sort of specific to the community supported art program and not just sort of 50 pieces of something that already existed.

ANDY DUCETT: The CSA gave me a great opportunity to create a new drawing using some of the things that are kind of indicative of the CSA model. My drawings are kind of to begin with, a bunch of systems piled on top of systems, and then agricultural and how community response to that and how they support it and how artists and people live and act locally, I think, is really, really important, so to keep that idea in mind. I think it was really, really helpful to have one thing that I could always go back to if I wasn’t sure what to draw next.

ART BEAT Other participants have produced pottery, handmade books, pillows and glass windows.

LAURA ZABEL: I think in all the projects there has been this connection to environment, to local food issues. I think the artists really let that inspire them, which has been great.

ART BEAT: Producing art specifically for an anonymous CSA shareholder also posed unique challenges.

ANDY DUCETT: When you make a drawing sometimes when you are there in your studio and you’re just working by yourself, you don’t really think about who is going to be seeing it, but this was almost like drawing through a megaphone because you knew that there was going to be a least 50 people that were going to be seeing this, and I guess it was a lot to live up to.

ART BEAT: The CSA has been a great way for artists to sell their work and get their names out there. It’s also proven popular among the people buying the art.

LAURA ZABEL: We put the shares on sale on a Monday and sold out all 50 in seven hours, and by the end of the next day we had a waiting list of over 150 people. So a 24-hour period where we can find 200 people who are dying to buy and support local artists — that’s a really good day.

ART BEAT: Twin Cities resident and arts writer Paul Schmeltzer is one of the 50 who are eager to show their support.

PAUL SCHMELTZER: For me to drop $300.00 bucks on local artists is a pretty good sign of the success of the model, you know, that you get a variety, the variety is a key component for me that I really like. I like getting stuff and the names of the artists — I was like, wow, I know some of these people and they’re really good. And that drew me to it, but some of the names I didn’t know and some of the media I didn’t really know very well, and all of the sudden it’s like have all this great stuff. The surprise is being part of that.

ART BEAT: In both the agricultural and art programs the element of surprise means you might not always like what you get.

PAUL SCHMELTZER: When I first joined this, I asked one of the organizers, well, so I’ve been part of CSAs — what are the beets? You know, what’s the zucchini? And he’s like, there’s no beets, there’s no zucchini. I mean, I apologize to anybody out there who likes those, but so far it’s like, I wouldn’t necessarily go out and buy some of these items, but once you get them you realize how much the handcraft takes to do and it’s just a great way to connect with that creative process.

ART BEAT: Just like buying produce directly from the farmer, Paul, Andy and Laura all agree that one of the CSAs biggest advantages is developing a relationship between creators and consumers.

PAUL SCHMELTZER: I’m involved with the local food movement, because I want to be in touch with the people that actually provide me sustenance that way. Same thing with the arts. The arts bring something into my life that I want to be a part of and I want to know the local people who make it.

LAURA ZABEL: There’s sort of this bigger trend at work in the country, and even globally, that is a return to what’s local and meeting the people who make your food or make your things. We’ve been lucky to sort of be a part of what I hope is an even bigger trend that cuts across arts and food and all the things that sort of make up a community.

ART BEAT: The community supported arts projects will be will be expanding after the success of their first season. They’re doubling the program to include 18 local artists and 100 shareholders for the fall.