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From locavore to art-avore: the local-food movement inspires tasty new forms of art support

Last month, 50 wooden crates stamped "CSA" towered in the lower lobby of the Walker Art Center. But unlike the crates of vegetables that farmers supply to their subscribers in Community Supported Agriculture programs, they weren't filled with spinach, beans, or kale.

Beautiful hand-stitched pillows by local fashion designers Calpurnia Peach occupied the most space in the boxes. A hand-drawn and hand-bound book about Minnesota invasive species by book artist Amber Jensen prompted long minutes of page turning. Ceramicist Maren Kloppmann's cup inspired shareholder Perry McGowan to exclaim, "It has the tangible qualities of the iPod! It's so smooth and it fits in your hand. I can hardly put it down because of the beauty of the feel of it!"

And so Minnesota's, and the nation's, first official Community Supported Art program was launched.  (In Oakland, The Present Group runs an art-subscription project that's somewhat similar.) A partnership between Springboard for the Arts and mnartists.org, the CSA aims to unite artists with new patrons. "Springboard's mission is to help artists make a living," explains Laura Zabel, executive director. "We've always connected artists with other artists and artists with resources. But over the last couple of years, we've had the goal of adding programs that connect artists directly with the public and with patrons."

Springboard turned to local food movements for inspiration, "because we found a lot of application to the arts community," Zabel adds. "There's a real movement locally to connect to what's local, what's made in your community, and to know the people who make your food. Similarly, there's a lot of focus nationally on finding new models for funding individual artists' work and helping them make connections with patrons interested in supporting local art."

A Crate Idea

Community Supported Agriculture programs are well established in the Twin Cities, notes Zabel. "So we wanted to figure out something like a CSA. Then one day, we said: 'Hey, let's just do a CSA.' We tried to duplicate it as closely as we could, so people could grasp on to it. That seems to be part of the strength of the response to our CSA: People got the concept right away."

When Springboard put out the call for shareholders, the nonprofit sold all 50 shares within seven hours. By the next day, it had a waiting list of 150 more people. "A 24-hour period in which we find 200 people who want to support local artists? That's a really good day," Zabel adds.

For $300, patrons receive three crates with nine original works of art. Next up: July's crop, with work by Jennifer Davis/ Burlesque Design (painting/printmaking), Andy Ducett (drawing/printmaking), and Amy Rice (painting). In August, the harvest is original art by Sam Hoolihan/Switzerland (musician/photographer), Lacey Prpic Hedtke (photography) and Karl Unnasch (stained glass/sculpture).

Six jurors (including arts and cultural media, and members of the local food and agriculture community) selected the nine artists from a pool of 200 submissions. Each artist chosen received $1,000 for producing 50 pieces of art. "The level of quality, creativity and passion for the project shown through the proposals was really exciting," says Scott Stulen, project director, mnartists.org. "We were surprised by the number of submissions for a new program, the diversity of the disciplines represented and the creative connections to the local food community. The primary factor in our decision making, however, was the quality and creativity of the proposed piece."

Perry McGowan and his wife Sheila Smith also support agricultural CSAs, so buying into the arts version was an easy sell. "We'll keep everything in this box," Smith insisted, while McGowan quipped, "There isn't anything here that'll rot in the fridge." (Information on purchasing shares for the fall CSA can be found here.

"Feeding" Artists at a FEAST

McGowan and Smith also participates in another food-inspired program for local artist support, FEAST/Mpls, an acronym for "Funding Emerging Art with Sustainable Tactics."

Modeled after FEAST/Bklyn in New York, the Minneapolis nonprofit is a recurring public dinner (prepared with local food) during which patrons make a cash donation, enjoy supper, and cast a ballot for one of numerous artist-project proposals. At the end of the evening, the artist with the winning proposal gets a bag of money--those donations--to bring their work to fruition.

"FEAST is like a giant indoor picnic," McGowan says. "It's a neat concept that allows people to come together as a community and express their involvement in the arts." Similar projects exist in other cities: InCUBATE (Institute for Community Understanding Between Art and The Everyday) in Chicago started Sunday Soup to fund artistic projects; and in Baltimore there's STEW.

"We don't offer a full project budget, so our support is somewhere between product and process," explains Jeff Hnilicka. A co-founder of FEAST/Bklyn, Hnilicka helped the Minneapolis version get started. Grantees from prior local FEASTs include Colin Kloecker and Shanai Matteson of Works Progress, who transformed Intermedia Arts into a temporary employment agency for artists, to help underemployed individuals complete community projects. During the next FEAST on July 17 at Intermedia Arts, they'll present the results of their project and its companion exhibition, "We Work Here."

"FEAST is a democratic process designed to use community-driven financial support to democratically fund new and emerging art makers. Initially, we were responding to the recession," says Hnilicka, of FEAST's genesis. "But we were also responding to a lack of opportunities for individual artists to get direct funding. With the increased interest in local food and production, something like FEAST is an easier entry point for many people than trying to navigate the art world or granting system."

Art Collecting Made Easy

Springboard for the Arts' Laura Zabel argues that the local food concept also makes arts patronage more accessible and less intimidating for new and potential collectors. With the CSA, she says, "we found a real untapped need and desire to connect with artists. People who bought shares are interested in local art and connecting directly with artists, but they may feel intimated by the gallery scene or aren't people who go to openings. So the CSA program appealed to them."

The CSA is already so successful, Scott Stulen says, that "we are in the process of making a kit for organizations that would like to us the CSA as a model to help other communities support and discover their local artists." Zabel emphasizes that the program's real value lies "in the relationships developed between artists and patrons."

"It's an access point for artists not served through traditional models, and I certainly hope by participating in our program patrons will become more engaged in other avenues of arts patronage," Zabel says. "The CSA is just another part of the whole arts ecosystem."

The next FEAST/Mpls is July 17 at Intermedia Arts.

Camille LeFevre is a St. Paul-based arts journalist.

Photos, top to bottom:

The first CSA box, with a pillow by Calpurnia Peach, a book by Amber Jensen, and a ceramic cup by Maren Kloppmann.

The box; in the background, Karl Unnasch's stained-glass sculpture, to be offered in August.

CSA shareholder Sarah Schultz digs in to her box.

mnartists.org program assistant Jehra Patrick and program director Scott Stulen unpack an art-crate.

CSAers on the Walker Art Center grounds. From left, mnartists.org program fellow Marria Thompson, Schultz, Patrick, and Stulen.

All photos by Jon Spayde

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