Walker Art Center

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Community Supported Art

By Christy DeSmith

Inspired by community supported agriculture, in which individuals become shareholders in various regional farms, a new program launched in the Twin Cities by the Walker and Springboard for the Arts assists artists in cultivating collectors. Minneapolis-based arts writer Christy DeSmith reports on ways that Community Supported Art is investing in local creative economies and providing avenues for people to connect with artists.

Liz Sanborn is a longtime enthusiast of community supported agriculture (CSA). Signing on as a shareholder with a range of small farms over the past decade, she enjoys a bounty of seasonal produce, and other foods every summer and fall. So the Richfield resident didn’t hesitate when a brand-new variety of CSA emerged—one that offers high-quality art. “It was a quick decision,” recalls Sanborn, who heard a radio story about Community Supported Art last year while driving to the office. “I called my husband as soon as I got to work and said, ‘Does this sound crazy or should I do it?’ ”

She was lucky to be swift, because all 50 shares sold in only seven hours. Two months later, she arrived at the Walker Art Center to claim her first yield: an apple crate stocked with a screenprint, a fine-art print, a one-of-a-kind ceramic mug, and her favorite, a throw pillow from the Minneapolis fashion label Calpurnia Peach. “I expected a pile of paintings and I got a pillow!” she exclaims.

Launched in April 2010, Community Supported Art is the brainchild of two nonprofits with complementary missions. Springboard for the Arts is a community and economic development organization that provides artists with career services, marketing support, and other assistance. Developed by the McKnight Foundation and the Walker, mnartists.org is an online community hub that helps Minnesota artists reach new audiences and allows the public to explore their work. Clearly, these organizations wouldn’t exist if not for the local creative culture. The thing is, there’s a persistent problem with the Twin Cities art market. “Too many people still think that anything really great must come from New York or Los Angeles or Berlin,” says Scott Stulen, project director for mnartists.org. Stulen and Betsy McDermott Altheimer, associate director of Springboard, had long discussed how to cultivate collectors of area art. “We started looking around and thinking—who’s successful at getting people to shop locally?” says Stulen. “Betsy had this idea of borrowing from the food model.”

People who invest in a farm CSA often, like Sanborn, already enjoy cooking; the traditional CSA offers a way to try new vegetables and recipes, going beyond standbys like tomatoes and salad greens to exotic numbers like kohlrabi. “Similarly, our CSA introduces people to new art—some of which they like, some not,” says Stulen. But the risk is worth it: throughout the summer, the art CSA delivers to each shareholder nine juried pieces in three shipments for a one-time fee of just $300. This year, investors will take home a wood-turned piece of tableware by St. Paul designer Scott McGlasson, a screenprint by Minneapolis printmaker Drew Peterson, and a silk scarf by Minneapolis textile artist Nou Ka Yang. Other “locally grown” pieces are in development by an illustrator, a photographer, and a potter.

For their efforts, artists receive $1,000 stipends. That may not seem like much, but many consider the art CSA a valuable marketing opportunity. “I treated it like 12-by-12-inch business cards,” says Karl Unnasch, a rural artist whose stained-glass panels were a highlight of last year’s program. He says it helped him reach collectors in the Twin Cities: “Now I run into people who have my work. It really broadened my exposure.” Indeed, after just one year, the world’s first Community Supported Art program has already claimed quantifiable results. According to Springboard executive director Laura Zabel, three-quarters of the 2010 shareholders were unfamiliar with at least seven of the program’s nine participating artists. But 65 percent of them planned to purchase additional pieces from at least one artist—which may be why 145 artists applied for this year’s nine coveted slots. Perhaps the sincerest sign of flattery is how this Minnesota-grown idea spawned copycat programs in Chicago; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Fredericksburg, Maryland; and Huntington, Pennsylvania. In addition, Springboard is collaborating with the Knight Foundation to help several other communities replicate the CSA.

While the 2011 shares got snapped up within five minutes, the general public can still participate by attending the CSA’s lively pickup gatherings. “These events are designed to give artists and shareholders a chance to meet, but we of course want to promote the program to a wider circle of people who are curious about it,” says Andy Sturdevant, artist resource manager for Springboard. Zabel notes that even people who haven’t purchased shares are excited to see the contents of each box unveiled. Sanborn agrees. “One of the benefits of buying art this way,” she says, “is that we felt like part of a community.” At each pickup event, Sanborn and her husband staked out a grassy patch for unpacking their box. Artists and onlookers joined them and the other shareholders in ogling the contents, showing off and comparing their treasures. “This wasn’t just about art,” says Sanborn. “It was more like helping to support a whole ecosystem.”