Community-Supported Art

Funding arts

image by Kramer O’Neill

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The new art fundraiser isn’t a $200-a-plate dinner with black ties and investment-portfolio chatter—it’s $10 soup and a beer in a Brooklyn church basement.

According to Next American City (Jan. 13, 2010), a number of volunteer-run organizations, including Chicago’s Sunday Soup, Brooklyn’s FEAST, and Baltimore’s Stew, have popped up to establish a reciprocal relationship between artist and audience the way a community-supported agriculture model (CSA) does between farmer and consumer. Interested citizens show up at a recurring dinner, pay a modest entrance fee, enjoy a seasonal organic meal, and listen to local artists propose projects. After everyone has a chance in the spotlight, a vote is taken and whoever wins gets that night’s haul—sometimes more than $1,000—to fund his or her work.

“This kind of social practice involving food and community has been a part of artists’ practice since the ’60s and ’70s,” Sarah Peters, associate director of public and interpretive programs for Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, tells Next American City. Perhaps it’s no surprise that, with artists feeling the squeeze in a tough economy, these efforts are reemerging.

Participating artists tend to pursue “idealist interventions in the community,” writes Next American City. One FEAST grantee is constructing a 25,000-square-foot rooftop farm atop an industrial building; a Stew artist plans to launch a new worker-owned record label. Another artist created a local currency, and a February FEAST recipient prepared for warmer weather with a colorful, uplifting shower-retiling project at a bustling public pool in Williamsburg.

Though the model is “highly portable” and is already a staple in a number of cities—Portland, Oregon; Buffalo, New York; Minneapolis; and others—Next American City wonders about the sustainability of an entirely volunteer-run operation: For how long will these super-small-scale organizations keep the grants flowing, dinners cooked, and dishes washed?

“Before you start a revolution, you have to start an alternative,” says Jeff Hnilicka, cofounder of FEAST. “We’re creating an alternative that can serve as a lab of ideas for what a larger institution could actually apply.”