Art Harvest

Art Harvest

With the launch of the world's first arts CSA, a group of Twin Cities arts advocates has sparked a growing movement nationwide.

"We should do something like a CSA." For years, Betsy McDermott Altheimer, associate director of the artist service organization Springboard for the Arts, had been swapping this observation with fellow arts administrators in the Twin Cities.

Among their urban counterparts, the St. Paul-based group noticed more people buying farm shares in CSAs (short for community-supported agriculture). They saw friends clamoring for farm-to-fork restaurants. That passion for local food was admirable. Now, how to inspire similar devotion to local art?

Then Altheimer had her breakthrough. On an otherwise ordinary day, she rose from her cubicle. Racing across the office, Altheimer found her boss and blurted: "We should just do a CSA!" - only this time the "a" would stand for "art."

Springboard partnered with advocacy group, and just months later, in May 2010, offered shares to Twin Cities collectors in the world's first-ever arts CSA. Since then, the model has been reproduced in Chicago and Cambridge, Massachusetts. It's headed for arts organizations in Detroit, Miami, and Philadelphia this year; next year it's slated for Akron, Ohio; San Jose, California; and Charlotte, North Carolina.

As a longtime arts writer, I was struck by the rapid ascendance of the arts CSA, so I took my questions to the program's originator. "It's very sweet that people say the idea is mine," demurs Altheimer. She's slouched in a chair at the Springboard offices in downtown St. Paul. "The truth is, it was a community effort."

For starters, help me draw some parallels between the art market and the local food movement.
I think food has a lot in common with art. It reflects our culture, our stories. It reflects where we live. It's the seasons. It's the people. So the parallel is easy for people to understand - both of these things, food and art, are made by people who live in our communities.

Can I be honest? I'm uncomfortable with these comparisons of art and food. Personally, I'm not sure about measuring transcendent arts experiences against the basic need to eat.
Oh, I've had transcendent food experiences. [Laughs.] But with art, because it has that transcendent quality, people don't necessarily want to understand the realities of being a working artist. Something about that specialness, that transcendent quality, in some ways devalues the labor that's involved. I think there's a value in knowing it's a real job. I think there's value in knowing artists work hard.

It's similar with farm work. People have this mythical notion of what a farmer does. In reality, there is a lot of risk. You can't guarantee every crop will be successful. The traditional CSA allows patrons to buy into the produce and the inherent risk of being a farmer. Likewise, an artist can't guarantee that everything he does will be great. But he can ask people to invest in the value of what he does.

Describe the program: Does the model differ in any meaningful way from the traditional agricultural CSA?
It's pretty much a complete copy. We sell a total of 50 shares, and shareholders must pay upfront. Nobody knows what they'll get, though we hope everybody gets something they love.

This is a pretty sweet deal for collectors, right?
Yes. For $300 they get nine original pieces. They also get to attend three fun pick-up parties with the artists and local food producers. At these events, the shareholders get to meet the season's nine participating artists. They can strike up conversations with these artists or they can simply pick up their art and go home.

What about the economics for artists? As I understand it, the financial compensation isn't commensurate with their investment of time.
The artist's commission is $1,000 for 50 pieces. Of course, that's comparable to what many galleries pay for a single piece. So we ask participating artists to create something feasible for the program. Many artists contribute pieces that are worth much more than the commission, because they think of the program like a great calling card. It's a way for them to connect with 50 individuals who are interested in artists and their work.

What's the program's track record for connecting artists with future collectors of their work?
Our version of success is when the relationship continues beyond us. Several of our artists had follow-up commissions or purchases from someone who bought a CSA share. Of the nine artists who participated last summer, I think two or three had followups. For the program's one-year anniversary, we're hoping to do formal evaluations soon.

The idea is spreading fast. Already, the arts CSA has been independently replicated by arts organizations in two other cities. What's the most interesting thing you've seen from these other CSAs?
In Chicago, one of the program's contemporary artists made a ceramic potato. Just like food, art is so distinct to its place and the people who live there, so I love looking at the photographs from these other cities. I'm curious to see what happens in Miami - their arts community is very different from ours.

Back in Minnesota, your inaugural CSA was so successful you ended up offering a second share in fall 2010. You even doubled its size from 50 to 100 shareholders. You've since scaled back, though. In 2011, arts CSA memberships were available just once to only 50 Twin Cities-based shareholders. Why the shrinkage?
Because we're so busy supporting other cities and groups that want to replicate the program - and it feels better this way, too. To steal a joke from Laura Zabel, Springboard's executive director, we're more like a tiny organic farm. We're not a factory farm!


Head to Springboard's website for a guide to setting up a Community Supported Art program in your community. Christy DeSmith is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer. She covers art, culture, and travel.