Published: August 4, 2013 By RANDY KENNEDY
PITTSBURGH — For years, Barbara Johnstone, a professor of linguistics at Carnegie Mellon University here, bought shares in a C.S.A. — a community-supported agriculture program — and picked up her occasional bags of tubers or tomatoes or whatever the member farms were harvesting. Her farm shares eventually lapsed. (“Too much kale,” she said.) But on a recent summer evening, she showed up at a C.S.A. pickup location downtown and walked out carrying a brown paper bag filled with a completely different kind of produce. It was no good for eating, but it was just as homegrown and sustainable as what she used to get: contemporary art, fresh out of local studios.
“It’s kind of like Christmas in the middle of July,” said Ms. Johnstone, who had just gone through her bag to see what her $350 share had bought. The answer was a Surrealistic aluminum sculpture (of a pig’s jawbone, by William Kofmehl III), a print (a deadpan image appropriated from a lawn-care book, by Kim Beck) and a ceramic piece (partly about slavery, by Alexi Morrissey). Without even having to change the abbreviation, the C.S.A. idea has fully made the leap from agriculture to art. After the first program started four years ago in Minnesota, demonstrating that the concept worked just as well for art lovers as for locavores, community-supported art programs are popping up all over the country: in Pittsburgh, now in its first year; Miami; Brooklyn; Lincoln, Neb.; Fargo, N.D.
PITTSBURGH Blaine Siegel, right, an organizer of the C.S.A. at the Space gallery, presents local art by Alexi Morrissey to a shareholder.
The goal, borrowed from the world of small farms, is a deeper-than-commerce connection between people who make things and people who buy them. The art programs are designed to be self-supporting: Money from shares is used to pay the artists, who are usually chosen by a jury, to produce a small work in an edition of 50 or however many shares have been sold. The shareholders are often taking a leap of faith. They don’t know in advance what the artists will make and find out only at the pickup events, which are as much about getting to know the artists as collecting the fruits of their shares.
The C.S.A.’s have flourished in larger cities as a kind of organic alternative to the dominance of the commercial gallery system and in smaller places as a way to make up for the dearth of galleries, as a means of helping emerging artists and attracting people who are interested in art but feel they have neither the means nor the connections to collect it.
“A lot of our people who bought shares have virtually no real experience with contemporary art,” said Dayna Del Val, executive director of the Arts Partnership in Fargo, which began a C.S.A. last year, selling 50 shares at $300 each for pieces from nine local artists. “They’re going to a big-box store and buying prints of Monet’s ‘Water Lilies,’ if they have anything.”
Since the idea was set in motion in 2010 by Springboard for the Arts, a St. Paul nonprofit organization, and mnartists.org, an online database of Minnesota artists, it has taken on new personalities as it has migrated.
C.S.A. shareholders in Minneapolis look at their take, by Areca Roe and Danielle Everine.
In Philadelphia, a folk-art C.S.A. has sprung up in addition to a more conventional contemporary art program. In Lincoln — where the mayor bought a C.S.A. share — an original piece of poetry by Ted Kooser, a former poet laureate of the United States, is among this year’s offerings. In Pittsburgh, where that C.S.A. was started by four friends in the city’s art world, there is also a performing-arts version, founded this year, in which plays, concerts and other events are created specially for the shareholders. In Michigan, a combined art-food C.S.A. is in the works.
“I think it has worked in part because lots of places are already familiar with farm C.S.A.’s,” said Dennis Scholl, who oversees the national arts program for the Knight Foundation, which has provided support to art C.S.A.’s, including early seed money to help create a guidebook used by people in many cities to set up their programs. “Here, instead of getting a basket of carrots or zucchini, you get a basket of artworks,” he said.
Laura Zabel, the executive director of Springboard for the Arts, said that a lot of thinking went into the particulars of the program, so it would have the same grass-roots potential as farm C.S.A.’s. The price, usually annual, for the shares, she said, was set so that it would be “high enough to promise to the artists that some of these people will have the ability to continue buying their work going forward, but low enough so a lot people feel like they can afford it.”
Prices range from $450 for a share in Miami to as low as $50 a share in a craft-art program in Flint, Mich. An art and design C.S.A., which organizers plan to get under way in Brooklyn in the fall, will charge $500 a share, with partial shares available.
There were some initial worries about whether established collectors would become involved and buy multiple shares as a way to place relatively inexpensive bets on up-and-coming artists, Ms. Zabel said. But the programs are appearing to remain fairly uncorrupted that way. They tend chiefly to attract young people, she said, and those whom “I would describe as my parents,” she said. “Their children are grown and gone, and they’re kind of interested in reinvesting in their community and getting involved with something.”
In Pittsburgh, about 30 buyers arrived on a recent sunny summer evening at Space gallery, a nonprofit that inhabits what was once a downtown video pornography store, to find their shares waiting for them on large tables, in nice brown paper bags with the question “Do You Know Where Your Art Comes From?” printed on the side. (One of the pieces from an earlier share pickup, by the artist Lenka Clayton, took the concept of local to a new level: framed swatches of a plum-colored shirt once owned by Andy Warhol, native son.)
Rupam Sharan, a gastroenterologist, and his wife, Serena, heard about the program on public radio. “We’re interested in contemporary art, but haven’t started a collection yet,” Dr. Sharan said. “This is us getting our feet wet.”
Ms. Beck, the artist who made the print borrowed from an old lawn-care book, said she was interested in the program because the dynamic was so different from gallery shows. “There’s that beautiful thing about looking at art and loving it so much you want it, and of course normally you know you can’t have it,” said Ms. Beck, who lives in Pittsburgh and New York City. “But here all these people know they can. And they’ve already paid for it, so there’s no pressure.”
What happens if the shareholders don’t like the pieces? “People sometimes ask us that when they come to the pickups, but we’ve never had anyone come back to complain,” said Casey Droege, a local artist and one of the Pittsburgh program’s founders. Last year in Fargo, a local artist, Jill Johnson, contributed an eerie wax-figure piece that shareholders did not know quite what to make of. This year she returned with something equally idiosyncratic but slightly more accessible: a painting made with Jell-O powder. “If you’re from here,” Ms. Del Val said, “you know Jell-O. “There isn’t a church around here that doesn’t serve a lot of Jell-O at potlucks.”