If we didn't know better, we'd think there was a secret tunnel from Charleston to Brooklyn, one that took young Charlestonian artists, musicians, and creative types from their Southern home and deposited them smack dab in the middle of the nation's foremost hipster haven. Luckily, every now and then Brooklyn gives a little something back — like the idea that would become Charleston Supported Art (CSA), an art version of the community supported agriculture model that's set to launch in February 2014.
It started back in September, when local fiber artist Kristy Bishop heard about the program from a friend and fellow artist, Katya Usvitsky, who is based in Brooklyn. "I saw that she was involved with the CSA up there, and it looked like an amazing program," Bishop says. "I wanted to do something like that in Charleston, to keep Charleston current with other cities."
CSAs (where the "A" stands for art) have been around for about four years now — the program was originally started in St. Paul, Minn. by an arts services group called Springboard for the Arts and mnartists.org, a state-wide artist organization. "We started it sort of as a patron education program," says Andy Sturdevant, the artist resources director for Springboard. "A lot of people are interested in buying art and in buying local art specifically, but there can be a perceived barrier. People can feel like they don't know the scene or don't know how to start in terms of looking for artists to support and to buy. We thought the program should be something like a CSA [as in community supported agriculture], and the thing's that most like a CSA is a CSA. That's a model most people understood."
The program has since taken root in more than 40 communities around the country, including big cities like Seattle and Philadelphia and smaller towns like Burlington, Vt. and Arcata, Calif. They work similarly to their agriculture counterparts: customers purchase a share at the beginning of the year for anywhere between $250 and $500, and later in the year they receive a number of original works of art by selected local artists at one or more special pick-up events.
The process, though not terribly complicated, can be daunting — you've got to find high-quality artists willing to turn out enough pieces to supply the shareholders throughout the year, figure out pricing, and, in the Charleston program's case, scrape together funds to offer a stipend to each participating artist. It's a little much for one person, so Bishop recruited several other women in the local arts community to serve as co-founders, ending up with an impressive list that's fairly representative of the city's young movers and shakers. There's Erin Glaze Nathanson, former curator of the City Gallery at Waterfront Park who now works at ArtFields; Camela Guevara, artist and seamstress with the Charleston Garment Manufactory; Stacy Huggins, executive director of Redux; Karen Ann Myers, artist and the associate director of the Halsey Institute for Contemporary Art; and AnneTrabue Watson Nelson and Ann Simmons, both of the North Charleston Cultural Arts Department.
The group started putting together a plan, reaching out to programs in other cities and working with a CSA starter kit that Springboard offers. The end result is that starting in 2014, 18 artists will create 32 original pieces of art that will be distributed in three seasons — spring/summer, fall, and winter, with six artists slated for each season. Thirty-two shares will be available at a cost of $450 each season. In addition, each artist will receive a $1,500 stipend to help defray supply costs.
What's interesting about the CSA program is that it takes on a unique flavor in each city that starts one. And it's not just because each program uses local artists. In Philadelphia, for example, shareholders can take part in a folk art CSA in addition to a contemporary art one. In Asheville, N.C. the CSA is heavy on craft, like handblown glass, recycled metalwork, or woven baskets. And Charleston Supported Art, Simmons says, is unique in its own way. "We look at this as a platform for emerging artists. It's open to established artists as well, but it's really kind of like, 'Here I am,' an opportunity for newer artists."
The program is also aimed at stopping up that Charleston-Brooklyn tunnel — at least a little bit. "We find that a lot of the artists who start to make a name for themselves in the area end up moving away. It's a problem. So really our goal, our mission, is as we state — we want to connect artists with patrons — but really it's to strengthen the arts community here," Simmons continues.
Bishop agrees wholeheartedly. "We don't want Charleston to just be the place where people get their start as an artist, but also where you continue your career as an artist. If artists continue their career their work gets better, more interesting, and collectors can create a relationship with the artists rather than getting a few pieces while they're still here and then they move away and [local collectors] never hear from them again. It's creating a more long-term relationship."
From the shareholder side, Charleston Supported Art offers an inexpensive way for beginning or inexperienced collectors to start their art collection. Six pieces at $450 comes out to just $75 each, which is a hard price to beat — especially for original work. But that doesn't mean that seasoned collectors can't benefit as well. "If you sign up for a season, you're getting six pieces. That's a great start to a collection. But at the same time, those seasoned collectors, this is their opportunity to get into those new artists that they need to be aware of," Simmons says. "It's like, 'Check out these artists,' where maybe down the line it will be a valuable piece, and, you know, you heard about them first."
The popularity of the CSA program is yet another sign of how the art market is changing, with more artists seeking to develop a direct relationship with their buyers rather than rely solely on traditional galleries. But that doesn't mean CSAs are out to change the entire market. "People are really interested in knowing what's happening in their own communities, and in connecting directly with artists," Sturdevant says. "We certainly don't see the CSA as anything that replaces the current infrastructure. This is something that supplements people's interactions with artists, or, hopefully, creates an entry. If a person gets a box of art and there are two artists that they just really fall in love with — you know, they like everything, but they really love a couple of pieces — it's really easy for that person to follow that artists's career, go to their gallery show, or at least sign up for their mailing list."
Charleston Supported Art opened its call for artists on Nov. 1, and artists can apply through Dec. 1. The lucky 18 will be chosen by an anonymous jury and will participate in a Meet and Greet event in late February or early March of next year, as well as attend the pick-up event for whichever season they're creating work for. The Meet and Greet will be a small exhibition of works by the artists to allow potential shareholders to see the type of work they might receive in their CSA packages. It's also an excellent chance for artists to meet potential buyers. "We want to stress to artists that it's not just the stipend," Bishop says. "The benefit is their artwork's going to be in all these different people's hands who may have not been aware of them. I think that's the biggest takeaway for an artist — it's not the money, but the future opportunities that can come from being a part of this."
Artists in Charleston, Berkeley, and Dorchester counties are encouraged to apply. All mediums, both 2D and 3D, will be considered. To find out more, visit charlestonsupportedart.com.