A box full of salad greens, tomatoes and more celeriac than the average household could ever eat -- these are the bounties people normally associate with farm shares or CSAs (community-supported agriculture programs). In exchange for an annual fee, a CSA membership keeps the kitchen stocked with fruits and vegetables from small, independent farms.
CSAs are so popular they're now offered for all sorts of homespun products, from artisan cheeses to organic beers. Here in the Twin Cities, a pair of nonprofits recently launched an entirely new genre of CSA -- the kind that keeps households supplied with local art.
"We pretty much stole the idea," said Betsy McDermott-Altheimer, associate director at Springboard for the Arts, an organization that helps local artists manage the business side of their work. The idea had been stirring in her head for years.
"I used to work for a cheese shop in Virginia," she explained. "I was just floored when farmers would bring the cheese into the shop, in a cooler, with straw in their hair." When she took a job at Springboard in 2009, she started wondering how to cultivate similar connections between artists and collectors.
Another inspiration was chef Alice Waters of Berkeley, Calif., and the "locavore" movement she helped spawn. "Local, simple food -- it's not something you have to move to France to experience," said McDermott-Altheimer. Likewise, people needn't buy paintings from New York galleries to be bona fide collectors.
In the case of the art CSA, they don't need thousands of dollars, either. Shareholders get nine artful objects for $300.
"For a young professional on a budget, it's a great thing," said Richfield resident Nick Zimet. An arts lover and acupuncturist, he participated in the first art CSA in April 2010. Zimet hasn't managed to display everything he acquired -- "I have a huge backlog of things that need to be framed," he admitted. This doesn't stop him from flaunting his stash of CSA art.
In particular, he loves a 12- by 12-inch stained glass panel by rural Minnesota artist Karl Unnasch. His wife, Liz Sanborn, favors two ceramic mugs by Minneapolis-based Maren Kloppmann and a hand-painted print by another Minneapolis artist, Amy Rice.
"It's been a way of collecting things we wouldn't expect," said Paul Zellweger, a Rochester-based entrepreneur who also joined the art CSA last year. Like Zimet, he adores Unnasch's stained glass panel. In fact, Zellweger ended up commissioning more pieces by the artist.
As for the objects Zellweger doesn't fancy -- the art CSA equivalents of unwanted celeriac -- "it allows us to gift people with things they wouldn't expect," he said with a snicker.
This year's crop
A joint project of Springboard for the Arts and MNartists.org, the art CSA is back with a fresh crop for 2011: St. Paul-based furniture designer Scott McGlasson promises wood-turned functional items such as plates and bowls. Dana Johnson of St. Paul will contribute original paintings on maple board. On the wilder side, Minneapolis-based fashion designer Danielle Everine is making miniature fur suitcases.
Shareholders will collect their hauls at three pickup parties scheduled for July and August. Borrowing from McDermott-Altheimer's encounters with cheesemakers, these informal events are designed to encourage mingling of collectors and creators.
With copycats popping up in Chicago and Cambridge, Mass., the fledgling art CSA enjoys big buzz in the creative world. The program is small, though -- it offers only 50 shares, available starting Monday at 10 a.m.
On your mark, get set -- buyers are sure to pounce.
"We were overwhelmed when the original 50 shares sold in fewer than eight hours," said McDermott-Altheimer "From the get-go, this was the little project that goes. We made it up as we went along, but clearly we struck a vein."