Community-Supported Art: The New CSAs

by Eleanor Cleverly


On November 12, Christie's auction house made history with the sale of Francis Bacon's triptych "Three Studies of Lucian Freud," an oil-on-canvas work from 1969 that depicts abstract images of Bacon's artist friend. Freud is seated against a spatially disorienting background, his face both beautiful and grotesque. Beyond the art world's critique of the painting's value, the $142 million sale is beyond precedent, signaling what some argue is the apex in a market that has grown rapidly since Bacon began creating.

Standing in juxtaposition to this exorbitant transaction is a movement to bring the production and distribution of art back to communities, where diversity and sustainability rein, and where the relationship between artist and patron is paramount. In a new age of accessibility and local exchange models, Community-Supported Art, or CSAs, have sprung up across the country, challenging the belief that original creations are for a privileged few.

Borrowing both in acronym and model from the farm-to-table movement, now a staple in most urban (and increasingly suburban) regions, CSAs rely on a subscription model that selects local artists and craftspeople, dedicated to producing a limited run of work, to deliver original pieces to an established membership. St. Paul, Minnesota's Springboard for the Arts, along with the artist locator site, launched the first of its kind five years ago, grounded in the belief that its enterprise could transform the way that regional artists garner financial support and that collectors discover new work.

As Laura Zabel, executive director of Springboard, remarked in the recent New York Times article "‘Buy Local’ Gets Creative," pricing the CSA has been in itself an art form. With the goal of being "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," each $300 share reserves nine works for members, one from each featured artist.

The CSA model does mean embracing a little risk, on the part of both creator and patron. Just as a food CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) may deliver an unusual assortment of seasonal rarities, challenging members to diverge from staid recipes, art CSAs offer selections that may differ radically from commercial artwork or crafts that many are accustomed to.

In an environment that offers wealth for very few creators and collectors, and leaves little in terms of sustainable models for artistic practice, CSAs present an opportunity to not only support the sector, but also connect communities through artistic expression, honoring individuality and reciprocity, and knitting together groups in unexpected and potentially life-altering ways. While the model has just begun to take root, its promise for strengthening creative practice and public dialogue is one worth exploring.

Eleanor Cleverly is an Arts & Culture Fellow at New Dream.