Can the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model feed artists?

The earth is warming up, cold weather crops like kale and chard are beginning to sprout, and central New Jersey locavores are gearing up for a season of farm shares through their CSAs (community supported agriculture). For those who seek sustenance in local art and culture, there’s the Trenton Art CSA.

Founded by artist, writer and Trenton’s Art All Day founder Lauren Otis and artist, photographer, curator and graphic designer Andrew Wilkinson in 2014, Trenton Community Supported Art is based on the agricultural CSA model, in which shareholders pay up front for a season’s worth of bounty. Here’s how it works with the art: Trenton CSArt shares cost $500 ($525 using Paypal). Shareholders are entitled to eight pieces of original art created by each of the CSA’s artists. Unlike the agricultural model, where shareholders pick up their produce weekly, CSArt shareholders pick up their art at a one-time mixer at Otis’s and Wilkinson’s Cass Street studios in Trenton, where they also get an opportunity to meet the artists.

 “Community Supported Agriculture has been around for years, helping small farmers prosper while giving shareholders fresh, healthy, local produce,” says Otis. “Now Community Supported Art has gaining a foothold in cities across the country, using the same model to benefit artists and give shareholders new, local art. Trenton plays host to a diverse and talented community of artists, but has limited local exhibition and sales opportunities. Trenton CSArt seeks to fill this gap, providing a bridge between gifted artists and interested patrons. Our inaugural Trenton CSArt put over $8,000 in the pockets of Trenton-area artists and gave 25 patrons eight original works of art at a very reasonable price.”

Otis, who lives in the capital city, got the idea when he read about art CSAs in Brooklyn and Philadelphia. Wilkinson was immediately game. With their Cass Street studio and having curated exhibits at Trenton Artworks, both are well connected to the artists of Trenton. “We had the right skills and are web and social media savvy so we pumped the idea and did better than expected in the first season – media attention took them over the limit and they had to ask the artists to produce more work.

Otis and Wilkinson take 15 percent of the revenue to cover administration costs, although they frequently put in more than they take. The work of running the CSArt involves not only promotions but selecting and meeting with artists, making sure everything operates according to schedule, and hosting the mixer. There are many details to be attended to, such as the packaging of the artwork. Last year they discovered the artwork fit nicely into pizza boxes so they commissioned an artist to stencil a design for an order of clean pizza boxes that contains the artwork, matted and sealed in a plastic sleeve.

This year, Wilkinson and Otis brought on Hopewell Valley Community Bank as a sponsor. “They are our bank so we asked, in exchange for mentioning them on the website, and they said sure,” says Wilkinson.

“People who might not be able to afford larger works by these artists can start a collection with smaller pieces or boost an existing collection,” says Wilkinson. “This stands apart for the artists, as well. Unlike other non-profits that exhibit artwork in a gallery and people may or may not buy it, artists are guaranteed to make money. It also leads to other sales for them.” 

The focus this year is on Trenton’s eight artists who are part of Trenton’s celebrated street art and graffiti scene: Billy MF Brown, Will “Kasso” Condry, Demer, Lank, MRX+1, Leon Rainbow, Ras and Uhm. As with an agricultural CSA, you don’t get your pick of the crop but rather one from each group, or in this case, artist – though CSArt members have been known to split shares or swap amongst themselves. “You may not like all the work,” admits Wilkinson. Samples of the artwork are shown on the website.

“Leon is doing mixed media with newspapers and little sculptures, Will Kasso is more of a painter but will do small scale acrylics, one a silkscreen,” says Wilkinson. “The work is strong and vibrant, and shareholders will automatically get a mini graffiti collection.” Wilkinson and Otis hold a work from each artist to build an archive, and have scheduled two exhibits for the archive later in the year.

Last year’s shareholders came from Ewing, Lawrenceville, Princeton and Trenton. Among them were artists, attorneys, Princeton University employees and business owners in the Trenton area. Their ages were 30s, 40s and up. “People who loved idea, especially businesses looking for something to display. Lauren and I have a good reputation here, and when you reverse engineer the math, you’re getting works of art for under $50. You couldn’t get anything from these artists at that price.”

Food and wine is served at the mixer, with music provided by a DJ. Wilkinson, who lives in nearby Titusville, and Otis bought the Cass Street Studio, in Trenton’s South Ward, from book artist Sarah Stengel, one of the artists featured in last year’s CSArt. In addition to being the home base for CSArt, Otis uses space for his word-based art and Wilkinson operates his photography business, conducted meetings in the space. Built in 1900, the two-story building was once home to the Polish Falcons Club, with a bar on the lower level and dancing upstairs. Otis and Wilkinson rent the first floor to a staffing agency, helping with their maintenance costs.

So what’s in running a CSArt for Otis and Wilkinson? “It’s a get rich slow scheme,” says Wilkinson. “It allows us to be engaged with the art community and give them an opportunity. Opportunities are limited in this area, and this a different approach. We get to meet interesting people we haven’t encountered before and it feels good to connect artists to buyers. We’re not in it for profit but for supporting community. And there’s never a dull moment.”

This year’s Trenton CSArt is almost half sold out. 

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The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.

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