We’ve heard about community-supported agriculture projects, also known as CSAs, where members pay a fee in exchange for regular pick-ups of fresh, locally grown fruits and veggies. But Tuesday night the Cambridge Center for Adult Education (CCAE) is applying the ever-popular concept to art.
Cambridge resident Jason Burns is a CSArt subscriber. I met him at an earlier harvest party hosted by Eastern Bank in its Kendall Square branch office. He's signed on with farm-fed CSAs in the past, but here — instead of picking up a box of fresh carrots or kale — Burns is getting one that contains three pieces of original art.
"I don’t like a lot of art," he admitted, "and there may well be something in there that’s the equivalent of some weird green that I don’t know what to do with. But I know a lot of people that like things that I don’t like, so I’ll have some gifts. If there’s two things that I like I will regard this as a success."
Fifty shareholders pay a $300 dollar fee, up front. Then they wait to claim their three boxes — each containing three works of art — at three separate harvest parties.
Liz Augustine of Maynard showed up with her husband, Robert.
"We love collecting art," she explained, adding, "we collect from people we’ve met, we collect from places we’ve been."
The couple doesn't spend a lot of money on the works they ordinarily see in galleries or at open studios. This art-buying experience is novel, Augustine said, "because it’s all a mystery until you open the box."
And that’s the fun part — for Augustine and a lot of the shareholders here.
But there's a more serious side to this story, too. The CSArt model is cultivating an alternative ecosystem for making, distributing and buying art, according to Susan Hartnett. Hartnett directs the CCAE and co-created this CSArt program with support from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. But the concept wasn’t Hartnett's idea. A nonprofit in the Twin Cities piloted a similar setup a year ago.
"It's not surprising, because, you know, fish and local vegetables, why not local art?" Hartnett said.
Following that lead, five cities around the country have adopted the twist, "but each of us is doing it in a different way," Harnett said. She calls CSArt a "business development project" for nine participating artists.
Here’s how it works: Fifty shareholders pay a $300 dollar fee, up front. Then they wait to claim their three boxes — each containing three works of art — at three separate harvest parties.
The initial fee is "seed capital" for entrepreneurial artists, Harnett explained, "because they’re each given a $1,500 stipend — but it’s really seed capital."
Then the Cambridge-area artists grapple with the challenge of producing 50 works of art on a tight budget with a hard deadline.
"Which has been fun to watch people try to do that," Hartnett said.
The nine artists also receive instruction and support from teachers and professionals associated with the CCAE throughout the process. In the end they will come together in a panel to assess and discuss everything they've learned.
"Fifty is a lot," said Grace Durnford. She made 50 mixed media pieces using silk screen, stenciled acrylic paint and sewn lines. There’s one inside each of the boxes being distributed.
"Obviously you didn’t want to cut corners on materials or cut corners on quality, but in order for this to be a feasible, moneymaking project, you did have to figure out a way of doing things in sort of an assembly line fashion," she said.
Now, the idea of churning out 50 pieces by harvest time — and "monetizing them," as Durnford put it — might make some working artists cringe. But not this one. Durford has a full-time job with a Cambridge-based NGO, and doesn't necessarily see art-making as a career path. Instead, she's really excited about the idea of having her works hanging up "in 50 different strangers’ houses." And who knows, if her pieces catch on they could very well end up being the next "big thing" on the popular craft website, Etsy.com.
Sculptor Ed Tekeian’s contribution to the box is a crop of palm-sized 3-D action figures. They’re made of thin, layered streams of plastic, and look like robots or monsters.
"If I could sell that little dude for $30 or $40, that would be pretty great," he said.
At this harvest party, though, Tekeian is hunting for feedback from the shareholders.
"I’d love to know if the idea holds, you know, how many people are going to look at it and say, 'Eh, I don’t really connect with this,' versus how many people are going to like it? I’m most interested in meeting people that don’t connect with it and understanding why," he said. (For the record, everyone I spoke with loved his "little dudes.")
Most of the shareholders choose to open their boxes at home, it seems –- rather than show a curious reporter the cornucopia inside. But one person is was willing to give me a peak: Hartnett. She brought this concept to life — but she also paid in to be a member.
"It’s taped shut," Hartnett said while carefully peeling the flaps open. Then, with widening eyes, she gasped. A nest of packing paper separated to reveal a lovingly crafted bounty. "Oh my God, look how beautiful! Oh, this is very good too," she went on.
At Tuesday night's final harvest party of the season, Hartnett and the other 49 shareholders will claim the last of their three big boxes of art. Buying local is hot, apparently, because she said the waiting list for the program's next round is already filling up.
This program aired on October 18, 2011.