Transforming Cities with Community Supported Art

A version of this piece originally appeared on Vitamin W

Artists can transform cities. They turn wasted buildings into studios and lofts. Galleries and cafes follow. The neighborhood gentrifies. Rents go up. Next come condos…

But do cities return the favor? Laura Zabel of Springboard for the Arts in Minneapolis thinks they should.

She developed an innovative program called Community Supported Art. It’s patterned after community support agriculture (CSA), programs in which farmers sells shares in the harvest (rather than individual veggies) in exchange for regular deliveries of produce. At Springboard, “our big goal is creating a new system of supporting art. It’s about giving communities the ability to tap into the resources that artists have.”

Regularly Scheduled Art
The idea for community supported artists came to her after seeing her mother’s regular veg delivery. Not aimed at the usual collector class, Community Supported Art program reaches people who are concerned with supporting local economic community – such as coop members – who might be intimidated by artists. The Community Supported Art program works like this: nine artists receive a commission to produce 50 shares. People pay $300 for a share and receive one piece of work from each artist, which could be stained glass, ceramic, photographs or letterpress editions of a poem. Said Zabel, “It’s designed for people who aren’t part of art community, who are intimidated by going to a gallery. It creates an on ramp to finding out who is making work and it’s about making relationships between artists and communities, having the experience of meeting artists”.

The Community Supported Art program in Minneapolis is so popular, it regularly sells out. And it does foster relationships: Zabel tells how one stained glass artist received a commission to do four more pieces from a shareholder.

In addition to supporting art, Springboard is regarded as an economic community development initiative. They get national funding -lots of it – and from donors outside the arts. It’s grown so much that the staff has increased fourfold in seven years.

“We started thinking about building reciprocal relationships between artists and community – that’s how we define ourselves. Fundamentally our work is making artists more visible and more valued.” The goal: connecting individuals, business and organizations directly to artists.

Zabel says, “I believe that Springboard is the only artist-led economic development agency in the country.” She describes how the local power company asked Springboard to withdraw a grant application from an arts fund and resubmit to economic sustainability. Rather than rely on the same funders, Springboard is more entrepreneurial than other nonprofits – instead of looking for funders to pay for their programs, they ask the community what it wants to make happen.

Health Vouchers for Artists
Artists are twice as likely to be uninsurance as average Americans. People warned her, no one could tackle health insurance. They were right, Zabel admits, “We couldn’t do anything about health insurance, but we could do something about health care. We could connect artists directly and help them navigate the system.” Springboard created a voucher program with a network with five federally qualified clinics. Artists can get medical, dental or even alternative health care. They run health fair days, screening days and flu shot days. The result: some 4000 artists received health care who might not have otherwise.

Artists need housing too – and not at the whim of condo-hungry landlords. Springboard helped neighborhoods identify artists as a micromarket and has co-published home ownerships guides to help artists purchase homes. Zabel says, “Artists lead the way to development and vibrancy. If you are going to rely on artists for the vibrancy of your city you need to support the quality of their life too.”

The Reverse Broken Window Theory
Minneapolis is in the middle of a massive $1 billion four-year light-rail transit project. As you can imagine with a lot of local hassles related to construction noise and detours. Springboard has trained 300 artists in community engagement and place-making. In turn, they have created some 60 projects around the city to cheer up those who are effected. Zabel says, “It gives business owners the experience of working with an artist and see that artists bring value.” Along a fenced-off roadway, stained glass artist Steve Bougie did an installation embedded into the chain link fence, bringing delight to those waiting in endless traffic. A cabaret artist has performed in front a Vietnamese restaurant that has been cut off from the road from a construction moat; those nights see a 30-40% uptick in business.

Ultimately Zabel hopes that “whenever someone in the community has sticky problem, their first thought is to call an artist, that they know how to find artists, and pay artists and that they understand their value.”

The word is getting out: more and more mayors ask for help enticing artists to move to their cities. Zabel finds working with the smaller cities like Fergus Falls, Min. or Macon, Ga most exciting.

Trained in drama rather than economic development, Zabel says, “There’s a lot to be said about not knowing the way to do things – just doing them the way it makes sense. Theater informs my work – it demands collaboration and risk-taking.”

But unlike other artists, Zabel doesn’t mind derivative works, “I love when people take our ideas.” After all, it helps both artists and their cities.

[Image credit: Unitopia, Flickr]

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