Survival of the Innovative: FEAST and the evolving model of community-supported arts funding (from Arts Watch)

Posted by Tim Mikulski, Jan 27, 2010 0 comments

by Joanna Chin, Program Coordinator, Animating Democracy

According to the recently released National Arts Index, one third of arts groups are not making their budget.

The downturn in the economy, combined with the Index’s clear results, has shown that when giving dries up, an alarming number of arts groups are slowly pulled into financial starvation. This unsurprising revelation, now rooted in the Index’s data, leaves the field in an interesting predicament: Do we beg for more money to support a clearly failing subsidy model? Do we follow the suggestions of others who say to let financially weak nonprofits die?

A Darwinist at heart, I was happy to stumble upon an article in Next American City revealing that perhaps a more optimistic alternative exists: adapt and survive. We, as artists, pride ourselves on being creative but, as business people, still cling to old paradigms of audience engagement or follow a step behind widely popular trends (e.g., social networking).

However, organizations such as FEAST (Funding Emerging Art with Sustainable Tactics) in Brooklyn, NY, and Sunday Soup (a program of InCUBATE) in Chicago, illustrate the possibility of breaking away from government/funder aid with their innovative application of community-supported arts grantmaking.

As described in the Next American City article, “The Revolution Will Be Locally Funded”:

[With FEAST,] Locals pay admission to a volunteer-cooked dinner in exchange for the chance to vote on a set of artist proposals.  The winning artist takes home the proceeds and presents the resulting work at the next dinner.  Funded projects have included an underground library that circulates local artists’ work and a telegraph connecting the banks of the Gowanus Canal, inviting passersby to try tweeting in Morse code.  This new incubator for art gives rise to an alternative economy that circumvents the usual a gatekeepers and sets up a direct relationship between artist and audience.

Granted, this model has some kinks to work out. At present, it is highly reliant on volunteer manpower and donated spaces, so that basically all of $10-20 per person goes to the artist. Nevertheless, this application of what is essentially a benefit dinner is innovative in the way that it taps into new art audiences through its somewhat familiar (and therefore accessible) format, and creates momentum from people’s increasing desire to reconnect to their community, environment, and the things that they support.

The relatively low-dollar investment combined with almost immediate and tangible results is practically tailored to a socially aware middle class. Community-supported arts grant making enables the middle class to be art patrons but, furthermore it makes the group comfortable with participating in and funding the arts, a traditionally elitist activity. In addition, those familiar with green trends like community supported agriculture dinners or microfinance organizations like Kiva would feel at home with FEAST’s endeavor, as giving becomes less like charity and more like one half of a symbiotic relationship.

Finally, there’s just something fascinating about the narrative that is created when audiences have a more direct and sustained connection to the artists and their artwork. Essentially, I give the monetary equivalent of a decent meal out, get a say in who and what gets my money,  and am responsible for the actualization of a piece of art. Now, I start to feel financially and emotionally invested in seeing it through…and attending the next dinner. Not only is this an excellent recipe for continuing attendance, but participants are actively engaged in strengthening and connecting to their local arts community.

For an organization still in its first stages, FEAST is a promising alternative in addressing some of the major challenges facing our field. Even the still-evolving model of community-supported arts giving is proof that innovative solutions to concerns about funding and audience engagement exist for those able and willing to adapt.

Please login to post comments.