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Abigail Satinsky’s first CSA experience was “a little weird,” she recalls. “I signed up with too many people and wound up with one-fourth of a pepper.” Satinsky, the program director at nonprofit gallery threewalls (119 N Peoria St, no. 2D), concluded that community-supported agriculture is “a great model” anyway. “I think it really connects people to the experience of how they get their food.” She hopes threewalls’ new program inspires a similar loyalty toward local artists: CSA, in this case, stands for Community-Supported Art.
Threewalls isn’t targeting Chicagoans who buy wilted Jeff Koonses shipped from halfway around the world, but those who consider themselves too broke to collect art at all. For $350—less than the cost of one piece by a typical emerging artist—CSA subscribers receive six artworks, chosen from a pool of 12, over the next three months. (The price increases to $400 after April 30. At press time, threewalls had sold 52 of 100 shares.) “There’s an element of surprise,” Satinsky says. “We stand by all 12, but the reality is, you’re going to get some things you like more than others.”
Though the CSA’s dozen Chicago-based contributors range from M.F.A. students to globe-trotting artists with extensive C.V.s, I can’t spot any moldy rutabagas in the bunch. Satinsky and threewalls’ executive director, Shannon Stratton, picked photographers Jason Lazarus and Jessica Labatte, painter Pamela Fraser, video artist Steve Reinke and Gaylord Phoenix author Edie Fake, among other artists whose work appears every season at museums and galleries. Each received a $1,000 commission to create an edition of 50. Proceeds from the CSA will fund threewalls’ programs, but building an elusive “local collector base” is one of Satinsky’s primary concerns.
I asked a few Chicago collectors why our galleries and artists struggle to attract a local audience. Jefferson Godard, director of acquisitions for the MCA’s Emerge donor affinity group, believes galleries need to take more risks—and sees some emerging artists charging too much for their work. Scott J. Hunter says local institutions nurture “certain emerging artists but [do] not necessarily sustain that interest as individuals move into mid-career.” Independent curator Britton Bertran, who ran the gallery 40000 from 2005–08, tells me, “I think the visual arts get short shrift around here. People want to spend their money on going to see theater or music.”
But art “contributes to a vibrant quality of life” in Chicago, Satinsky insists. Justine Jentes, who ran the insideART gallery and art tours in the 1990s, collects locally because “I really like being able to meet the person who makes the work,” she explains. “To understand more about their philosophy, particularly their process…makes it more compelling for me.” You can meet the CSA’s artists April 30, when threewalls hosts a launch party featuring Hornswaggler Arts’ cocktails and eats from the Tamalli Space Charros art collective’s food truck.
Satinsky grasped the affinity between art and food a few years ago, when her own collective, InCUBATE, ran Sunday Soup, a program that funneled monthly brunch fees into microgrants for artists. The experience sparked her interest in unusual funding streams. It also offers proof that small sums can have a big impact. Many works in Jentes’s collection cost less than $1,000 apiece; Bertran expands his by setting aside $150 per month. “I think it’s a novel approach,” he says of the CSA. “All you have to do, a lot, with collectors, is get them in the door and get them home with their first piece of art. That’s the hook. Then they’re going to come back.”