When it comes to creating regular customers for local goods, farmers have developed one of the more interesting models. Charge a flat fee that covers an entire growing season, and in exchange, make regular deliveries of whatever produce is ready for harvest.
It’s called a CSA, for Community Supported Agriculture, and now galleries in several cities, including Nashville, are trying a twist. Instead of a crate of food, customers pay for a box of art–and you get what you get.
Seed Space Gallery is South of downtown, in a cavernous old factory that’s been sliced into tall, narrow art studios. A few months ago, during the first try at a CSA, something of an assembly line feel returned to that industrial space. Large boxes, the kind used to send apples to a grocery store, are stacked waist-high: empties on one side of the room, boxes packed full of art on the other, a table manned by volunteer Janet Decker Yanez stands in between.
Artist Sher Fick watches as her art, a prescription pill bottle sheathed in hand-stitched fabric, is carefully placed into a sort of next of packing paper that Yanez has carefully twisted into shape that’s equal parts pretty and protective. Next to Fick’s bottle, Yanez places creations from four other artists: a print, a plaque, a painting, and another in its own small box, about the size of a coffee mug.
“It’s sculptures,” she explains about the box. “And actually we don’t really know what’s in here because each one is going to be a little bit different.”
RISK AND REWARD
Seed Space curator Rachel Bubis says a CSA involves going out on a limb, assuming customers are willing to buy art they’ve never seen before or be interested at all. She says a gallery in Minneapolis developed the general model of taking a financial risk by paying artists ahead of time, on the assumption that enough people will be interested in buying art by way of a grab-bag.
It’s a risky move for the gallery, but as an artist Sher Fick points out that the experiment meant a sure thing for her. “I was excited because I was making money, which is really rare as an artist.” Even more than that, Fick says she’s excited about the potential exposure.
Normally Fick shows her embellished pill bottles in large masses of fifty or so, grouped on an altar-like table in a gallery. Her artistic statement about living a medicated life makes a visual impact but rarely leaves the gallery. She says sending the bottles out one by one feels different, and compares her experience with the CSA to releasing sea turtles.
“All these perfect little creatures going out into the world. Some may come back; maybe a collector is going to fall in love and follow your career, you don’t know.”
A couple of days after the boxes are packed, customers are invited to come to the gallery to claim their art. Autumn Parrot reaches into her box and pulls out a piece of plexiglass covered with transparent color in an abstract design. She declares it beautiful and says it reminds her of a geode.
Some in the steady stream of customers are other artists, but young professionals just a step or two beyond that first job are well represented, too. Most seem to be like Parrot: plugged into the local art scene, attend lots of gallery openings, on a budget. As Parrot puts it, “I’m sort of a low-price art buyer.”
The CSA’s pricing works out to about $50 a piece. That’s a lot less than what most of the artists involved usually charge, but just about right for the entry-level art buyer. For that price, they essentially get sample-size versions of the artists’ work. Parrot says that’s really all that she can handle right now, anyway, since her house is sort of small. “There’s only so many places that the art can go,” she says with a light laugh. “I’m not in the market for really large art at this point.”
MAKING THAT CONNECTION
For the artists there’s always the hope that the sample sent out in a CSA box might catch someone’s eye and lead to something more. Across the room, Sher Fick’s pill bottle is making an impression on Lee Pepper. He tells Fick that works for a company that does drug and alcohol treatment, and says he’ll take it into his office the next week, “so we can talk about it.”
Fick is quick to respond. “Well, you know, I have other pieces if you want to borrow them at any time to get that conversation going.” If that pans out, it’s what Fick had hoped for: more chances for her work to be seen.
The folks at Seed Space Gallery say their first try at a CSA was enough of a success that this summer they commissioned a new crop of art to sell again the same way.