“Look, these people are making art here”: How Community Supported Art thrives in Lincoln, Nebraska

This story is part of THE REPLICATORS, a series highlighting artists and organizations that have used toolkits and programs offered on Creative Exchange to create new programming in their community. Read the first, about Irrigate in Cleveland. Click here to see all of the Creative Exchange toolkit offerings.  

Since the 1980s, Community Supported Agriculture programs have allowed participants to buy shares and receive deliveries of fresh produce from local farms. Now, a similar model is spreading across the country, supporting another group of community makers: artists.

Community Supported Art originated in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2010, launched by MNArtists.org and Springboard for the Arts. Just as agricultural CSA programs connect people with area farmers and food grown near their homes, Community Supported Art allows people to support artists where they live. The idea is that giving artists paid work and fostering relationships between artists and patrons can fuel a stronger arts community.

Springboard for the Arts quickly recognized the value of the model beyond St. Paul, and created a toolkit to help other Community Supported Art programs get started. The concept and the toolkit’s resources are flexible enough to be adopted by any urban or rural community. More than 50 programs have been launched since 2011 in the U.S. and Canada, and 24 programs have had a season in 2015 or have one planned for 2016.

One of those programs is in Lincoln, Nebraska, which launched its CSA in 2013; its third season of art will be released to shareholders on September 27. The Lincoln Arts Council discovered the CSA toolkit while searching for a project they could collaborate on with a local bank, Union Bank and Trust.

The bank offered to exclusively sponsor a new arts project, says Lori McAlister, the arts council’s Development Director. When the council chose Community Supported Art, the bank made a three-year commitment to sponsoring the program.

“We’re a very agriculturally based state and community anyway, so the idea of doing something based on Community Supported Agriculture was exciting to us,” McAlister says.

Union Bank’s sponsorship allowed Lincoln to slightly tweak the model: Though Community Supported Art is designed to be financially self-sufficient program, the bank’s support lets the Lincoln Arts Council pay a higher commission to artists. Of the toolkit, McAlister says, “I appreciate that they give you a lot of leeway to tailor-make it to your situation and to your community.”

With that leeway comes one-on-one guidance as organizations navigate the process. Though the kit is free, it’s not just a download link: As with all toolkits offered on Creative Exchange, requesting a kit means corresponding directly with Springboard for the Arts. For CSA, that includes an email from Andy Sturdevant, Springboard’s Artist Resources Director.

“It’s important that the kit is emailed with a personal message, as opposed to just downloaded. That makes for a more personal connection,” Sturdevant explains. “It’s easier for the person requesting the toolkit to feel comfortable asking follow-up questions, since they’ve been personally introduced.”

That personal contact has been helpful for the Lincoln Arts Council not only to ask for specific information, but also to brainstorm solutions to problems that arise over time.

One of those challenges has been offering a variety of artistic mediums and themes in each share. McAlister remembers, “We had a lot of visual artists submitting proposals for photos, paintings, sketches — really beautiful work, but it was all flat.”

To solve the issue, the arts council has worked to include non-visual art each season. This year’s pieces include a tribute to Nebraska’s Plains tribes recorded by jazz duo Jackie Allen and Hans Sturm; a CD of songs accompanied by original images from visual artist and musician Wendy Jane Bantam; and a project called MARS MAPS by artist Sara Kovanda, which includes prints of the maps and thumb drives containing “an original score of Martian Music, thus enhancing the experience with otherworldly sound.”

Including performing arts in the lineup has helped the council organize more events for artists and shareholders to come together. In the past, McAlister says, many shareholders missed the one-time delivery event, when they were supposed to pick up their boxes of art.

This year, artists were asked to host shareholder-exclusive open houses at their studios, letting visitors see where and how they make their work. At this season’s first open house in May, photographer Michael Forsberg opened his studio, and Jackie Allen and Hans Sturm performed a selection from the music they composed.

Besides introducing shareholders to artists, the council has learned the value of bringing the artists together in person. That idea grew out of the need to support artists as they take on the major work of not only creating an original piece, but reproducing it up to 50 times — one for each share. For newer artists, the council realized, that task can be daunting.

To solve the problem, they organized an artist get-together after the lineup was announced. It gave the artists a chance to get to know each other and share what they were creating.

“Having that meeting kind of pushes you to make a decision, and having something to show to the other artists was a good thing,” says printmaker and art professor Karen Kunc, one of this season’s artists. “I think we were all excited and inspired by hearing about everyone else’s ambitions. We all made work that’s above and beyond.”

As a longtime professional artist, Kunc is one of the more established artists in this year’s share. It’s been valuable for the program to include a variety of artists, from those who are known in Lincoln and beyond to those trying to gain local recognition.

“One of the things we’ve really found to be a strength is to have some emerging, lesser-known artists,” McAlister says. “It’s equally important, we’ve found, to have one or two lead artists or celebrity artists, whose names give a little extra marketing boost to the shares.”

Lincoln’s first CSA season got that boost when former U.S. poet laureate Ted Kooser offered to contribute a poem. As a Lincoln area resident, Kooser was instantly recognizable to potential shareholders. He not only waived his artist commission, but was also the first to purchase a share that first season.

“Ted was a huge boost to introducing the program to the community,” McAlister says.

Big names like Kooser have drawn attention to Lincoln’s program, but discovery of the new is also integral to CSA.

That’s been the delight of the program for Anne Woita, a shareholder all three years of Lincoln’s program so far. Woita is an accountant and serves on the board of an arts nonprofit. As an arts appreciator who doesn’t make art herself, she enjoys the exposure that CSA provides.

“I’m an accountant; my world is very black and white, so any time I can experience art, it’s like a shot in the arm,” Woita says. “I’m not a visual artist at all, I don’t think I could even do a stick man, but I’ve really grown to appreciate the art more, and the people who create the art that make our lives that much richer.”

Such arts enthusiasts are essential for CSA and the arts community, Karen Kunc says: “I think we always need to cultivate people who appreciate and want to live with the art that these artists are making.”

Woita says that the CSA model instantly captured her attention. “It gives wonderful exposure to those artists,” she says. “It also gives them a paycheck, which is really important, because no one wants to have starving artists in Lincoln.”

Exposure was what drew Kelly Rush, another of this year’s lineup, to the program. Rush is a producer at Nebraska Public Television and has been a clay and ceramics artist for about 25 years. She knew her work would qualify for the Nebraska-centric program because it evokes farming and rural life: Her signature items are ceramic oil cans.

Because she doesn’t often show or promote her work, CSA has been an opportunity for Rush to get her name out to the public. “A lot of artists have the talent and motivation to create art, but it’s hard to put on the business hat or marketing hat to get our work out there,” she says.

“That is the Lincoln Arts Council’s objective with this project,” she continues, “to get local artists that aren’t necessarily out there producing and selling at galleries in the area — to introduce these artists to the community and say, ‘Look, these people are making art here.’”

As the arts council reaches the end of the initial three-year plan, they are considering moving forward with a more sustainable biennial program. This year, they reduced the number of shares available for sale from 50 to 35.

“The program is designed to be a living entity,” McAlister says. “It’s meant to be changing and growing, it’s meant to be static, it’s not meant to last forever.”

Springboard for the Arts’ Andy Sturdevant echoes that sentiment, saying that CSA can work “as a cool, one-off program that introduces a lot of artists, art lovers and organizations to one another. Some of my favorite CSA programs nationally only did one or two seasons. But the relationships formed in the CSA program can lead to other cool programs or partnerships.”

“The way we have interpreted the goals [of the program] is that it’s really about building that relationship,” McAlister says. “Community Supported Agriculture is about getting to know the people who grow your food. We interpret it as being equally important to know the people who create your art.”

To learn more about Community Supported Art and introduce artists to art lovers in your community, request the toolkit from Creative Exchange!