By offering collectors an opportunity to subscribe in advance to receive a certain number of artworks, art subscription programs are helping to fund the work of photographers and connect them with new audiences of collectors.

By Jennifer Schwartz

Finding ways to engage new collectors and give artists the freedom and funding to create new work is no easy task. But art subscription services, which deliver new work to subscribers on a prearranged schedule, are popping up all over the country to do just that. They are a win-win for artists and collectors alike, and photography seems to be a perfect match for this platform, because photographers can easily produce multiples of their work for subscribers.

Finding ways to engage new collectors and give artists the freedom and funding to create new work is no easy task. But art subscription services, which deliver new work to subscribers on a prearranged schedule, are popping up all over the country to do just that. They are a win-win for artists and collectors alike, and photography seems to be a perfect match for this platform because photographers can easily produce multiples of their work for subscribers.

Andy Sturdevant, the director of Minnesota’s Springboard for the Arts and project coordinator for Minnesota’s CSA (Community Supported Art) says their program was inspired by a desire to provide an entry point to art for people who may be interested in collecting but felt intimidated by the process. “It was a way to put local artists directly in contact with people who were interested in getting their feet wet with collecting art,” Sturdevant says. These subscription programs are inspired by agricultural share programs (also called CSAs – Community Supported Agriculture), where shares of a local farm are purchased in exchange for regular deliveries of produce. 

While similarly structured art programs already existed, Minnesota’s program was the first to use the term CSA.  They have since created a replication kit to encourage other organizations to adopt the CSA model, and to date there are approximately 30 in existence around the country, according to Sturdevant.

In a typical Community Supported Art program, fifty shares are available for purchase for around $300 per share (Sturdevant has seen the range go from $75 to $500, and the number of shares available can also vary).  Artists are paid in advance to create work for each shareholder, and shareholders receive original works several times per year. On average, organizations run one or two CSA cycles per year and include nine artists in each.

Depending on the economic setup of the subscription program, artists can be paid well or negligibly for their work. But there are benefits to artists beyond the paycheck. For one, it puts the artist directly in touch with 50 people who are interested in buying art, creating an opportunity for relationship building. Sturdevant feels this format allows artists to try out a new project or smaller idea that may not fit into their regular practice.

Subscription services also give artists incentive and support to work. “I think artists… have to work so hard to make ends meet that it leaves very little time for studio practice,” says Chandi Kelley, co-founder and artist-member of Project Dispatch, an art subscription program based in Washington, D. C. that allows subscribers to select an artist and opt to receive monthly works for either three-, six-, or nine-month periods. Subscriptions are available for $30, $60 or $90 monthly. “If I can do something to encourage the process of art making while helping artists gain exposure and sell work, then I feel my efforts are worthwhile,” Kelley says.

Kristoffer Tripplaar, who is part of the Project Dispatch roster, is a news photographer by day and says the subscriptions encourage him to spend time creating art.  “It is motivating to keep working on your personal work knowing you will be sending an image to someone,” Tripplaar says. “It is validating after a few weeks of working on press conference photos to get an email saying someone subscribed. I can switch gears and be creative and print an image I’m proud of to send to someone who is really interested.”

“Knowing that someone has specifically chosen you as an artist they would like to subscribe to is incredibly empowering and motivating,” says Jerry Skiscim, another Project Dispatch artist.  Skiscim is a Washington, D.C.-based photographer who had been intimidated to try to break into the art world prior to joining Project Dispatch. “Being a part of this group of talented and accomplished artists pushed me way ahead of what I could have done on my own,” Skiscim says.

TBW Books is an independent photography book publishing company that also uses a subscription model.  Each year, TBW Books invites four photographers to create a body of work for book publication in that year’s subscription set.  Artists are encouraged by TBW to experiment and think in a new way.  “These publications are not intended to be full-blown monographs,” says Paul Schiek, founder and publisher.  “They are intended to be experimental capsules to allow the artist to go outside their normal practice and try something new.” According to the TBW website, “The books provide an unparalleled glimpse into the thinking processes of who we consider to be four of today's most exciting image-makers.”  Beyond the creative output, the entry-point pricing is also appealing (previous subscriptions cost $100, the most-recent is priced at $150).

A huge part of the draw for subscribers seems to be the element of surprise. “People like the surprise and the mystery of not knowing what will come in the mail.  Maybe it’s not even about collecting art for some people, but the experience of the surprise and supporting the creative process for the artists who are involved,” Kelley says.  The idea for Project Dispatch came from her long-distance friendship with Rachel England (Project Dispatch’s other co-creator who no longer runs the program but is still a participating artist).  Kelley and England would send each other packages of artwork in the mail, and they loved the excitement of receiving artful surprises in the mail, so they decided to create a model to share this experience on a wider scale.

“Anticipation is a great motivator,” says Schiek. “With TBW Books’ subscription service, you don’t know what you have paid for, but you trust the publisher and the photographer, and you are willing to put your money on the table and see what comes your way. Consuming photography this way is surprisingly unique because we live in such a screen world, and getting tangible books in the mail is exciting.”

Sturdevant agrees that surprise is important. For their CSA pick-up events, they have begun creating staging areas where shareholders can sit and open their box of art goodies.  “Dramatizing that moment has enhanced the enjoyment of the experience,” he says. But he also stresses the importance of getting artists and shareholders in the same room so the artists have an opportunity to talk about the work. “In a lot of ways that’s what people are paying for – not just the art, but the social element of connecting to other people interested in art and having opportunities to meet the artists,” Sturdevant says.

Kelley also notes that the physical shows Project Dispatch produce to give additional exposure to their artists always result in a spike in subscriptions.  She feels the opportunities to see the work firsthand and to engage directly with the artists are powerful motivators in attracting subscribers. The exhibitions are another advantage of participating – artists get the opportunity to have gallery shows and meet collectors first-hand, providing a platform to launch their careers.  Skiscim just had his first solo show in the same space as his work was exhibited in a Project Dispatch exhibition.  “Project Dispatch has allowed me to build an audience for my work, which was the thing I just could not figure out how to do on my own,” Skiscim says.

The reproducibility of photography makes it a natural fit for CSAs. For a CSA where 50 shares are sold, each artist has to create and send 50 unique works to shareholders.  Sturdevant says they do not want the final product to suffer because of the volume, so they tend to select artists whose work can easily be scaled (photographers, print-makers) or artists who are used to working in high volume (ceramic artists).

But many of the photographers participating in art subscription programs go beyond shooting an image and creating an edition of fifty single photographs. Areca Roe created stereographic images and sent a viewmaster and slides to each shareholder.  Stefanie Motta shot a tarot deck with herself as the model, and every shareholder received a full deck of the tarot cards.  Gene Pittman and Rebekah Yaker collaborated to create a photo-based fabric design. Each shareholder received some of the fabric and a sewing pattern.  “When I think about some of the projects I have really loved over the years, many of them have been photo-based”, Sturdevant says.

When Julia Vandenoever, a Boulder-based photographer, found out she had been selected as a participating artist for the 2014 CSArt Colorado, she knew she wanted to go beyond creating a single image for shareholders.  “I wanted to make work that told the story of the change in the boulder landscape, and so I have decided to create a small photobook to be able to better convey the entire story,” Vandenoever says.  “I really want to take the opportunity to explore another way to exhibit and show my photographs.”  Vandenoever is also looking forward to expanding her creative community, getting more exposure for her work, and connecting with 50 new collectors. Artists across the board seem to share these same hopes and successes, making subscription art programs sound like a dream come true.