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Art Subscription Programs Deliver Financial Support, New Audiences for Artists

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.

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Crusade Tour Essay on PDN

Crusade for Collecting: A Controversial Experiment Meant to Create New Photo Collectors

Published August 23, 2013 via PDNonline.com.

Earlier this year Jennifer Schwartz, a gallerist and the founder of the non-profit arts organization Crusade for Art, traveled to cities around the country in an effort to create demand for the work of emerging photographers by encouraging people she met on the street to consider collecting art. Working with five photographers in each of the cities she visited, Schwartz organized street-side exhibitions, asking the photographers to talk with passersby about their work, and to give away signed, non-editioned prints to those who wanted them. The project drew both criticism and skepticism, but it also, Schwartz says, created positive dialogue between artists and would-be collectors. PDN invited Schwartz to explain the motivation behind the trip and recap her experiences.

Nearly five years ago I began a journey to cultivate audiences for art, specifically the work of emerging photographers. By creating innovative programs that make art immediately and affordably accessible to new audiences, both online and through special events, my goals have been: to promote and develop the careers of talented, emerging, contemporary photographers and to educate and cultivate a new crop of collectors.

Working with emerging photographers, I recognized from the beginning that the challenge is to find an audience for these artists. Too often as gallery owners, we hang the art and then wait for an audience to come. With that in mind, I created Crusade for Art, a non-profit organization dedicated to cultivating demand for art by creating opportunities to introduce new collectors to artists and their work.

In my Atlanta gallery, I have discovered that the most successful programs to get new people interested in art involve meeting the artist and making a personal connection. They give people who have had only a limited relationship with art a unique, fun experience where they engage with photography and the artists in a thoughtful way. These programs also give photographers an opportunity to interact directly with an audience and advocate for themselves and their work.

In April 2013 I took this concept on the road with a special project, the Crusade for Collecting Tour. Traveling to ten cities over the course of three months in a 1977 VW bus (affectionately named Lady Blue and purchased through funds raised on Kickstarter), I staged spontaneous pop-up events to give away original, signed photographs and bring grassroots art appreciation to the streets, moving outside the traditional boundaries of the art world.

I felt that if I could give people a fun, disarming arts experience in an unexpected way—that if they had an opportunity to meet artists, learn about their work and connect to an original piece that became theirs—it may be transformative and put them on a path to loving, supporting and collecting original art.

It was fun. It was a blast. It was also incredibly challenging. A lot of people have asked: How is giving away photography going to encourage collecting? That is a completely valid question, and there is no real way, at present, to determine how many of the people we met might become collectors of the photographers’ work. But the goal was to give people an opportunity to connect with a piece of art, own it, hang it, to recognize value in that experience, and to want to replicate it going forward. The hope was that the engagement would be transformative.

The other side of the same question addressed concern for the participating photographers: Won’t giving away work have a negative effect on the photographers? Not every program or idea is the right fit for all artists at all stages of their careers. None of the photographers were coerced into participating. On the contrary, I had photographers reach out from all over the country wanting to be a part of the project, and most were selected as a result of submitting to my open, free call for submissions. For an artist who is trying to get more exposure and get more eyes on their work, participating in a project where they can connect with potential new collectors in their hometowns may be worth a try.

Could I promise the participating photographers any specific, tangible benefits from participating? Of course not. The hope was that they would connect to ten new people in their community with whom they could follow up and continue to build the relationship, and who may in the future purchase work from them. But I suspect the photographers chose to participate not because they expected any concrete benefits, but because they also believe in art and artists and wanted to be a part of something that was trying to make a difference.

As it turns out, it is really difficult to give away something for free. In each city (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Chicago, Cleveland, Brooklyn, and Washington, D.C.—Atlanta and New Orleans happened in late 2012 as “test” cities), five local photographers (each of whom were curated for the project to participate in the pop-up in their city) and I pulled up to a high foot-traffic area and, armed with photographs, Crusade-wear, and a lot of enthusiasm, tried to get passersby to stop and talk to us. Each photographer had ten small (between 6 x 9” and 8.5 x 11”) signed copies of an image to give away over the course of the pop-up, which typically lasted two hours. Saying things like “we are five local artists here to encourage art collecting in our city” and “become an art collector today for free,” we got both the hand and high-fives.

We were not asking for money or requiring email addresses (although exchange of contact information was highly encouraged, and each photographer included information about themselves and their work in the envelope with their print), just the participant’s attention. All you need to do is look. The art will do the rest. Some cities were more challenging than others, and the day, weather, and type of location were all important factors. It was significantly easier to engage people on a beautiful Saturday in a trendy retail area in Los Angeles than in Chicago on a windy downtown street corner on the Friday afternoon of a long weekend.

But no matter the city, the quality of interactions between the artists and the people who did stop to participate was consistent. Most people wanted to see each of the five images, listen to the story of the photograph from each photographer, and make a thoughtful, informed selection. The artists and I both received great feedback in person and through follow-ups from people who really connected. There were hugs and amazing moments on the street, and also emails, phone calls, and photos of the newly framed pieces hanging on the new collectors’ walls. These were powerful and eye-opening moments for everyone involved.

The best example of witnessing an “aha” moment happened at the last pop-up event in Washington, D.C. A young woman was talking to us after selecting Hannele Lahti’s photograph. She said this was her first piece of art to own, and when I asked her why she selected that image over the others, she said it was Hannele’s description of what the image was about that really moved her. When she heard Hannele describe the photograph, she realized this art was about an experience she was having at that exact moment.

In city after city, the same lesson emerged: People value connection. A lot of established collectors buy art because of the artist’s reputation or the proven value of the piece—the art world as we know it is driven by trends and price tags, not experiences. But the status quo is not cultivating new audiences for art. To attract people who are not already connected to art, we need to provide opportunities to facilitate a personal connection between the artist, the collector and the image.

This is not to say I am anti-traditional gallery. Not at all, and I think that has been one of the common misconceptions about the project and about me personally. Helping emerging photographers get a foothold in the art world is just one piece of the puzzle, because that is exactly what it is—a foothold. Once that foothold feels secure, and the artist begins to gain traction—exhibitions, collectors, positive exposure—they need to take the next step.

The same is true for collectors. Helping someone start on a path of appreciating and collecting art is incredibly exciting and rewarding. But as they continue farther down this path—the more they look and buy and hone their tastes and collection—they will feel more comfortable and confident about engaging with traditional galleries and museums and cultural institutions. It will be a regular part of their world.

The other question I received several times caught me off-guard: Isn’t this whole project just a way to promote you and your gallery? All I can say is that I am just not wired that way. I believe in collaboration and community building and doing whatever I can for the greater good. Even writing this sounds ridiculous, but I do believe that doing good is important, and it drives me. Will there be some side-effect benefit to me personally? Maybe. But this tour was altruistic. We were giving art away, not selling anything. If I had spent the last year and a half working on something with the potential to make money and did not involve leaving my husband and three kids to drive around the country on a shoe-string budget, crashing on couches. . . well, that may have been smarter. But I would not change it. The opportunity to make a difference does not come around every day.

I knew this project would be a challenge—logistically, financially—but I could not have guessed it would have pushed me so much personally. I never imagined I would spend so much energy defending an idea that was solely meant to do good. Emails and online comments from people I did not know, questioning my motivation, process, and intentions, were upsetting and unsettling. I wish I could say handling these criticisms thickened my skin, but my skin only gets but so tough. What it did, however, was help me hone in on what exactly I was trying to say and do and why. It forced me to critically and objectively examine every element of the project and make changes that dramatically narrowed and improved the focus.

For example, my original plan was to partner with museums and arts spaces and stage the pop-up events in front of their facilities. But it became clear that if we did that, we would be directing our outreach at people who were already connected to art. If my goal was to give an arts experience to people who were not currently seeking one, then I needed to truly go to them.

I also added the Local Photographer Showcase component to the tour. I had planned to only bring photographs from an online project, The Ten, which features photographers from across the country. But the more I was asked to explain the motivation behind the project and the generation of the tour idea, the more I realized that if my experience had shown the most significant and transformative connection point to be the interaction between the audience and the artist, then it was important to create an opportunity for people to meet, engage with, and potentially continue a relationship with photographers who lived in their own communities.

I am proud to be known for being a champion and advocate for photographers, especially those who are at the beginnings of their careers. I am passionate about the ways individual artists can advocate for themselves and for creating ideas and programs to help them find the people who will best appreciate their work. I am an idea person and also a doer. I am not just complaining about a problem with the current art hierarchy, but I am actively trying to do things to create a more sustainable arts ecology—openly sharing successes and failures with equal parts laughter and tears and a whole lot of heart.

I believe in art, and I believe artists. I am happy to shout it from the rooftops. Or from a VW bus. Every interaction makes a difference, and I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to be a part of so many. Let’s keep it rolling. . .

Jennifer Schwartz is the owner/director of Jennifer Schwartz Gallery and the creator of the non-profit organization, Crusade for Art. Crusade for Art educates, inspires, and supports artists to create unique, approachable programs that bring new audiences to art and allow them to engage with art in a meaningful way.

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