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the crusader

Jennifer Schwartz drove a movement to bring art to the people, to make everyone a collector of photographic fine art. With a new book out, a successful CSA for photography under way, and noble goals for her non- profit organization, Jennifer is a force for progress. by lorna gentry 

Ever since Jennifer Schwartz got involved in the business of fine art photography, she has relentlessly challenged the status quo. First she employed creative tactics in engaging the com- munity inside and outside her gallery in Atlanta and connecting established collectors with emerging photographers. And as a gallerist, she tirelessly championed photography in innovative — some would say provocative — ways to motivate non-collectors to collect. Then she created Crusade for Art, a non-profit organization whose mission is to educate, mentor and inspire photographers, and to bring new audiences to art. Next, she bought a 1977 VW bus and took to the road for three months in 2013 to launch pop-up art crusades in cities across the country. When she returned to Atlanta she closed her bricks-and-mortar gallery and opened a home office to run the nonprofit, which sponsors an annual $10,000 grant (See sidebar, “Photography as Birthright,” page 38) and operates a subscription-based, community supported art program (modeled on the established community supported agricultural programs).

The idea of co-opting this model — down to its acronym, CSA — originated in Minnesota about five years ago and operates in some 40 cities nationwide. The fees and number of subscriptions vary among those CSAs; Jennifer charges $400 per share and caps the number of subscriptions at 50. Money from the shares pays the artists, who create works in editions limited to the number of subscribers. Jennifer’s CSA is the first to be exclusively for photography, and unlike other CSAs, the artists live in different U.S. cities and shareholders are international.

At the outset, “We commissioned six photographers to create an original photographic piece in an edition of 50,” says Jennifer, who then shipped the works to the shareholders bimonthly over six months. “Shareholders could see who the artists were by visiting their websites, but they didn’t know what the art would be. I was hoping we’d sell out in two weeks, but we sold out in two days!”

Jennifer chose a mix of emerging and mid-career photographers who have either gallery representation or their own collectors. She looked for artists who make “diverse and accessible art that people will want to hang on their walls,” she says. “I didn’t give them any guidelines, other than the fact they couldn’t show the work until it had shipped. For the shareholders, particularly new collectors, the CSA offers a great price point to acquire art. Some shareholders are established collectors and others live in condos and are excited to get art on their walls at a price they can afford.”

Life beyond the pale

Jennifer, a native of Virginia, and her husband, Michael, have three children. She has a degree in psychology and a master’s in counseling and for a while worked as an elementary school counselor. But after photographing her children and other people’s kids, she quit counseling to open a studio, which was spacious enough to house a gallery. “I had no idea how to run a gallery,” she says rolling her eyes. “I’d never tried to get my own work in a gallery, and I’d never worked in one. But coming at the fine art world from a neutral perspective, I could think outside the box and not do things the way they’d always been done.”

Unorthodox best describes Jennifer’s methods, like the 2013 cross-country art tour in her vintage bus. The idea was to create demand for the work of the emerging photographers by engaging passers-by, giving them free photographs, and asking them to consider collecting art. Photographers in each city on the tour joined her at the pop-up exhibitions to talk about their work with viewers. Jennifer also gave talks about the need to be creative in the selling of art. Photographers she met were hungry for such advice, which was the inspiration for her book, Crusade for Your Art (Crusade Press, 2014). A guide to navigating the world of fine art photography, the book includes contributions from editors, gallerists, curators and photographers.

Crusading for any cause can tap one’s energy, and Jennifer readily admits the tour was grueling. “It was guerilla style and kind of crazy to pull people off the street and say, ‘Here is art. Meet the artist. See what resonates with you.’” Sometimes it just didn’t work; when it did, though, it changed people. She remembers a young woman having an a-ha! moment about art when she connected to a piece at a pop-up show in Washington, D.C. “Once that happens, how could you ever go to Ikea and buy art because it matches your throw pillows?”  

(Sidebar) Photography as Birthright 

Last September photographer Matthew Conboy of Pittsburgh was the first to be awarded the $10,000 Crusade for Art Engagement Grant for his idea on building an audience for fine art photography. One of 10 semi- finalists in North America, Matthew proposed placing a photograph in every cradle, thus making newborns instant art collectors.

Matthew plans to work with West Penn Hospital in Pittsburgh, where the more than 3,000 babies born annually represent a socioeconomic cross section of the city’s population. Into each of the hospital’s complementary new mother goody bags (formula and diapers and such), Matthew will tuck an original signed photograph by a local emerging photographer.

One of the grant judges, Karen Irvine, curator and associate director of Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Photography, said Matthew’s idea “will engage an extremely diverse audience, one that is for the most part probably not already circulating in the fine art realm.” The panel of judges also included Whitney Johnson, director of photography at The New Yorker, and Rupert Jenkins, executive director of Colorado Photographic Arts Center.