Arts group tries new community funding approach
By David Weinberg
St. Louis – Around the country arts organizations are starting a new trend in community arts funding. Groups like Feast in Brooklyn and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis are hosting soup dinners where for about $10 patrons get soup, bread and a packet containing proposals submitted by artists. After a vote by everyone at the dinner the proceeds are awarded to the artist with the most votes.
Last week, the first of these dinners in St. Louis, called Sloup, was held at a poetry chapbook shop on Cherokee street. Inside the two-story brick building on Cherokee street a couple dozen people are spread out around the room holding hot bowls of Carrot Leek soup, discussing which art project they plan on voting for.
Maggie Ginestra and Amelia Colette Jones got the idea for Sloup after attending a dinner at Incubate, an artist's residency program in Chicago. It was Incubate's last dinner at their current location.
"So they did kind of a retrospective on what the soup dinner has meant to Chicago and how it spread to different cities," Ginestra said."And what projects got funded." Jones interjected.
"The projects that were submitted to the soup dinner were so diverse," said Ginestra.
Maggie and Ameilia were inspired by the idea that a small group of people could not only help fund an art project, but be a part of the process and bring artists and art patrons together for a meal and discussion.
Jordan Hicks was one of the artists who submitted a proposal for the dinner.
" Yeah, I don't really see it as a competitive sort of thing. It's just a fun night to get together," said Hicks.
His project was a collaboration with a couple of photographers and an art historian to create a set of postcards about urban decay and population decline in St. Louis. His plan is to use the Sloup grant to print up several sets of the cards to leave around the city in public places. But the important thing he says, isn't the money, it's the chance to share his project with the community.
"If anything a lot of people will see the cards that I've never met before and didn't know about the project so either way it's a good night."
Artist Claire Wolf also submitted a proposal. She is the assistant director of the Urban Studio Cafe in old north St. Louis which I visited a few days after Sloup.
The cafe is full of people sipping coffee and eating sandwiches when I stop by. Inside, the walls are painted bright green and framed drawings done by kids in the neighborhood are proudly displayed beside handmade paper snowflakes taped to the front window.
"This is a bicycle powered Blender," she said, pointing to a blender. "It's the healthiest smoothie in town because you are exercising and eating healthily."
The Urban Studio is a non-profit social venture cafe.
"So all of the profits from coffee and food sales will fund arts programs and community programs for the neighborhood. We are also seeking to hire neighbors in the area to work here and provide job opportunities and job training and we are a social gathering space for the neighborhood," said Wolf.
Louise Chatman grew up in this neighborhood and she has been working as a barista at the cafe since it opened.
"It's been rough at times because there wasn't a lot of jobs and things to keep a lot of us busy but once this came about and a lot of the different programs like the bike youth program we been doing art programs that has been bringing a lot of different faces, new faces to the neighborhood and everyone is starting to meet and greet with everybody," Charman said.
The day after Sloup, the votes were tallied and Claire's proposal won. She is planning on using the money to buy a small Screen printing machine for the Cafe.
"We're really wanting to market ourselves but we don't have a lot of money and I think it will be a really cool way to do our own printing of our own apparel and involve some of the youth in the area."
Organizers hope the Sloup Dinners will become a monthly fixture in St. Louis and that they'll encourage a dialogue between artists and the community and make the art world feel less like a trip to a museum and more like a discussion with friends over a hot bowl of soup.