Threewalls's Chicago Art Farm 

Can high culture be marketed like agriculture?

Eric Becklin, First Human to See the Center of our Galaxy by Jason Lazarus

Eric Becklin, First Human to See the Center of our Galaxy by Jason Lazarus

How is an artwork like a vegetable?

Arguably, it's a commodity. It can be produced locally and in multiples. And now there's a way to buy it sight unseen, even before it's been harvested. Community-supported art is coming to Chicago, thanks to Threewalls, an eight-year-old, nonprofit arts organization that aims to make the city an "important site for creative research and production."

The concept comes from community-supported agriculture programs—those seasonal arrangements in which consumers underwrite local farmers by buying shares of their crops up front and taking delivery of whatever grows. In exchange for getting fresh, usually organic foods at a reasonable price—not to mention the good, green feeling of knowing they weren't shipped from afar by energy-guzzling, pollution-spewing trucks, trains, and planes—the buyer gives up the luxury of selection. What the farmer delivers is what you get.

It works pretty well with vegetables. Threewalls is betting it can work with art, too. For this initial season, they're selling 100 shares in a crop of prints, photographs, sculpture, and such, to be produced by a dozen local practitioners. Shareholders will pay $400 each (unless they sign up before April 30 to get a $50 early-bird discount) and receive a "curated mix" of six pieces over the course of three months. The art will be made in editions of 50. Basically, it's a grab bag.

Even so, it doesn't look like much of a gamble. A community-sponsored art project launched in Saint Paul last year by another nonprofit, Springboard for the Arts, was a roaring success. The Minnesotans started with a spring offering of 50 shares at $300 a share, the yield per shareholder being nine pieces of art by nine artists. The shares sold out in seven hours, and 150 would-be buyers signed on to a waiting list. A second, fall round featured 18 artists and 100 shares and sold out again. According to Springboard executive director Laura Zabel, they used a jury of "people from the local food community," including food writers, to pick the artists. The idea, Zabel says, is that the foodies will bring their audience along, generating new collectors. This year Springboard is helping establish community-supported art projects in a half-dozen other cities.

Although the folks at Threewalls are modeling their program after Springboard's, they won't be entrusting artist selection to foodies. Guest curators will probably choose the artists in the future, says program director Abigail Satinsky, but she and Threewalls executive director Shannon Stratton did the picking this time around. The range, Satinsky says, is "from emerging to midcareer," and the work includes photography, painting, prints, video, collage, and an assemble-it-yourself sculpture. The inaugural 12: Conrad Bakker, Sara Black, Edie Fake, Eric Fleischauer, Pamela Fraser, Jesse Harrod, Jessica Labatte, Jason Lazarus, Laura Mackin, Aay Preston-Myint, Steve Reinke, and Dan Wang.

"We're pushing the idea of a sustainable local art community in the same way that people talk about sustainable local food," Satinsky says. The goal is to "galvanize a local collector base to support these artists." As for the fact that shareholders will have to take what they're given: "Think of it as a subscription, like a magazine." You don't know exactly what you'll find in each issue, but you're on board with the general direction.

Satinsky believes the project will be a boon for newbies, providing them with a sort of "collector's starter kit." The art will be delivered to shareholders two pieces at a time, at party-with-the-artists events to be held in the Threewalls space, 119 N. Peoria. The first pair of works will arrive in an artist-built crate that shareholders can bring to the next party, like a reusable farmers' market bag.

The project is being seeded with a $7,500 grant from 3Arts; Other People's Pixels, a website that helps artists display their work online, kicked in another $3,000. Each artist was paid a $1,000 commissioning fee, and any money left over after meeting expenses will be put toward funding other Threewalls programs.

Community-supported art is a real bargain for shareholders, Satinsky says. Even without the early-sign-up discount, they'll be paying just $66 per piece. "These artists are showing all around the world," she notes. "There's no way you could get their work for this price" in a conventional gallery setting. As of last week, Threewalls had sold 15 shares.

The math isn't so great for the artists. They'll be getting only $20 for each piece. The more important benefit for them, according to the organizers, is exposure to a new group of collectors who may be willing and able to pay more in the future.

Meanwhile, Minnesota has scaled back. This spring the Saint Paul community-supported arts program will offer 50 shares and nine artists, with all shareholders getting the same set of artworks. The 100-share version, with a variety of packages, proved to be "a lot of work to administer," Zabel says, "and just not as much fun as when everybody had the same experience."

The Zimmerman Stories

The last time I heard Jack Zimmerman tell a story, he was giving a preperformance lecture for Lyric Opera's production of The Girl of the Golden West, back in February. He was a hard act to follow. Zimmerman, 65, has a day job in Lyric's PR department, but he's also a musician, writer, former columnist, and—thanks to the Irish part of his heritage, he says—consummate storyteller. He's getting ready now to sell six of his tales on a CD titled The Gift. These are autobiographical, quintessentially Chicago stories, told in Zimmerman's distinctive, quietly adenoidal south-side voice. They're interspersed with mellow jazz composed by his 31-year-old son, Andrew, and played by a trio featuring Andrew on tenor sax.

It seemed to me that not very long ago these stories would've been headed for print, reaching the public in book form. But Zimmerman says they were never meant for the page. When he had to write them down, they came out in four-line stanzas. He recorded them in the broadcast booth at Lyric and had 1,000 copies made. They'll be priced at $15 on Amazon and his own site, jackzimmerman.net, which he hopes to have up any time now. He figures he needs to sell 200 to break even.

Right now, "they're all sitting in my apartment," he says, "along with 200 Sarah Palin T-shirts for musicians"—the ones he made in 2008, with a caricature of Palin and the music for "Dueling Banjos" on the front. Zimmerman is looking for a location for a launch event in June.

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