A lot of people ask where did this come from. This great wondering was summed up in this article written by one of the seed sowers of this movement. I’ll leave you to read the article at your leisure, but one moment in it is of particular interest to me with regards to Milwaukee’s art community and MK-Eat specifically–Thought I’d share it:
“More art projects could be created with the built-in understanding that they can be freely re-made or given a new twist by others in the future – like classical music compositions that still get played two hundred years after the composer died . . . Redundancies, repetitions, and overlaps are often neglected because they complicate the bigger picture and show art to be the much larger social mess that it really is. We don’t have to run away from repetitions.”
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about scale. There seems to be an incredible amount of enthusiasm for projects developing alternative economies, education, food, artworlds, and the other infrastructures that organize daily life. I hear about this stuff all the time, with this issue of Proximity as a case in point. I’m worried that in some cases, alternative isn’t ambitious enough. Admittedly, as part of InCUBATE, I am participating in this phenomenon. Our projects can be small in scale and operate on limited budgets. But I also want to get bigger, to connect with independent organizers in other places and contexts, to share our problems and concerns, to recognize and revel in our differences, and then to scale up.
One of InCUBATE’s projects provided the opportunity for this discussion. Founded in 2007, InCUBATE is a research group dedicated to exploring new approaches to arts administration and arts funding, particularly for those doing non-commercial creative work. We organize exhibitions, publications, lectures, and meals to figure out how to collectively achieve this. One of our projects, Sunday Soup (http://incubate-chicago.org/sunday-soup/), is a monthly meal that generates money for a creative project fund. Anyone can apply for the fund, and we accept proposals up until the day of the meal. Patrons of Sunday Soup pay money for food and a presentation by a local artist or organizer (who also cooks the soup, most of the time) and get one vote on which proposal gets the proceeds from the meal.
Sunday Soup is an incredibly simple formula for making money and was not our original idea. There are lots of examples of this model. We took inspiration from Saturday Soup, a weekly soup delivery service project in Grand Rapids, Michigan, along with other cottage industry intiatives where enterprising people connect with their neighborhood and make a little money on the side. We also heard about other projects that were generating money for artists grants, for example, Steve Lambert’s Co-op Bar and the Bay Area’s Collective Foundation. We were inspired by what other people were already doing, and at the thought of adapting those ideas to our own needs. Marc Fischer puts it best when he writes in Against Competition, “More art projects could be created with the built-in understanding that they can be freely re-made or given a new twist by others in the future – like classical music compositions that still get played two hundred years after the composer died . . . Redundancies, repetitions, and overlaps are often neglected because they complicate the bigger picture and show art to be the much larger social mess that it really is. We don’t have to run away from repetitions.”
Sunday Soup has turned into an international network, with food-based micro-granting initiatives including New York City, Minneapolis and Columbus FEAST, Baltimore STEW, Detroit Soup, Grand Rapids and Allendale, MI Soup, Ann Arbor Love Factory Collective Soup Stock, Portland Stock, Newcastle Saturday Soup, Providence Soup Seminars, Buffalo Sugar City Sunday Soup, Milan Granaio, Kiev Sunday Borscht, and Iowa City Soup. Each initiative infoms the others, and each is structured according to individual needs as well. As anyone who has been to one of InCUBATE’s Sunday Soups knows, our storefront could only seat thirty-five to forty people (and that was getting a little uncomfortable) and our small kitchen could only hold a few people at a time. Our space’s physical size also controled the size of the grant, which usually was about two hundred dollars after recouping costs. Our Sunday Soup was always an intimate affair, a bit on the fly, which I find makes for lively conversation and an opportunity to meet interested people in an informal atmosphere. Getting together with friends and strangers in that storefront space and cooking has definitely sustained my own creative practice over the last year and made me feel like there was a supportive community when InCUBATE needed it most.
Organizers have taken on the model and made it work for their own contexts and audiences. FEAST (Funding Emerging Art through Sustainable Tactics) in New York City operates out of a church basement and serves up to two hundred fifty people at a time, granting over two thousand dollars at their event in February. Baltimore STEW is a joint initiative spearheaded by the Baltimore Development Cooperative and Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse. Their meal is locally sourced and geared more toward funding social justice initiatives. Buffalo Sunday Soup is a project of a cooperative gallery called Sugar City. The winners of their monthly grant also have a show at their gallery space.
Sometimes people ask us what ownership we feel over the project as it has spread. Honestly, I have a twinge of jealousy that FEAST can galvanize such a large audience and has such a good design presence and that STEW makes such amazing meals and funds outside the typical art community. But other than admiring the different ways of making-do, I am less interested in a franchising model and more into letting the seed grow where it may. Yet with this kind of attitude, is there any hope of building a movement, a national conversation, a collective voice to address how our infrastructures for supporting and cultivating creative work are just straight-up failing? Do we need to get our shit together and get organized?
I’m struggling with this idea. We started Sunday Soup because we were working against the professionalizing atmosphere for grantseeking artists and organizers. We wanted to create an immediate and simple source of funding for creative projects. Yet this project is also dependent on the volunteer labor of the organizers who must have their own jobs to keep these micro-initiatives afloat. In a recent conversation with Jeff Hnilicka, organizer of FEAST, we were talking about the point at which an experiment like this turns into a devoted project. What is our responsibility to keep the thing going, even though it can sometimes feel like another full-time job? Is it really sustainable if it depends on us in this way?
I’m not complaining. I think this is a great problem to think through, especially because it’s not confined to artists. After many conversations, among InCUBATE and with people involved in this Sunday Soup network, we have decided that it’s now time to experiment with how to support ourselves as organizers and the eco-system of art spaces in the place where we live and work. We were looking for a new model that we could appropriate and expand upon. InCUBATE had been in research mode for our project, the Artist-run Credit League (ARCL), a rotating credit association for artist-run spaces in Chicago. The ARCL format is derived from the tanda, a monetary practice formed by a core of participants who agree to make regular contributions to a fund, which is given to each contributor in rotation. Basically, it acts as a collective savings account and micro-credit line. We have had trouble getting it off the ground because as a savings account, it didn’t accrue enough interest to make it profitable and people were having trouble seeing the benefits.
Recently, InCUBATE was invited to present a project in Portland, OR, as part of the Open Engagement conference in May 2010. We decided to work with Katy Asher of Portland Stock and others there to launch an upgraded version of the ARCL. Having the soup network enabled us to build off the conversations we were already having with people in Portland, and therefore establish a sense of trust in our collaboration and a means to try and understand the wants and needs of the people out there. However it will take a group process to get the ARCL fully functional, as it’s built upon social relationships that have to develop over time.
Our new version also takes the form of a giving circle, which will start with twelve artist-run member organizations. Each organization is responsible for a monthly membership fee. This fee goes towards an administrator who will work on a part-time basis to manage the circle in a way the members see fit. Our initial idea is that their responsibilities would include facilitating a group membership for Fractured Atlas, which is a national fiscal sponsorship agency that provides individual health insurance for artists, allows member-organizations who are not nonprofits to apply for grants, and enables the ARCL itself to be tax-deductible, in case outside funders want to donate to the group at large. There are many ways that a networked group of independent organizations could figure out how to support each other through sharing resources, promoting each other’s activities, or just getting feedback and swapping notes.
For fundraising, the ARCL will partner with a local bar or cafe who will agree to donate part of the proceeds of an ARCLdedicated night once a month. All the member organizations will sign up for one month a year that is convenient for them, and they will get the proceeds from that month’s night to use however they wish. They will also be responsible for promoting that month night at the bar or cafe among their networks. We are basing this on the popular and brilliant Peace Party, which happens at Danny’s Bar in Bucktown once a month. The Peace Party gives to a different cause each month, and Danny’s gives fifty percent of the bar proceeds that night to the cause. We hope that artist-run spaces, by being mutually invested in the fund itself, will have an interest in attending each other’s fundraisers and building the community of participants outwards. The circle depends on the community investment in its well-being, meaning that it will become a sustainable model based on the group’s level of commitment to making it work.
Any number of these circles for artists and non-artists can be created autonomously and can choose to overlap as well. Maybe there are giant holes in this plan, and it will not take off like Sunday Soup did. Or maybe it will. Feel free to take it on and make it better. As Marc Fischer writes, ‘‘Now that the money is gone and most of those [NEA-funded not-for-profit alternative] spaces are no longer in existence, new methodologies need to be worked out. We need each other more than ever.’’