Artists contribute much to their communities yet struggle to survive in those same communities. Making a living as a visual artist is nearly impossible. I’ve been self-employed as a full time artist for three and a half years and despite a steady stream of commissions, I could not have survived this long without spending all my savings. The commissions I receive don’t pay what the time of an adult professional is worth. Now, maybe that’s just my art, but I rarely meet an artist who is not either struggling to make a living or too busy working some other job to work on their art as much as they’d like. People value having art and artists in their communities, but the current model of selling/sharing art has failed all parties involved. The artists can’t survive. The people don’t have enough access to the art that the artists produce.
The CSA Model
Over the last 20 years, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs have created mutually beneficial relationships between consumers and local farmers. The farmers sell “shares” or “subscriptions” to the consumers at the beginning of the season. This allows the farmers to earn money early in the season, pay for seeds, etc., while also allowing them to grow different types of crops, as opposed to whatever the market dictates. The buyers then receive a box of fresh local vegetables every week for the duration of the season. Farmers and consumers meet each other, develop relationships, and foster a sense of community. The sense of community is further developed through the consumers’ shared risk in the endeavor – the fate of the farmer’s crops becomes the fate of the community’s produce. Tens of thousands of families have joined CSA’s in the last couple decades and the model’s popularity continues to rise. The model has been so successful that it’s been adopted by fishermen, who provide fresh fish weekly to their members in a version of the model that protects the fishermen from treacherous weather and protects fish and ocean ecology from over-fishing of any given species. There have also been Community Supported Bakeries developed recently. Clearly, the movement is growing.
Product sharing models
In addition to the popular CSA model, there has been tremendous growth in non-consumable product sharing models over the last decade. The most successful of these is probably Netflix, where members rent a movie online, receive the dvd in the mail, and return it with the outgoing mail at their leisure. Netflix was the natural offspring of its prototype sharing model – the video rental store – and the internet. The rental store, of course, was the child of the library, the oldest of old school sharing institutions. Another highly creative and successful product sharing company is Zipcar. Members of Zipcar share rental cars parked conveniently around the cities in which they live. They too can manage their rentals online. Communities have also worked together to establish tool banks, from which members can borrow tools for home improvement and other projects. There is even a company that rents high fashion dresses online using a model similar to Netflix. Product sharing models make expensive items affordable and accessible. If you can’t buy, borrow. If you can’t own, share.
The CSA & product sharing Models Applied to Art
Could these popular and effective models be applied to floundering local art industries?
As far as the CSA model goes, art isn’t seasonal like agriculture or fishing, so it’s not a direct fit to a traditional CSA model. Secondly, art requires more time to produce and is not a consumable like food. A model in which subscribers got a piece of art each week for a season would be too demanding on the artists and too expensive for the subscribers – not to mention more art than they’d want. So that doesn’t quite fit either. But what if we kept the spirit of the CSA model (support local industry, foster sense of community) and altered the structure a bit. Could it provide the same benefits to both the buyers and sellers of local art that a CSA does? What if we incorporated product sharing ideas?
One model that might accomplish this is a CSA style local art library. It’s not uncommon for artists to accumulate pieces that end up hanging all over their own walls or stacked in the corner of their apartment or studio, when they’re not displayed in shows. If artists pooled these paintings together and lent them out, this might create a new stream of revenue for them.
Let’s say we start with 10 artists, each of whom puts 10 pieces of art into the library’s collection. Then we sign up 20 subscribers who pay $200 a year for a subscription to the library. Each subscriber chooses 2 pieces of art to bring home with them for 3 months. Every 3 months, they’ll return the pieces to the collection and select 2 more rental pieces to take home. If multiple subscribers want the same piece in the same 3 month period, it could be settled by a coin flip or something similar (rock-paper-scissors tournament, drawing of names, ping pong ball lottery, etc.). Then, those who don’t get the desired piece would pick another one and would be in the queue for the desired piece at the next 3 month period. If it were a ping pong ball lottery drawing, each time someone didn’t win, they would get an extra ping pong ball in the next drawing. Or subscribers could set up a queue similar to Netflix to rank their preferences. It could be a raffle scene at the quarterly art exchange which might create excitement and even a competitive desire for the art.
Competition to what end? Part two of the library system would be the subscribers‘ opportunity to buy the paintings in the collection. If there were some competitive desire for certain pieces, that would encourage sales. To stick with the community concept, the proceeds from the sales could be distributed amongst the artists, with the biggest share going to the artist of the sold piece. For example, the artist could get 50% of any of their art sold and the other artists would split the other 50%. Artists routinely give up 30% of sales of their art at galleries, so this wouldn’t be too much of a stretch beyond that, especially considering they’d earn money on other artists‘ sales too. This model would create three revenue streams for the artists: their share of the subscription fees, sales of their own work, and sales of the other artists‘ work - all real money for art that otherwise would have been sitting around the house or studio. When an artist’s piece sells out of the collection, the artist would be responsible for adding another piece to keep up the size of the collection. We’d want a decent sized collection to account for differences in taste and turnover of borrowed pieces.
There wouldn’t be a physical library per se for the art but the collection could be viewed online and there could be a rotating show at a local coffee shop, restaurant, or bar, that would feature one piece from each artist, rotating every three months along with the rest of the borrowed paintings. The establishment that hangs the art on its walls wouldn’t get a percentage of the profits but they would get free advertising, free local art on their walls, and business from hosting the tri-monthly exchange of art. All the subscribers would come in with their old piece, pick up their new piece, and would be encouraged to meet the artists. Each exchange could feature one or two of the artists talking about their artwork, their history, influences, plans, etc and/or doing some sort of live demonstration of their work. Alternatively, all this could take place at a gallery or some other arts institution.
The numbers are completely variable depending on a few factors, but here’s a general idea of how it might work. If we started with 10 artists and 20 subscribers at $200 per subscription per year, that’d be $4000 in subscription revenue, which would come to $400 per artist per year. Then, if each subscriber ended up buying one piece at let’s say $200 on average, and we used the 50-50 split, the least an artist would earn that year would be about $620 (if none of their pieces sold); the most an artist would make would be $2400 (if all 20 sales were their pieces). If three of twenty sales were an artist’s pieces, that artist would make $900. If ten of twenty sales were an artist’s pieces, that artist would make $1510. And so on. The numbers would change based on how many pieces sold and for how much they sold. But the minimum income with these numbers – if nothing sold - would be $400 a year for an artist. That’s not exactly a huge revenue stream, but it’s something for art that would be making nothing sitting around the house. Now imagine if the idea caught on and we got 100 subscribers and they paid $300 a year. That’s $30,000 in subscription revenue plus whatever is made on sales. We could be talking about $4000 or $5000 a year per artist - for artwork that wasn’t previously earning any money. If you got 200 subscribers, double that. If the average price of the paintings sold was $400 instead of $200, double the sales revenue. Double one win and you get two. Subscribers get a rotation of local art in their home and artists get previously unaccessed revenue = win win.
• What about damage to art? – It’d probably have to be a you break it, you buy it contract. This might deter some subscribers, but it would also bring in the shared risk aspect of the CSA model. We could give everyone instructions on care, places to avoid hanging (kitchen, bathroom, direct sunlight), and packaging for transportation of the art. Or maybe we could work some variation of you break it, you buy it. The subscriber could buy it at 75% cost, with the 25% swallowed by the CSART, or return it and pay a 50% of cost penalty, with the 50% swallowed by the CSART. This might diffuse any disputes between artists and subscribers over what constitutes damage. Or we could build some sort of damage insurance into the membership fee.
• What if some artists sell, and some don’t. Isn’t this unfair to the sellers? – As compared to what people would make at a gallery that took 30% of profits, artists will still come out ahead if 50% of all sales were their pieces. We could easily incorporate an adjustable percentage beyond that. For example, if your art accounted for over 50% of the total art sold, your share of your sales could go up to 66%. Using the above numbers, this would ensure that you’d come out ahead of the gallery scenario even if 100% of the total art sold was yours.
• If subscription numbers rise, more artists would need to be added, and then the profits would be split more ways. – This is a good problem to have. If subscription numbers balloon, media outlets will be interested in the story and this will mean more advertising/marketing for the artists. That’s beyond the regular free advertising/marketing that you’d already be enjoying by having your art hanging in the houses of art appreciators around town.
• Isn’t exclusivity in picking artists counter to the CSA collective spirit? – The CSART Local Art Library model is completely open source – If you like the idea and aren’t included in a particular library, then start your own. Quality is an integral part of any CSA. People want fresh vegetables, fresh fish, etc. And people will want to hang quality art on their walls, so it’s natural for library organizers to want to pick what they consider to be a diverse collection of good artists. Also, diversity of art style in the collection will make the CSART more attractive to subscribers.
• Aren't you worried that "CSART" will be read as "Seize Art" or "Cease Art"? – Yes. Yes I am. While it's a clever tie in to the CSA name and it could be read as "Sees Art", it's probably not the best name. This is probably not the final name.
I'm workshopping/brainstorming/testing the whole CSART Local Art Library idea right now and would love any feedback anyone has to give - artist feedback, potential subscriber feedback, business/marketing feedback, community organizer feedback, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc.