An illustration for an article on community supported art.

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Starting this summer, there’s a new CSA in town—but instead of receiving heirloom tomatoes or zucchini, participants will receive “shares” of original artwork created by artists in the D.C. area.

The Community Supported Art program is the result of a new collaboration between Rhizome DC, the Takoma-based community art nonprofit, and Guilded: A Freelancer Cooperative, a local chapter of the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives currently recruiting members for its pilot phase. With time, the founders hope the CSA might even blossom into a sustainable way to actively foster community support for the area’s many artists. 

Using the same model as community supported agriculture, the new program will allow art lovers to pay for artwork up front, then await a summer-long harvest spread across three COVID-safe pickup events. The money will fund $1,500 grants, and artists will also be eligible to receive benefits from Guilded, including six months of primary care, vision, and dental coverage, and help with tax preparation. 

On May 3, the two groups announced the grant recipients: Jorge E. Bañales, a musician and photographer; Katie Macyshyn, an interactive multimedia designer; Julia Marks, a theater artist; Xena Ni, a multimedia artist and designer; Peter Redgrave, a cultural worker exploring embodied experiences; Lucas J. Rougeux, an interdisciplinary artist exploring sexuality, queerness, spirituality, and more; Nate Scheible, a drummer and composer; SIFU SUN, an experimental artist focusing on painting, movement, and sound; and Fargo Nissim Tbakhi, a performance artist and writer.

Their projects encompass an eclectic range of thematic concepts and forms of media. Ni plans to guide shareholders through a series of futuretelling experiences, a methodology she’s developed for prompting rich imaginings of future visions of self and society. Bañales plans to produce 7-inch vinyl records featuring original music composed using modular synths (and possibly samples of the emerging cicadas’ familiar whine). Redgrave will explore the mythology of the wild in the form of a book that juxtaposes photographs of trail blazes with writings about humans and the natural world, and Marks will publish a plantable zine printed on paper studded with native flower seeds. Others plan to experiment with poetry, wood burning, and zinemaking. 

CSA co-founder Ajoke Williams is a longtime organizer who also serves as the program manager of Guilded. A trained electrical engineer with a knack for designing sustainable systems, Williams was troubled by the pandemic’s devastating impact on arts workers. As she worked with Guilded to develop services for freelance workers, Williams began to wonder how D.C.’s artists could receive more support from the community around them—and found herself reflecting on the CSA model. 

In a typical CSA, community members purchase shares of a farm’s expected harvest in advance, providing the seed money for the season. As crops ripen, the farmer distributes them among the members. Shareholders receive both tangible shares of the harvest and the larger benefit of sustainable local agriculture. “You’re supporting actual economic exchange,” Williams says, “but then you’re also supporting more of an ecosystem.”  

With a vision in mind, Williams next set out to find a partner organization that could launch a CSA program for artists, and Rhizome DC caught her eye. Williams was impressed that the organization managed to adapt its programming to pandemic conditions, even as larger arts centers across the country shuttered. “It seemed like they had a really strong commitment, going a bit above and beyond,” Williams says. 

Layne Garrett, Rhizome DC’s program director, was very receptive to the idea, in part because he had previously worked at a farm himself. “I really saw the benefits of that model, in terms of providing funding upfront and having the risk shared among the members,” Garrett says. Even better, he was also aware of precedents in the art world. Though the mechanics initially seemed intimidating, Garrett found resources from other arts organizations with successful CSA programs, particularly Minnesota-based Mn Artists and Springboard for the Arts.

The grants will be funded by the CSA’s 50 shares, which are currently available for purchase. Participants will pay around $350 in exchange for a curated selection of physical artwork that will be distributed via three pickup events this summer and fall. For those who can afford more or less, there will be a sliding scale ranging from $200 to $500.

The CSA model also departs from familiar notions of how art functions as a commodity. Instead of purchasing specific artworks, shareholders will pay in advance for a complete collection of all nine artists’ limited-run series. All artists will create multiples of their artwork, with some planning to contribute to one pickup event and others planning to create a project that spans all three. 

The CSA’s holistic approach to support is part of Williams’ larger goal of changing the conversation around how arts workers are compensated for their labor. “Art is not just this atomizable piece that you can take,” Williams says. “How do you quantify the fact that someone’s constantly digesting their environment to produce something for you? And how do you even quantify the fact that the person needs some type of social security in order to be able to create art?” Clients often pay inadequate rates for artwork, and they rarely contribute toward the costs of essentials such as health care.

“A dead person can’t create art for you, which is obvious,” Williams says. “But the way artists are paid, it seems as if clients and businesses think that there’s some way to just extract [that] singular [artistic] skill.”

More than a year into the pandemic, D.C.’s unemployment rate is still hovering near 8 percent. But it’s difficult to determine how self-employed artists, freelancers, and gig workers—whose employment is often pieced together from multiple sources—factor into this data. In December 2020, a survey by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) found that arts workers are 3.6 times more likely to be self-employed than workers in other sectors. 

Despite their often-tenuous employment status, arts workers have an outsize impact on the economy. This spring, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis reported that arts and culture work accounted for 4.3 percent of the United States’ total GDP in 2019, representing nearly $920 billion. A 2021 joint study by the National Endowment for the Arts, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and Argonne National Laboratory found that in past years, this contribution has been “larger than the share contributed by industries as diverse as construction, agriculture, and transportation.” Though art can seem like a rarefied field, the reality is that practically every industry employs arts workers to design websites, produce graphic design, shoot photos, write copy, or complete a host of other creative work.

Grant recipient Ni has a full-time design job in addition to her work as a multimedia artist. The pay disparity between the two is “more than an order of magnitude,” she says, even though both types of work draw on very similar skills. “I’m the same person,” Ni says. “It’s the same brain, it’s the same body doing this labor.” 

Despite the importance of their contributions, arts workers, along with many other essential workers in the gig economy, have a difficult time accessing basic necessities such as affordable health care and dental benefits. Though the percentage of uninsured Americans has decreased over time, companies that provide benefits for their employees typically cover two-thirds of medical premiums—a cost that self-employed workers must fully cover by themselves. 

Throughout the pandemic, Garrett has tried to find ways for Rhizome’s limited resources to support local artists who may be struggling. “We’ve always been really grounded in the community and built around the idea that one function of community is to help each other out,” he says. 

Through the partnership with Williams, grant recipients are eligible for the same benefits Guilded members receive, including six months of health care, dental, and vision services. Once enrolled, they’ll be able to access health services from Guilded’s network of direct primary care clinics, which charge a monthly subscription fee that fully covers regular checkups, as well as bulk rate pricing for prescriptions and minor surgeries. During its pilot phase, Guilded is fully covering the first six months of subscription fees for members, as well as helping them develop contracts that build the cost into what they charge their clients. Williams says she’s currently working to expand the offerings to include a wider range of providers, including healers, therapists, and more. 

These benefits signaled a deeper set of values to Ni. “I was really moved when I saw the potential for health, dental, and other forms of coverage,” Ni says. “It really made me feel like this opportunity was one where I would possibly be cared for as an entire person.”

Redgrave, another grant recipient, also views the benefits as a welcome form of support, particularly the promise of a vision checkup. Unsure of whether his current Medicare plan would cover an optometry appointment, he’s been relying on a pair of drugstore reading glasses. “The idea that I could have somebody help me navigate how to get glasses, for example, would be great,” Redgrave says. 

Similarly, Bañales has also found his Medicare coverage to be lacking. He had previously worked as a writer, translator, and designer at the CMS Office of Minority Health. “I’ve seen the whole health care issue from that side, and I don’t like that having health care is tied to having a job,” Bañales says. Though basic services are generally covered, his current Medicare plan offers little beyond that; for example, dental cleanings are covered, but a cavity would lead to a hefty bill. “The past three years, I’ve been neglecting my health a little bit by not going to the doctor as much as I used to,” he says. 

Just as navigating health care can be daunting, many arts workers also face the challenge of filing tax returns that tend to be more complicated than the average office worker’s. As the May 17 deadline for 2021 taxes draws near, self-employed workers must organize a year’s worth of 1099s and navigate tricky rules around reporting income, health insurance coverage, and more. 

When performance artist Tbakhi graduated from college in 2019, he was prepared to work hard to pursue a creative career. But the financial reality of the path felt like a different kind of test—one that made him uncomfortably aware of his upbringing in a lower income household, without the financial literacy of his wealthier peers. “It’s kind of intentionally confusing, I think,” Tbakhi says of both the IRS’s baroque rules and the predatory ecosystem of services such as TurboTax that prey on workers’ uncertainty of whether they qualify for free tax filing. The CSA grant’s promise of tax prep assistance was a major reason he submitted an application. “It is something that is very hard to find anywhere and is not typically included in any other kind of grant or any other kind of residency,” he says. “You’re just kind of expected to know how to do things.”

Beyond providing for artists’ holistic needs, Williams hopes the CSA program might become a more permanent fixture in the area. Between pandemic-induced lockdowns that have shuttered creative venues and algorithmic curation that leaves little room for surprise, Williams sees a need for more organic ways to encounter the arts. “You can’t always decide what you’re going to get from a CSA, right? You know you’re going to get produce, and you have a variety of options that could come through, depending on how kind the farming gods are,” Williams says. “It would be great if we started to view art that way as well.” Through a CSA, “you get to see artists that you probably would have never come in contact with—and that could be a couple blocks away from you,” Williams says.