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Dinner parties help fund arts projects

Amelia Colette Jones with her friend Maggie Ginestra, sitting down, at the venue where they hold Sloup.

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Kai Ryssdal: There was a big rally at the Georgia State Capitol building in Atlanta today. Artists protesting cuts in public funding. The Georgia House of Representatives voted last week to get rid of the state's Arts Council, and the $800,000 in grants it handed out last year. Even in states that have public funding of the arts, grants are still hard to come by. So local groups have turned to small-scale private donors. Call it micro-grants for starving artists.

David Weinberg has the story.


David Weinberg: Inside a two-story brick building on a commercial street in St. Louis about 25 people are spread out around the room holding hot bowls of carrot leek soup, talking about which art project they plan to vote for.

Ameilia: Thanks everybody for coming to the first Sloup.

Tonight is the first night of Sloup, which is a monthly soup dinner where everyone gets a meal for just $10. They also get a packet containing proposals from various artists. At the end of the night there will be a vote, and the project with the most votes gets all the proceeds from the dinner.

Jordan Hicks: Yeah, I don't really see it as a competitive sort of thing. It's just a fun night to get together.

Jordan Hicks was one of the artists who submitted a proposal. For his project he collaborated with a couple of photographers and an art historian to create a set of postcards about urban decay and population decline in St. Louis. If he wins the Sloup grant he plans to print up several sets of the cards and leave them around the city in public places. But the important thing he says, isn't the money, it's about sharing his project with the community.

Hicks: 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's the assistant director of the Urban Studio Cafe, which is a local non-profit coffee shop.

Claire Wolf: All of the profits from coffee and food sales will fund arts programs and community programs for the neighborhood.

If Wolf wins the grant she plans on buying a silkscreen printing machine for the cafe.

Wolf: 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.

Annmarie Spitz was one of the people at Sloup who told me that going to these dinners was a way for her to support the arts in a way that she hadn't been able to before.

Annmarie Spitz: I wouldn't consider myself a patron really because I don't have any money, but that was what was great about Sloup was that I felt like I could be a patron with $10.

Both patrons and artists at Sloup talked about how much more personal this process felt compared to traditional arts funding. Normally you donate money to an arts organization, and they decide how to spend it. At Sloup, the artists and funders actually break bread together and each person has a say in which project gets funded. The day after Sloup, the votes were tallied, and the winner by a very narrow margin was...

Claire Wolf's proposal for the screen printing machine.

I dropped by the Urban Studio Cafe a couple weeks after Sloup to see the screen printing in action.

Neighborhood kid: The entire screen has to be wet, but not dripping.

Neighborhood kids are drying silk screens with a squeegee, and it's clear that the machine is a big hit.

Wolf: It actually cost $239.99 and our Sloup grant was for $240, so it was perfect.

From the time Wolff submitted her proposal to the day she purchased the screen printer it has been less than a month.

Jeff Hnilicka: That's a very quick turnaround.

Jeff Hnilicka is the cofounder of an organization in Brooklyn called FEAST which stands for Funding Emerging Artists with Sustainable Tactics. It was one of the groups that inspired Sloup. He says for normal arts grants...

Hnilicka: It takes a year-and-a-half to go from writing a proposal to implementation. Your idea and what you're responding could have drastically changed in that period of time.

Hnilicka spends a lot of his time traveling around the country helping groups set up their own monthly dinners. There are now events like Sloup in Boston, Portland and Chicago and the number is growing. The hope is that this model will not just change the way art is funded but change the relationship between artists and patrons and make the art world feel less exclusive and more like a dinner party with friends.

From St. Louis, I'm David Weinberg for Marketplace.

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