How can communities support local art and artists? Alumnus Jeff Hnilicka leads the way, taking a page from the sustainable food movement.
By Danny LaChance
It was three years after Hurricane Katrina had mercilessly raked New Orleans's lower ninth ward into the sea. Jeff Hnilicka, an arts administrator visiting from New York, happened to be strolling through the neighborhood. He was moved by what he saw.
Generations of a family displaced by the disaster, and their neighbors, were preparing to celebrate a life-sized artwork by local artist Wangechi Mutu, Mrs. Sarah's House, commemorating the loss they suffered when their home was destroyed by Katrina. "There was food and singing and dancing and crying and sharing stories," he recalls.
Jeff Hnilicka says it feels "oddly subversive" to present artists grant money in a canvas bag. But maybe that's how one feels, starting a national movement.
Photo by Kelly MacWilliams
But what struck him was how this piece of art, which was part of the international Prospect.1 New Orleans Biennial, was helping the community to rebuild itself. He thought, "This is what I want my life to be about"--making contemporary art accessible where it is most effective--in the community.
In some ways, the revelation wasn't new. After all, following his graduation from the University in 2004 with a B.A. in theater arts, Hnilicka had launched his career as manager of visitor services at Minneapolis's Walker Art Center, where he was responsible for removing the physical and psychological obstacles encountered by visitors. But the New Orleans experience reinforced his appreciation of how powerful art can be when removed from the literal and figurative walls of museums.
He returned to New York reenergized, and with members of the Hit Factorie art collaborative began to brainstorm about how to produce art that would appeal to all the members of a community--not just arts professionals, and would be displayed where people actually live--not just in museums.
The product of their labor is FEAST: Funding Emerging Art with Sustainable Tactics. Inspired by a similar initiative in Chicago called Sunday Soup, FEAST turns citizens into small-scale philanthropists and their community into a large-scale grant review committee.
Every other month or so people of all ages and walks of life fill a small church basement in Brooklyn's Greenpoint neighborhood, paying $10 to $20 (on a sliding scale) for dinner. The event is local in every respect. Volunteers serve a home-cooked dinner made with locally sourced ingredients (sample menu: Tuscan soup, roasted veggie salad, locally brewed beer). Area artists mount visions of their public art projects on the walls and circulate through the crowd. Local musicians play in the background.
At evening's end, participants vote for the project they would most like to fund. After Hnilicka and his FEAST co-founders count up the ballots he ceremoniously presents the winner with a canvas bag stuffed with cash collected at the door. The artist leaves with a micro-grant and a mandate to bring the vision to life in time for the next FEAST.
A funded project, the Camper Kart, was displayed in Manhattan and Brooklyn parks
Photo by Kevin Cyr
And so it was that last October FEASTers crowded around the completed Camper Kart, visibly excited about a work they voted for months earlier when it was just an idea on a piece of paper.
FEAST, it seems, successfully counteracts the elitist air that sometimes surrounds contemporary art. "A lot of people are turned off by contemporary art because they don't get it--there's not an entry point for them," Hnilicka says. "You have to have so much context to get what the artist is talking about." With FEAST, those who appreciate the art are its context: they saw and understood the idea in its initial stages and voted for it.
The idea has taken off. The first FEAST drew 150 people. Eight months later, attendance had nearly doubled. Since then, Hnilicka and friends have begun to spread the idea nationally.
They started in the Twin Cities. At the Walker Art Center last July, Hnilicka encouraged local artists to launch a spin-off. In November the first Minneapolis FEAST was held, drawing more than 300 people. The creators of one winning project, Public Consumption, plan to place paintings in public locations throughout the city and track the effects of time on them. By investigating how weather, vandalism, relocation, and other forces change the art, they hope to remind audiences that art is embedded in, rather than detached from, time and space.
Last winter Hnilicka also visited Los Angeles and San Francisco, meeting with artists who hope to launch FEASTs in their own communities.
While he's excited about the popularity of the idea, Hnilicka is also cautious. He knows that growth isn't always an unmitigated good, and is trying to increase FEAST's scope and magnitude while maintaining its grassroots philosophy. "We don't want to be the Whole Foods of the art world. We want to be a national network of CSAs," he says, referring to the Community Supported Agriculture cooperatives in which consumers support local farmers directly and receive a share of the produce in return.
But whether FEAST becomes a national network or remains a quirky, bi-monthly event in a church basement in Brooklyn, Hnilicka is committed to making it work to break down barriers between art and communities.
There's something wholesome and transparent, yet oddly subversive, he says, about the climactic moment at each FEAST when he holds up the prize and announces the winner.
Handing an artist a bag of bills siphoned from the wallets of a roomful of people and calling it a grant violates, he points out, all sorts of social conventions: "No one ever gets a thousand dollars at a party." It forces you to think about the logic of the world you live in.
And that, Hnilicka says, is the point.