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Minnesota’s first-time FEAST dinner: Artists make their pitch, and guests decide the projects to fund

It’s fitting that the idea for FEAST (Funding Emerging Art with Sustainable Tactics) sprang from a church basement Thanksgiving dinner.

Jeff Hnilicka, one of the founders of FEAST, had been picking up his weekly CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm share in the basement of Brooklyn’s Lutheran Church of the Messiah. He asked the pastor about holding a community Thanksgiving dinner in the space. “Something like 70 people came,” Hnilicka remembers. “It was just magical. In fact, the dinner was so wonderful, and there was such a great public response, we wanted to keep doing it.”

Hnilicka is a member of Hit Factorie — a ragtag assortment of 15 to 20 New York-based designers, artists, arborists, chefs, press people and arts administrators. He says they were inspired by the success of the Chicago organization, inCUBATE’s “Sunday Soups” program, which funds neighborhood art projects through weekly public dinners. They were eager to see how a similar grass-roots, community-supported program for the arts might fare in New York City. “So we started FEAST, and it just took off,” he says. The program seems to translate successfully in other cities, too; FEAST dinners are currently held in Baltimore, Buffalo, N.Y., Milwaukee and Portland, Ore., and as of this Saturday, right here in Minneapolis.

Streamlined funding model
The FEAST model is streamlined, efficient and immediate. It is, according to the concise description on the organization’s website, “a recurring public dinner designed to use community-driven financial support to democratically fund new and emerging art-makers.

At each FEAST, participants will pay a sliding-scale entrance fee ($10 to $20) for which they will receive supper and a ballot. Diners will vote on a variety of proposed artist projects.” And at the end of the dinner, Hnilicka says, “we hand the winning artist a bag of money. They can go out and start their project immediately.” The artists are then asked back to present the fruits of their labor at the next FEAST dinner.

He says this sort of structure (unlike traditional art-making grants or foundation support) directly connects the audience/patrons to the work produced, giving both the cultural producer and the engaged public a stake and a say in the kind of artwork produced by artists in their communities.

Consider the fact that in other cities hosting FEAST, between 200 to 500 people typically turn out to participate in each dinner; that means victorious artists often go home with more than $1,000 (after organizers recoup the set-up costs of food, space and materials). With that level of funding directly accessible to artists from each of these dinners, it’s no surprise that the program has become a success.

Hnilicka explains FEAST’s appeal this way: “Everyone is concerned about their jobs and money right now; and lots of people are recalibrating their priorities in the face of this shared vulnerability. People seem willing to try a new kind of value creation — one based on community, on grass-roots support. [In Brooklyn] we’ve funded community gardens, neighborhood art projects — they’re just the funny, sweet, close-to-the-ground sorts of projects that would ordinarily be really hard to get grant money for.”

He goes on, “Anyone’s welcome to submit ideas, even people who don’t typically consider themselves “artists.” The things that are getting often end up being projects that offer a high degree of community engagement and impact, things that really involve and make use of public spaces and participation.”

“I think we’re tapping into a group of people who don’t typically get asked for money,” Hnilicka says. “FEAST participants are primarily working people who don’t have a lot of money to give to art projects – we’re the sorts of people who don’t have $100 or $1,000 to give; but we do have $20 — and it’s really exciting to see the power of $20.”

Indeed, those small donations add up to something quite significant: Just since February, FEAST in Brooklyn has granted more than $7,000 and has funded 12 projects.

He says, “We want to create a system that questions some of the traditional modes of funding – foundation grants, residencies, fellowships. We’re interested in bottom-up cultural production, so that it’s not just a handful of well-funded artists, gallerists and curators who decide what’s valuable. We wanted to open up the opportunities for art-making to those who could never afford to pay for a BFA or MFA program, or the hundreds of dollars a month it takes to rent a studio space. Why not provide a public forum for our increasingly culturally literate public to assess the value of art?”

Organizers see it as perfect Twin Cities fit
Natalie Bowers, a staffer at the Walker Art Center and one of the driving forces behind bringing FEAST to the Twin Cities, says she can’t wait to see how this grass-roots arts program fares in Minnesota. “It’s such a no-brainer to have this in Minneapolis,” she says. “The artists in this city are so progressive, and there are so many different kinds of art movements and such a supportive audience for the arts here — I feel sure FEAST will really take off.”

But she’s quick to point out that the Twin Cities incarnation of the program will likely look a bit different from its predecessor. “A lot of the artists who have gotten funding from the FEAST participants in Brooklyn have won support for guerilla art projects, things with lots of audience participation and direct community involvement.” She shrugs, “Here? Who knows? I’ll be curious to see if more traditional sorts of art projects might win here; the Twin Cities have a savvy, engaged population of mid-career artists, and I can imagine that this might really appeal to them.”

Even so, Bowers admits she’s still rooting for the outliers. “I hope people at the dinner give those projects which are a little out there, really site-specific and a little crazy — things that wouldn’t normally have a prayer of getting traditional sorts of grant funding — a shot at support.”

Bowers says the local organizers of FEAST plan to hold seasonal public dinners throughout the year, in revolving venues around the metro. “We’re hoping for a diverse group of diners, and that people in the community will be as excited as we are by the opportunity to participate in something like this. Honestly, I’ll be ecstatic if we get 200 people for this first FEAST, but who knows how many will come?”

“At the Brooklyn FEASTs, we see such a broad spectrum — kids, babies, old people, folks coming in from Manhattan, art world people, food people, but also those who’ve just lived in the neighborhood for years,” Hnilicka says. With the thriving arts ecosystem already in place here, he expects a similarly broad cross-section of the public to turn out for FEAST dinners here in the Twin Cities.

The relevant question, he says, is “What does Minneapolis need? Each [iteration of FEAST] has its own distinct flavor — I’m very interested to see what emerges here, what’s distinct to the Twin Cities.”

The “First FEAST” in Minneapolis takes place Saturday at Traffic Zone Center for Visual Art in Minneapolis from 6 to 10 p.m. If you’d like to attend, donate $10 to $20 at the door, as you can (no one will be turned away); in return, you’ll get a home-cooked meal and a ballot to vote for your favorite artist presentation of the evening. (You can read up on the 15 local art project proposals here.)

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