Funding for the arts has been hit hard by the economic downturn. So many local groups have turned to small-scale private donors.
Patrons like Amelia Collete Jones and Maggie Ginestra, partners and art lovers, who wanted to help put money into the hands of local artists.
They started with about 25 people and a pot of soup on a rainy Sunday evening. Attendees milled around a downtown bookshop holding hot bowls of carrot leek soup and talking about which art project they planned to vote for.
It was the first night of Sloup, a now-monthly soup dinner where everyone gets a meal for just $10. Diners also receive a packet containing proposals from various artists. At the end of the evening, they cast their vote, and the project with the most votes gets all the proceeds from the dinner.
"I don't really see it as a competitive sort of thing," said Jordan Hicks, one of the artists who submitted a proposal at the inaugural dinner. "It's just a fun night to get together."
For his project, Hicks 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 awarded the Sloup grant, he planned to print dozens of sets of the cards and leave them around the city in public places. But the important thing, he said, wasn't the money. It was about sharing his project with the community.
"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," he said.
Artist Claire Wolf also submitted a proposal. She's the assistant director of the Urban Studio Cafe, a local nonprofit coffee shop and social outreach center.
"All of the profits from coffee and food sales will fund arts programs and community programs for the neighborhood," she said.
If Wolf were to win the grant, she planned to buy a silkscreen printing machine for the cafe. "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."
Patrons for a pittance
Enjoying her second helping of carrot leek soup, Annmarie Spitz said that coming to a Sloup dinner was a chance for her to support the arts in a way that she hadn't been able to before.
"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."
The day after the inaugural Sloup, the votes were tallied, and the winner, by a very narrow margin, was Claire Wolf's proposal for the screen printing machine.
A couple weeks after the dinner, the screen printing was already in action at Wolf's coffee shop. Neighborhood kids were drying silk screens with a squeegee. It was clear that the machine is a big hit.
"It actually cost $239.99 and our Sloup grant was for $240," said Wolf. "So it was perfect."
From the time Wolf submitted her proposal to the day she purchased the screen printer was less than a month.
"That's a very quick turnaround," said Jeff Hnilicka, cofounder of an organization called FEAST. It stands for Funding Emerging Artists with Sustainable Tactics and is one of the groups that inspired Sloup. He says getting an arts grant is usually a protracted process...
"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.
Since the first Sloup in St. Louis three months ago, each dinner has attracted more artists and diners, which has helped bring more exposure to artists and larger grants.
The hope is that this model will not just change the way art is funded but change the relationship between artists and patrons, making the art world feel less exclusive and more like a dinner party with friends.