Call them matchmakers.

Mystery, and mastery, are the linchpins of Charleston Supported Art (CSA), a program founded in 2013 by seven women intimately involved in the area arts community. Their goals: to stem an outflow of contemporary artists from the Charleston area and introduce a wider audience to their work.

“We recognized that it was difficult for many local artists to show their work here unless they were already established, and we found that many artists were moving away because of this,” says Ann Simmons, an arts coordinator for North Charleston’s Cultural Arts Department and a co-founder of CSA. “We wanted to highlight what is happening here and give artists a platform that would enable them to stay.”

Also, the group wanted to dispel the canard that art is for the privileged few, to ease potential patrons’ concerns about making an informed purchase and, eventually, to connect artists with patrons in ways not generally experienced in traditional galleries. “We help buyers discover which emerging artists are on the cusp [of renown] and show them where to start as buyers and collectors,” adds Simmons.

Part of a national movement, CSA allows new and experienced collectors to purchase shares in exchange for original works produced by a curated group of local artists. Currently operating in 50 U.S. cities, the concept was first implemented in 2010 by Springboard for the Arts, a nonprofit in St. Paul, Minnesota. Springboard was inspired by the successful Community Supported Agriculture drive through which shareholders invest in a local farm and receive periodic deliveries of fresh produce.

The initial catalyst for CSA was fiber artist Kristy Bishop, who teamed with Simmons; Stacy Huggins, executive director of Redux Contemporary Art Center; Karen Ann Myers, associate director of the Halsey Institute; artists Erin Glaze Nathanson and Camela Guevara; and Anne Trabue Watson Nelson, also an arts coordinator for North Charleston. Huggins and Myers stepped down last year, citing prohibitive workloads. The remaining five serve as jurists as well as administrators.

In each of three seasons—fall, winter and spring—CSA showcases four visual artists selected via a competitive application and voting process. The selected artists receive $1,500 to create a total of 32 original works. CSA offers 96 shares per year, securing for the buyer of each share four original works in the fields of painting, sculpture, printmaking, illustration, photography and textiles, all created exclusively for CSA.

Share purchases can be made online or at various public meet-and-greets as well as at three annual pick-up events where the art is distributed in wrapped “surprise packages.”

Not surprisingly, CSA is showered with applications each year. Its criteria for acceptance vary, but the aim is to find exciting work of high quality in various media by a well-rounded group of artists.

There are bonuses: In addition to the $1,500 stipend, artists receive help from CSA personnel in promoting their work, assisting with applications and residencies, and setting up websites.

Though the focus is on emerging talents, established artists help anchor most seasons. Roughly half of the artists who have been involved with CSA currently are represented by both traditional and nontraditional galleries year-round, with a number of those connections having emerged following artists’ participation in the program. Many have been featured in solo and group gallery exhibits, and some artists choose to collaborate with each other following their CSA experience.

Bill Thompson writes about the arts, film and books.

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