Sometimes an idea seems so simple on the surface. Yet if you follow the whorls and eddies, it leads to unexpected connections and benefits beyond what anyone could have predicted.
Sloup is the six-month-old brainchild of Maggie Ginestra and Amelia Colette Jones, 27-year-old artists who arrived in St. Louis three years ago to work toward masters' degrees at Washington University. The initial appeal is how simple it is: Show up to a monthly soup dinner, put ten bucks in the kitty and pick your favorite from culture-enriching proposals handed to you at the door — winner takes all. But follow those conversations over a steaming bowl of soup and you find new pathways into St. Louis' creative scene, fostered by this simple idea.
It's modeled on similar programs in other cities, the women say. Typically the monthly Sunday dinner draws 25 or 30 people. Attendees have given grants to writers' collectives, urban farms and multimedia production companies, among others.
"It's expanding the idea of what can be funded," says Ginestra.
"We're trying to just demystify it. Ten dollars, here, in, out," says Jones. "Art is right in your back yard. Come get it. Make it whatever you want it to be."
Grant seekers submit their applications ahead of the monthly dinner and can elect to attend (and maybe campaign) or stay away. The application process consists of five questions: What project do you want to fund? Why do you want a Sloup grant instead of a million dollars falling from the sky? Who are you as a creative being? What's a project of yours from the past that succeeded or failed? Who is your favorite artist this month?
The simplicity of the application is by design. The pair wants to empower new artists, or people newly considering their passion to be art.
"I just want to be like, 'This is so easy!'" says Jones. "It's five questions, you don't have to attach a résumé; there's no prerequisites."
Who would be an ideal winner?
"Someone who this would be a big rush of energy for their work, someone who this would create a deeper commitment to their work," Ginestra replies. "I'm not sure I would have come to consider myself an artist without a mutually supportive environment."
"If they got this and it gave them the courage to apply for another —" Jones begins.
"— to take their own practice more seriously," finishes Ginestra.
If an artist doesn't top the voting, he or she is encouraged to try again. Ginestra says two winners have each been passed over and gave it another shot.
Dinnergoers range from friends of the organizers to students to grant seekers and their cheering squads. At first Ginestra and Jones cooked the soup themselves, but they've since extracted soup sponsorships from local eateries including Mangia Italiano and Mississippi Mud House. They've also gone mobile, after having initially staged the event at their Cherokee Street space.
The entrée is no mere gimmick. From corn chowder to kale soup, corn and basil soup, fire-roasted tomato soup — the organizers respect the possibility that vegans and arts supporters might have some overlap, and they try to hew to a locavore mentality that suits the grant-giving concept. Example: Slow Rocket Urban Farm has been a grantee, host and soup source.
"There are parallel values at work," says Ginestra. "We are locavore dorks."
Emma O'Brien, studio manager for StudioSTL, won one of the first grants. StudioSTL is a community writing lab that serves kids from six to eighteen. The idea is to get them excited about writing and telling their own stories, and publishing their work. Lots of new kids running around means lots of nametags, and O'Brien figured they could do better than Sharpie on single-use stickers.
"One way to physically establish that sense of community would be making buttons," she says. So she applied to Sloup and won a grant to buy a button maker for the budding writers.
"I was really impressed with how they kept in touch with me and kept me involved," O'Brien says. She came to a Sloup after winning and brought the button maker. Attendees made buttons while O'Brien told them about StudioSTL's work.
And through that simple dinner, she met someone affiliated with Youth C.H.A.N.G.E. in Dutchtown, another nonprofit doing writing projects with kids.
"We might not have room in our program to do a project with them, but they can submit and be part of what we do. It's been a cool way to connect to other kids," O'Brien says.
"In general I was just really impressed with Maggie and Amelia's attitudes," she adds. "They were generally interested in how it went. I was really impressed with their sincerity. It was a great way to tell other people about our organization. It's such and easy concept — you get dinner, it's not a hard sell."
(StudioSTL is no stranger to RFT's MasterMind Awards; founder and executive director Beth Ketcher garnered a MasterMind in 2009.)
Furniture-restoration artist Jenny Murphy hasn't won a Sloup grant yet, but she fully intends to. Murphy met Ginestra at a community garden a few years ago. When she heard about Sloup, she was intrigued — and quickly hooked.
Murphy is a regular presence at the dinners and submitted a proposal for postage expenses to document a cross-country bike trip this summer. Slow Rocket beat her out — Murphy says she even considered voting for them — but she's not discouraged. Now she's got her sights set on a grant to construct a mobile furniture workshop that can fit on a trailer she'll tow behind her bike or in the bed of her truck.
"I'll go out to dinner sometimes and spend maybe more than ten dollars. The soup is awesome, but you're supporting artists in your own community," says Murphy, adding that she appreciates being a patron of the arts without having a trust fund at her disposal.
"It's really fun to be in this voting process," she says. "It feels like in elementary school, voting for class president. I'm very glad those ladies live in St. Louis and are doing such amazing things for the creative community."