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Sloup's on: New soup dinners will help fund arts projects

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 16, 2010 - Mounted inconspicuously above the address on the front of a two-story brick building at 2122 Cherokee street is a small shoe with the words "Stirrup Pants" hand painted on the sole.

Stirrup Pants opens its door to the public every Saturday offering free coffee and -- no, not pants -- poetry chapbooks and, as of Sunday, Feb. 21, soup. The monthly soup dinner, aptly named Sloup, is one of a growing number of dinners happening at community arts programs across the country.

All the dinners work pretty much the same way. Each person pays about $10 for dinner. Artists submit proposals for a project and as patrons slurp hot soup they discuss the proposals and vote on which one they like the most. All the proceeds from the dinner are then awarded to the winning proposal.

Maggie Ginestra founded Stirrup Pants and lives above the shop with Amelia Colette Jones. They got the idea for Sloup after attending a soup dinner at Incubate, a research institute and artists residency program in Chicago.

"Were going to make the soup ourselves for the first one; we're thinking carrot, leek with roasted red pepper" Maggie explains, while standing on the shop's bright blue floor.

Sloup will become a monthly fixture at Stirrup Pants; and Maggie and Amelia would like to see it grow into a communitywide event.

"We are hoping different chefs or community members or people who have received grants in the past will help make soup in the future; and that can be a platform for talking about your restaurant, garden, art, etc."

Some see this budding trend in small-scale democratic arts funding as a response to what has been called "the Bilbao effect."

When architect Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Spain opened to the public in 1997, Bilbao went from being a derelict port city with a bleak economic future to one of Spain's hottest tourist destinations. "The Bilbao effect" became a phrase that started popping up at board meetings of heavyweight cultural institutions around the world. Such cities as Helsinki, Manchester and Seattle started drawing up plans for iconic buildings in the hopes that they would draw prestige, tourists and, of course, money.

But as some disappointed cities can testify, "Starchitecture" is not a foolproof plan, especially in these dark economic times. The Millennium Dome in London is a costly reminder that big-name architects do not automatically bring in big money. The $789 million structure designed by Richard Rogers failed to bring the buzz the city had wanted.

Combining elements of the locavore movement and micro-funding for the arts, community art organizations like Feast in Brooklyn, Portland Stock, Incubate in Chicago and now Stirrup Pants in St. Louis hope that the larger cultural institutions will take notice of the success of the soup dinners' ability to make the art world feel more like a community and incorporate similar projects in their budgets.

David Weinberg is a freelance writer. 

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