The Hand that Rocks the Ladle: Sunday Soup

The concept is so simple it's brilliant. Someone makes a soup, or soups,  from scratch, and anyone is invited to consume that soup for a small fee of $5.  A panel of individuals who are doing, or trying to do, innovative, progressive things in our community come and present a proposal.  It could be for anything.  A community member acts as emcee to facilitate the presentations, and when they are finished, each satiated soup-eater casts a vote for the project he or she thought was the best.  The money collected from the diners is awarded, the same day, to the winner of the ballot.

Call it a mini-grant, call it a fundraiser, or call it what you will -- but this is a situation where everyone wins, not just the organization that leaves with the cash.  

The first Sunday Soup occurred in late March.  According to Professor Anna Campbell, a GVSU Art & Design instructor and UICA Visual Arts Committee member, the model was based on an idea of the dearly missed Ben Schaafsma, an idea he took with him when he moved to Chicago and fully realized via inCUBATE, a Chicago collective similar to the one he helped start in Grand Rapids, The DAAC.

This idea, according to artist and one of Sunday Soup's roving organizers Miriam Slager, was inspired by a now-defunct soup delivery service enacted by GVSU graduate Sara Baier.  Perhaps this is because soup works as a communal meal, something that can be made en masse and easily shared.  Slager says people are encouraged to bring their own bowls, and benches have been made for seating.  

Campbell says about forty people have been coming to the dinners, which she says is "a nice size because it feels like a crowd and an intimate gathering at the same time."

Presenters are given a platform for their ideas where they are met with thoughtful questions.

"For me, that's been the nicest surprise," says Slager.  "People ask really great questions, and it kind of validates (Sunday Soup) for me and makes me want to stay involved."

An example: "We had a discussion about why as artists, we feel that it's better to give your work away for free and whether that comes down to not valuing your work enough or whether it comes down to not wanting to deal with money," Slager says.  "This separation between a hobby and a legitimate business, and this concept of if you're making money off of it, is it less artistic?"  

Slager, who has crowned herself the "queen of odd jobs," is no stranger to this conversation, a topic that has been popping up all over Grand Rapids, home of the world's largest art prize.  A recent panelist at our Rapid Growth Speaker Series, "Good Business is the Best Art," Slager holds an M.A. in Fine Art and has found a way to support herself via freelance work including graphic design, gardening, cleaning and whatever comes her way.  She sits on the Visual Arts Committee at the UICA, and thinking about art and specifically how to fund art or attach value to art is something that seems to be on her mind, and the minds of other Grand Rapids artists, a lot.

"People are under the impression, when they pose a project (at Sunday Soup), that if they're giving it away we're more likely to vote for them… if it seems altruistic in some sense," Slager says.  "But then people say, 'is that sustainable?  Why would you not charge for this thing?'"

Campbell says many of the projects that have been selected have a "strong connection to social justice."

"It's been really interesting to see the intersection of art and politics enacted in projects we've helped make happen, but we're very interested in supporting work that operates in a more traditional gallery mode, or in work that's primarily driven by aesthetics," Campbell says.

Rhododendron Crafts, the first Sunday Soup winner, works to help refugees at Bethany Christian Services -- most from Burma, Bhutan, and Iraq -- market and sell their traditional craft to be sold at arts markets as a means to earn supplementary income.  

Project co-founder Jessica Ennis works through the AmeriCorps Vista program to coordinate volunteers and teach clients how to use the local bus system.  She started Rhododendron in February, and took her presentation to Sunday Soup in March.

"We won $200, and we have done several things with the money," Ennis says, as she looks over a list she made of their uses for the mini-grant.  "We were able to continue buying high-quality tack for our brochures, started a loan program for artists who needed a small bit of money to buy materials, and we've used some of the money for participating in different festivals."

The Avenue for the Arts, Sunday Art Market and the Blanford Nature Center Field of Greens Festival were some of the markets where Rhododendron clients were able to sell their goods.  Ennis said they are now working on an ArtPrize submission, and plan to use the Sunday Soup money for the entry fee.

Another winning project is the Ghana Nsu Project.  Annie Hakim and Uma Mishra traveled to Ghana with the intention of setting up a sustainable water filtration station in Winneba.  On a small timeframe, Mishra says they've been able to accomplish a lot, in a project that not only provides the people there with clean water, but also empowers the community. Mishra came to Sunday Soup hoping to receive funding for a documentary about the project.

"Any funds we're able to raise go directly into the project," Mishra says, "so even a small contribution helps immensely."  

Other recipients of the Sunday Soup bounty have included Karen Heeringa, for work on her zine about mixtapes, "Mixtapers Do It Better," and Dance in the Annex, an organization whose mission is to promote contemporary dance in the area through education and performance opportunity.

In order to apply to be a presenter at Sunday Soup, one must submit a proposal, online, two days before the Soup.  The entire event lasts under an hour and a half, and the recipient gets the cash at the end of the event.  
?"The lack of bureaucracy and the speed in turnaround is unmatched by any other model of funding," Campbell says.  "The presence of a granting program can help motivate folks to propose work they might not otherwise have attempted, or encourage folks to be more ambitious than they might otherwise be.  

The event gives people a chance to gain experience drafting and presenting proposals in a low pressure, friendly environment."

Learning about the projects is what Slager considers one of the prime benefits of Sunday Soup.

"There are so many creative people in Grand Rapids and so just to hear people come up to say, 'I've been so excited to do this and I just need $200 to get these supplies' is really invigorating ," Slager says.  "There are  these secret pockets of people conspiring to do these things -- it makes the city feel more alive."

The next Sunday Soup is actually not a Soup.  Due to the hot weather, Aug. 29's event will feature Sunday Sundaes (vegan ice cream is an option).  The event begins at 6 p.m. and is held at The DAAC at 115 S. Division. 


Founding members of Sunday Soup Left to Right, Shirley Ward, Miriam Slager, George Wietor,
Teresa Zbiciak, Anna Campbell.  Not pictured Jaime Johnson, Hunter, Bridwell, Megan McClish, Sarah Sates

Shirley Ward

Miriam Slager

George Wietor

Anna Campbell

Teresa Zbiciak

Sunday Soup Courtesy Photo

Photographs by Josh Tyron -All Rights Reserved
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