Michael Iacovone investigates Project Dispatch, A DC-based Online Subscription Service for Artists and Collectors, with Co-Founders Chandi Kelley and Rachel England

As any of them will tell you, it’s not easy being a young and emerging artist.  The hardest parts are getting your work out where people can see it, and then facing questions that don’t seem to have a clear answers.  How do you develop relationships with art collectors?  How do you get your art to the public?  Without signing onto a gallery, how do you show your work consistently? Without the deadlines of college, how do you stay motivated to create work when you’re also trying to figure out how to make a living?

Artists Chandi Kelley and Rachel England were facing these same obstacles when they created Project Dispatch.  It started with an idea to create an online space for artists to make and sell small works in a format that was engaging and accessible for collectors – particularly for those who are just beginning to collect art or want to be more involved with the artists that they are purchasing works from.  From there, they created an art based subscription service. The idea fills a void between artist and patron by connecting online and via mail.  The artists create and send work, and the patrons receive original art on a monthly basis.  The simplest solutions are often the most elegant.

Rachel England explains, “When the project was first formed, we reached out to artists making work that we felt would be a good fit. We started with artists that were in our network, many of them Corcoran College of Art + Design graduates like ourselves. It didn’t take long for artists to begin approaching us to find out how they could become involved, and now we have artists from all over the country.”

“I think part of the beauty of art is that larger conversation of value,” she continues. “The value in art sometimes has nothing to do with money.  The education in making and learning about art is often priceless because it is transformative.  There was a particularly memorable conversation with a patron who said that she never would have bought one of the works of art that was sent to her, but because it went well with the others she framed and hung it anyway.  She said she grew to love that piece that she didn’t like at first.  This altered the way she looked at art.  She is now far less dismissive of things that are outside of her comfort zone or aesthetic preference.  That’s priceless.”

Rachel England

Rachel England

The monthly experience has kept the artists on their toes, and created opportunities.  They collaborate with the other artists, and have a constant and deeper understanding of the value of their own work.

“Every artist has a different process for fulfilling subscriptions.  Some create little series.  Some send process sketches for what they are working on at the time. Some send the work that doesn’t fit within larger bodies of work,” says England. “The best part of this for the artists is that they have complete freedom to send what they wish.  It’s a risk for the patron, but I think the artists appreciate this, and more often than not, give the patron more than the monetary value of the subscription.  I have talked to many patrons over the years.  They have all said that the value in the experience of receiving original art in the mail far outweighs the cost of the subscription.”

The project has been successful in promoting artists that have a difficult time selling their own work. There are so many artists not represented by galleries, Project Dispatch artists take part in shows every year and gain exposure they wouldn’t get if they worked on their own. “There is an element of surprise, because the work comes directly from the artist’s studio and the subscriber doesn’t always know what they are going to get. This encourages more than just art sales, but the creative process of the artist,” says Chandi Kelley.

Chandi Kelly

Chandi Kelley

“I wouldn’t have been in nearly as many shows in DC without them. And I like the personalities and enthusiasm of the other artists a lot,” explains participating artist Dana Maier.

Dana Maier

Dana Maier

“It’s an amazing feeling to be able to send something directly to a person in the mail,” says participating artist Stephanie Kwak. “It feels like there aren’t any barriers, and we’re directly communicating. As a member, I have not only been more productive in making artwork, but I have also greatly developed my understanding of what it means to be an artist and the artist communities that exist in Washington, DC, Baltimore, and beyond.”

She continues, “When people ask me what Project Dispatch is, I usually tell them it’s an art subscription service just to be succinct, but it’s way more than that: it’s a platform where artists can see what others in the region (or not in the region) are making; it’s a way of creating interactions between artists and those who enjoy art; and it’s a way to make art more accessible and reach out to audiences who care about art but may not necessarily know how to get to that art.”

Stephanie Kwak

Stephanie Kwak

“One of the most interesting ways it affects me is that I have to be present with the idea of my relationship to commerce as an artist.  I have always considered myself a noncommercial artist without the pressures of producing for a market– but in a very regular way, this forces me to do so,” says participating artist Kendal Nordin.

Kendall Nordin

Kendall Nordin

“Project Dispatch has made quite an impact on my studio practice and art making in general,” says artist Frank Adams. “Having subscribers has kept my creative momentum up and allows me to showcase some ideas and visual mechanics that may not be fully formed yet.”

Frank Adams

Frank Adams

“Mostly, Project Dispatch is fun for both the artist and for the patron,” says England. “It’s fun to put together a package for a stranger.  It’s fun for a patron to be surprised by that package. I think people enjoy connecting with an artist and his/her work in a more experiential manner. Project Dispatch gives them that opportunity.”

The subscription model

You’re probably wondering about the logistics, and how the project is managed.  Chandi Kelley explains how she organizes and keeps the artists and patrons happy and productive.

Mike: How does the Subscription Model Work?

Chandi: We offer subscription levels of $30, $60, or $90 per month, customizable for durations of 3, 6, or 12 months. Subscribers can select the artist that they wish to receive work from, or choose a Sampler Subscription to be surprised by a new artist with each monthly installment. With a higher subscription level, artists will often send larger or framed works to accommodate.

 Mike: How does Project Dispatch select artists?

Chandi: We add new members based on how their work fits into the project and their ability to make and send small works on a monthly basis. Sometimes this means approaching artists that we would like to have involved, but most of the time artists approach us. We look at submissions and take new artists on a rolling basis, trying to keep the total number of member artists between 20-25 to make sure that all artists can participate equally in sampler subscriptions and exhibitions.

Mike: How long does an artist participate in the project? 

Chandi: Artist memberships are annual, with an option for renewal at the end of each term. But there is no limit to how long an artist can be involved in the project. There are 4-5 artists that have been involved since 2009, and our newest artists have been involved for less than one year.

Mike: How much time does an artist have to send work that has been pre-paid for?

Chandi: Notices for subscription obligations are sent at the beginning of each month. The artist has until the 20th of that month to send their work to the subscriber.

Mike: What happens when the ‘system’ breaks down – i.e. a collector doesn’t pay or an artist doesn’t send the work?

Chandi: This is a good question…and thankfully one that we deal with very rarely!

Subscriptions are not processed until the full payment is received. If a collector does not pay, no work will be shipped. If an artist fails to send work, there are always available works that I can send on their behalf. Although meeting obligations is crucial to being involved in the project, if an artist is unable to meet their obligations we find ways to work around it and allow them to step back temporarily.

And a question that we hear a lot (but rarely need to address) is “what if the subscriber doesn’t like the work that they receive?” In the last five years this has only been brought up on two occasions, and both were resolved easily. In exchange for the work, I have offered to add another month to the subscription or refund that month’s charge. It is a testament to the work that is sent that this is a rare case. I think that most people are so satisfied with the overall experience, that even though they may favor certain works over others, the entire package is what makes the experience fun and rewarding. It is a shared experience of supporting the creative process of the artists and purchasing art that you love.

Author Michael Dax Iacovone is a DC based artist who works in photo, video, maps and installation.

Find out more about Project Dispatch here at their website.