Sugar Mama’s Sweet Idea

Applying the concept of microfinance to the art world — and throwing a party in the process.

By now it’s practically cliché to talk about how hard it is to get funding for arts projects, especially these days when government and philanthropy organizations have cut their budgets tremendously. But a new model for arts funding — one based on the premise that getting and giving money for new projects can be easy, even fun — has taken root in recent months. And on Saturday, June 26, Sugar Mama helps bring the concept to Oakland with a particularly innovative approach.

Here’s how it works: A ticket to the event buys dinner and a chance to listen to pitches from local visual and performing artists about new projects they’d like to do, if only they had the funding. Each patron votes for the most compelling presentation, and the winning artist pockets the party’s profits and applies them toward their project.

Organized by screenwriter Sussu Laaksonen and artist Kris Vagner, Sugar Mama is modeled after St. Louis’ Sloup, which the two say they heard about on NPR a couple months ago. “We just thought, we have do it here,” recalled Vagner, who also contributes to the Express on occasion. In a community so saturated with artists and art-lovers, “it seemed like such an opportunity nobody was doing.”

After setting a date and location — Laaksonen’s West Oakland loft (exact address given upon ticket purchase) — they sent out a call for pitches to every artist they knew. They ended up with entries of all kinds: a musician looking to record an album; an art teacher who wants to travel the country with a giant roll of butcher paper and create a massive, makeshift mural; someone who works primarily in urban alleyways and makes wind-inspired performance art. At Saturday’s event, each of the six artists will give ten-minute presentations over beer and homemade soup, after which guests will ask questions and vote for the project they deem most worthy of their support.

For the artists, the benefit is clear: Unlike traditional funding processes, which tend to be opaque and drawn-out, the Sugar Mama model is democratic, direct, and immediate. But the way Vagner and Laaksonen see it, patrons win, too: They get an opportunity to support the arts for about the same price as a couple of movie tickets, and they can see and hear where their money’s going. The idea, Vagner said, is rooted in a desire to make arts patronage accessible and easy, even for people without millions of dollars or an advanced degree. “You don’t need to be schooled in art to have a vote,” Vagner said. “Anyone can be a part of this. We just like the idea of getting people together to talk about creative things. We’re anti-pretension and pro-art.” 7:30 p.m., $25-$35. 510-868-1626 or


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