When Ben Schaafsma applied for a job in New York last year, his thesis adviser at the School of the Art Institute’s arts administration department was reluctant to write him a reference letter. It wasn’t that Schaafsma, then a 25-year-old grad student, wasn’t qualified for the position, overseeing the studio program at the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts. In fact, he was an ideal candidate. But the adviser, Brett Bloom, felt his departure would be a huge loss for the Chicago arts community. This is where “the best independent thinking and practice is quietly being done,” Bloom says, and Schaafsma had already—quietly, collaboratively—made an impact with ideas like InCUBATE (Institute for Community Understanding Between Art and the Everyday), a project space and research center in Logan Square. He’d established an innovative grant-giving program with money raised from the sale of homemade soup, served as public art curator for the 2007 Around the Coyote Fall Festival, and published articles about arts funding for small journals—all while still earning his MA.

But Bloom ultimately wrote him a glowing reference, and late last summer Schaafsma moved to Brooklyn. On October 23 he was struck by a cab while walking to his apartment. After two days in a coma, he died.

Upon hearing the news, friends and colleagues arranged a potluck, to “enjoy each other’s company in the memory of Ben.” Dozens of people packed the InCUBATE space, their mood somber but their talk lively. “Ben would have loved facilitating something like this,” said Schaafsma’s friend Jonathan Dawe, taking in the scene. “He continually connected,” another friend wrote on a memorial Web site that day. “People with other people, people with places, places with ideas, and people with ideas.”

Schaafsma’s friends say he was a connective force back in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, too. During high school and then while studying urban planning and art history at Calvin College, he booked concerts and allied himself with arts organizations. As part of an effort to revitalize Grand Rapids’ downtown Heartside District, he’d helped establish a multiuse arts space, Division Avenue Arts Cooperative, and cofounded G-RAD, a blog community and networking site for local artists and activists. With friend George Wietor he created the Interviews Project, which asked why young Grand Rapidians left town, and what, if anything, might lure them back. (Among the responses: “mountains,” “an international art fair,” and “someone who’d make out with me.”)

While traveling in eastern Europe as part of an SAIC cultural policy class, Schaafsma and fellow arts administration students Abby Satinsky and Roman Petruniak began a conversation about arts funding. In former Soviet bloc countries, where arts groups once relied exclusively on state funding, they met policy makers, artists, and businesspeople exploring new models. According to Satinsky, their hosts were particularly interested in private-public partnerships and “looking toward the U.S. as an ideal model.” But the three American grad students weren’t sure that was the best approach. “We were thinking, ‘Well, we see nonprofits pop up and fail all the time,'” Satinsky says. They decided to open a project space in Chicago—a kind of research institute where they could collectively explore other options and also support under-the-radar artists for whom traditional funding avenues weren’t working.

That space became InCUBATE, which opened in January 2007. Operating out of a storefront at 2129 N. Rockwell, in the Congress Theater building, it quickly became a productive hub for workshops, lectures, and general idea-sharing. It was decidedly not a nonprofit: “We didn’t want to have a mission statement, or incorporate, or organize ourselves in a specific way that would force us to have a board of directors or open up our financial books for scrutiny by the government,” says Satinsky. “Our basic function was to figure out the creative part of arts administration and be able to move from project to project.”

Their first creative challenge: how to come up with $850 a month to pay the rent. Though Petruniak lives there and pays the lion’s share, they figured out a way to ease his burden. Under the leadership of another SAIC student, Bryce Dwyer, InCUBATE launched a Person-in-Residence program, in which anyone could apply to live in the space for up to 90 days, paying $250 a month while pursuing either self-directed creative projects or collaborative research with InCUBATE members.

The nine residents so far have worked on everything from the Barack Obama Project, studying the marketing of racial identity in an election season, to the Cold Call Friendly Phone Book, a directory of Chicago- and LA-based artists who don’t mind strangers calling them for information, tips, or casual conversation. Current resident Robert Snowden is producing a publication called Floorplan, featuring sketches of the layouts of homes in popular TV sitcoms, done from memory.

In the process of writing his thesis (on alternative funding models) and developing InCUBATE, Schaafsma studied creative community projects from decades past. He drew inspiration from the likes of Food, the legendary artist-run SoHo restaurant cofounded by Gordon Matta-Clark and Carol Goodden, and Flood, the Rogers Park group organized by the Haha art collective, which built a hydroponic garden and grew vegetables for people with HIV in the early 90s. Says Professor Rachel Weiss, another of Schaafsma’s thesis advisers at SAIC, “He was trying to figure out what [this] history meant in terms of his own practice: what it gave us and what it didn’t and what he had to give to history.” Adds Bloom, “He was pulling from these highly experimental art projects things that folks had not noticed or had not seen the potential in.”

Along with Satinsky and Petruniak, Schaafsma used these precedents to create one of InCUBATE’s most successful funding alternatives, Sunday Soup. Now called Sunday Soup and Brunch, the program generates small grants, generally ranging from $125 to $250—depending on receipts—through the sale of gourmet soup and brunch items prepared by a volunteer cook. The family-style meal is served once a month, generally on the first Sunday, at the InCUBATE space. Anyone can apply for a grant, and anyone who buys a meal (suggested donation, $10) can vote for the grantee from a list of finalists provided by InCUBATE’s selection committee.

Chicago artist and media activist Anne Elizabeth Moore was one of the first people to receive a Sunday Soup grant. She used the money to help fund a residency in Providence, Rhode Island, where she made a hand-bound, letterpressed book titled New Girl Law, among other projects. The grant was only for $125, but “that isn’t what working with InCUBATE is about,” Moore says. “It’s about establishing a common ground of understanding and support” and forming meaningful connections “in a field where there is little support for non-big-brand players.”

Moore suggests that this focus on community building is what’s truly radical about InCUBATE, and what grounded all of Schaafsma’s work. According to Satinsky, he was considering starting a version of Sunday Soup and Brunch in New York. “He was reaching out to people,” she says, “and it had just begun.”

Working with Schaafsma, Wietor says, “I suddenly felt like I was a part of doing something, rather than sitting around talking about it.”

Satinsky, Petruniak, and Dwyer continue to coordinate Sunday Soup and Brunch events and to host a Person-in-Residence at InCUBATE. “Since Ben passed, I’ve gotten e-mails from people wanting to start Sunday Soup in different places,” says Satinsky. “It’s exciting to think that the platform we’ve created can continue on.”

Schaafsma’s friends have also set up an art auction on eBay to help his family with various bills associated with the accident, and eventually establish a grant in his name. (To browse, enter “Ben Schaafsma” as your search term on eBay.)

“Before Ben, I had never known the power that lies in us to create something that wasn’t there before—with no money, no rules, just an idea—and to make it happen together,” says Emma Heemskerk, a fellow Grand Rapids native who was Schaafsma’s girlfriend for six years, until he left for New York. “That was so empowering to me, to see my city and every city as a living, breathing thing that I could interact with.”