The Art of Barter

by by Olivia Fagon

illustration by by Robert Sandler

In 1969, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe hawked their sketches and paintings for a month’s rent at the Chelsea Hotel. Pablo Picasso traded his sketches for coffee and the bar tab in Paris throughout the 1920s. A sheriff in Shenandoah, Virginia owns two gestural paintings by Jackson Pollock, works he used as bail for convictions of drunken and disorderly conduct. Last month, New York-based artist Dave Vinod traded a painting with Designer Braces, an orthodontics office, for his thirteen-year-old’s braces.
Amidst the past six years of economic insecurity, working artists have been stuck in a double bind in which money isn’t greasing the cogs of artistic creativity, and artistic creativity isn’t paying the rent. Bartering, then, a common practice for those in the art trade, has accordingly become a survival tactic. In May 2010, the O+ festival was set up Kingston, New York, in which uninsured artists and musicians exchanged and bartered their work for medical attention from participating physicians and medical firms. Innovative swaps like this demonstrate a collective effort by the art community to breathe new life into bartering.

The logic behind bartering, a form of exchange that preceded the invention of money, is simple: You have something I need, I have something you need, and we trade. The barter system allows you to negotiate the worth of your object or service in relation to products or services that you want. This formula has always resonated within the art community, where carving out innovative ways to sustain creative production is a must.

The appeal of bartering lies in its options: any object, good, or service is on the table. Greenwich-based artist Tracey Ellis once traded a mural series for a down payment on a car, and a piece of artwork for a Hasselblad camera that came with three lenses. For Ellis, bartering is a “way of life.” “Any time you can save your money, and you can get your work out there, it’s key.” Ellis, like many other artists, barters purely for the satisfaction of doing business on her own terms. “I’ve bartered art pieces for meals, yoga and pilates classes, graphic design work, so many things,” Ellis explained. “It’s such a great way to strengthen ties with the art community around you and support one another.”

Far from relying on arbitrary prescriptions of worth, artists who barter do so with a definite understanding of their works’ value—a value that is intimately tied to what they need. New York artist Avani Patel’s art supplies cost her around $5,000 per year, so when bartering she tries to exchange her work for items that either equal or exceed the amount of money it took to create that particular piece.

In recent years, bartering’s grassroots popularity has made the transition to more large-scale art events. “Art Barter,” an innovative new exhibition concept started in 2009 in London, gives the public the opportunity to acquire artwork through bartering. Over the three or four days of “Art Barter,” participants make offers on artworks (whose creators are unidentified in order to prevent calculations of market worth).

The results of the event, which has taken place in several locations around the world, are a testament to both the wide-ranging answers to that question and the art community’s eagerness to harness that potential: 30 hours of French tutoring for a Tracy Emin sketch; a Jason Dodge painting for a week-long stay in Scotland; three months of psychotherapy for a Gavin Turk installation. Commerce can get a lot weirder when you’re bartering.

Unsurprisingly, art bartering has made its way online. OurGoods is an online community of artists, designers, and cultural producers who swap skills, spaces, and work amongst themselves. Catering predominantly to the New York area, OurGoods is geared toward reestablishing face-to-face exchange and in-person networking in arts dealings. “If you’ve got a show coming up, you may need somebody to run your lights, write your press release and design your postcards,” said Jen Abrams, the network co-founder, “OurGoods is about finding those three people, and reciprocating. It’s simple.”

It’s exactly this simplicity that makes bartering so attractive. In the modern economy, our understanding of what things are worth has far exceeded the dollar-for--dollar equation, with the space between an individual and his assets now occupied by the digitized processes of online banking, credit cards, interest rates, premiums, automatic teller machines, and electronic-funds transfers. “I went straight from Maryland Institute for the Creative Arts to the East Village, and nowhere did I learn about financing, market values, investing… I really only understand the recession in that no one is buying my work,” John Michaels, a D.C.-based artist, explained. While artists and finance are in no way mutually exclusive, bartering remains attractive because of its comparable straight-forwardness—because it works in the hand-to-hand exchange of what’s mine for what’s yours.

While bartering’s resurgence is in no way exclusive to the art world, art’s complicated relationship with money makes the practice of bartering, and its exclusion of the dollar, especially dynamic. The opinion that art should transcend monetary value is common. “I paint,” Michaels stated. “Sometimes it takes me months, even a year to complete a painting. All the time, the effort, the failures, the electric moments of inspiration that go into a piece—to put a final price tag on that…it’s brutal. Almost irrational.”
Much of the tension between artists and the art market can be explained by the seemingly arbitrary—and perhaps fundamentally inappropriate—prices of art. In January, Jenny Seville sold her painting Branded at Christies for $3 million, a little above its market value. At the same time, Michaels traded a large oil painting to a broker for a portion of the down payment on a studio space. Two exchanges of art—yet the disparity between the two is one not of ‘good art’ versus ‘bad art’ but between those in demand by the market, and those outside of it.

Michaels explained that for him bartering offers any artist the “freedom to assign the world with the value we believe it should have, regardless of the market.” Perhaps this is why, “even when it is inefficient,” as Michaels explains, “people barter to feel good; people will barter to feel free.” Because bartering places value on a localized scale—the scale of individuals, rather than the ‘value by mass consensus’ that money and the market supposes—it puts the terms of exchange in line with the terms of the individual artist.

While bartering’s resurgence in popularity could be considered the development of a parallel economy, the traditional characteristics of capitalism are still in full play. Artists still consider the market value of their works when trading it, and even write up bartering contracts, outlining specific terms of exchange. But without binding contracts or a universal value system, bartering lacks an established system of checks and balances outside of notions of trust and reciprocity, bringing up concerns over what constitutes a fair trade.

While bartering can liberate artists, it also creates situations in which they have the most to lose. Unable to sell their work, artists are often forced to barter pieces for less than their market value out of immediate need; they need the medical attention now, their children need braces now, they need studio space to work now. There is nothing risk-free about any exchange, bartering included.

There is an almost unavoidable idealism present when talking about off-the-grid practices like bartering—it’s an anti-institutional tactic! a testament to the bullet-biting artists’ ingenuity in the face of the repressive market! But reasons for bartering are more often than not about making ends meet. When it comes down to it, is bartering ever an artist’s first choice when it comes to exchanging his work? Ellis, Vinod, and Michaels would probably prefer a gallery visit and a cash purchase of their work, money they could spend in any way they wanted, received in an exchange that could be contractual and binding.

First choice or not, and romanticized or not, most artists today are working headwind, and there is integrity in attempting to carve out new pathways for subsidizing their creativity while reaffirming the value of face to face trade. Ultimately, bartering has the potential to silence the questions most often heard when acquiring anything: Can you afford this? and What are you willing to pay? and one that, in a culture in which money has become part and parcel of the language of identity, perhaps isn’t asked enough: What do you have, besides your money, to offer?