Digital Media

Artists turn to age-old practice during economic slump
by Radhika Marya and Wadzanai Mhute

About three years ago, Philadelphia-based artist Antonio Puri watched his son trade cards with his friends. As the boys exchanged the different cards they wanted, he found himself wondering: what if artists could do the same and barter for their needs?

When the global economy went into decline last year, Puri thought back to that moment and decided it was time to help artists whose work and sales were affected by the crisis. In January 2009, he curated the first Art4Barter show in Philadelphia.

Art4Barter, Puri’s response to the financial crisis, is a series of exhibitions in which artists trade their works for services and goods. Puri typically trades a piece of his own artwork for space — an actual art gallery or a fellow artist’s home — to hold one of these bartering shows. Sometimes people volunteer to host the events.

Since January, Art4Barter has held eight shows: three in New York, the others in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Arizona. Puri said the exhibits attract a variety of artists, as well as consumers, such as electricians and plumbers, one would not typically expect to see at art shows.

“It’s breaking down class boundaries and cultural boundaries. It’s something I think can help people and society in general,” Puri said.

Puri is not the first to trade his artwork for services and goods. In fact, bartering is an age-old tradition among artists. Pablo Picasso traded his sketches for room and board, and Andy Warhol once swapped a self-portrait for a video camera. It is a tradition that other artists continue to this day.

On the New York City Craigslist bartering page, painters, photographers and musicians are among those offering their skills in exchange for something they need. Some of their posts, like one by Samantha Ortez of textile production company Fashion Design Concepts, are a result of the economic recession.

Ortez, who does not believe in hiring interns without compensating them, said the company is now bartering with design students because it cannot afford to pay interns. Instead, workers plan on helping students build a design portfolio, while those students help them in the studio.

Like those on Craigslist, Art4Barter artists also trade their work. The difference is that most of these exchanges take place at art shows.

Participating artists are mostly trading their work, either for economic reasons or out of curiosity about group bartering events. Loren Ellis, an experienced barterer and professional artist who combines painting and photography in her work, traded a piece for some resized frames that could border her work.

Originally from Florida, Ellis said she previously traded a Tampa mural series she did for a car’s down payment. She was also once successfully able to trade artwork for a Hasselblad camera that came with three lenses. For Ellis, who now lives and works in New York, bartering is a way of life that serves multiple purposes.

“Anytime you can save your money, and you can get your work out there, it’s key,” Ellis said.

Artists at these bartering shows tend to determine the value of their work based on varying factors. New York artist Avani Patel said supplies cost her between $5,000 and $6,000 a year, so she tries to exchange her work for items that either equal or exceed the amount of money it took to create a particular piece.

Other artists, like Vinod Dave, determine the value of their paintings based on a particular need.

For example, Dave exchanged a painting so his 13-year-old daughter could receive braces. He made the arrangement with Designer Braces, an orthodontic group with various New York City locations, during a March Art4Barter show held at his Greenwich Village loft.

“If I go to a dentist to do that, it costs upward of $3,000, which I can’t afford right now,” Dave said. “So this company has agreed to take one of my paintings and in exchange, they’re going to do the braces for my daughter for free.”

Dave, whose finances have suffered since the Sept. 11 attacks, said the past year has been a difficult one for artists. His own art dealers recently moved from a Chelsea art gallery location to a new space in DUMBO, Brooklyn, to escape high rents.

Though DUMBO is an artists’ neighborhood, Dave considers the move a setback since he believes most people in Manhattan avoid visiting galleries in other boroughs.

In recent years, Dave’s earnings have been supplemented by grants and fellowships to make up for declining art sales, but he said these awards are not enough to support artists.

“Artists have to sell their work in order to support their career, or do some kind of other job, which I haven’t done so far,” Dave said. “I’m still trying to figure out what else can be done, and this Art4Barter idea was one of them.”

Puri, who does not earn any money from Art4Barter, said it allows people to get a value for their art based on need rather than arbitrary monetary value.

“Nothing against money, but there are alternatives,” he said.

Puri would like to continue Art4Barter well into the future. While he still plans on taking Art4Barter to different places within the United States, his ultimate goal is to turn the project into a global movement. But he will have to find a sponsor before this can happen.

“So far I’ve covered all the shows on my own cost, but I can’t do that anymore. Everybody’s showing interest, but no one’s jumping on it and saying let’s do it,” Puri said.

“What it ideally needs is a sponsor that is willing to see what an effect they can have worldwide on artists.”

Inside Art4Barter: One Artist’s Story Produced by WM &RM