The Art of the Barter - The New Economy Week

By Matt Waters

Like modern lyrics meshing with old melodies, there are certain solutions to problems we pluck from the past that, when given a properly contemporary twist, manage to outperform the newer, seemingly better method.

OurGoods is one such organization that has taken to this idea of recycling old ideas – in their case it’s the system of bartering – in order to engage artists in a self-sustaining community of equitable trade and commerce.

Ourgoods. Photo courtesy of ourgoods.org.

On their website, potential barterers can establish profiles and seek out fellow members of their community interested in exchanging goods or services. Through collaborative responses to an e-mail interview, two of the co-founders of the OurGoods site, Jen Abrams and Caroline Woolard, spoke with us about their mission to bring bartering into the fold of the arts community in New York City.

“As independent artists and designers ourselves, we developed OurGoods after years of experience living and working with our peers in a resource-impoverished environment. When the financial crisis hit, it further exposed the fragility of our cobbled-together support networks,” they wrote to BTR.

“The current instability of the charitable support model is documented: the Foundation Center confirms that giving to the arts dropped significantly in 2009, and predicts a further drop in 2010. Artists working within organizations have been able to respond in part by drawing together and sharing resources. Dance/USA, APAP, and The National Performance Network have all addressed the crisis collectively at their annual meetings. Because we tend to work outside of institutions, individual artists do not have a similar support infrastructure.”

Abrams and Woolard expressed hope that OurGoods could point a way out of isolation for artists living in New York City. “Artists, particularly those working without the support of major institutions, are often isolated – not by choice, but because NYC is a difficult place to connect and create community. The competition for scarce resources can further isolate us from each other, as can the intense grind of earning money to support our work.”

They further detail how an isolationist stance could backfire on artists, and why OurGoods could be a force pushing against that type of landslide effect. “It limits the resources that are available to us. It makes living the rest of our lives more stressful – if we get sick, or have an emergency, or lose our day job, we lack a safety net. Artists new to the city often struggle to establish themselves in NYC’s ‘big pond.’”

“OurGoods hopes to create a lasting shift in this isolation, allowing artists to create their work in the context of a thriving community. With a high cost of living and little reputation for community in NYC, many artists are moving elsewhere. OurGoods brings visibility to the social and ethical motivations for exchange behavior in the creative community in New York, drawing emerging talent to the city by valuing ideas and craft regardless of market success.”

OurGoods is, to put it simply, trying to inspire artists to collaborate. And through a collaboration extending beyond the constraints of monetary need, Woolard and Ames pinpoint the overarching goal of the site. “OurGoods shifts the focus from ‘How can artists get more money?’ to the deeper question, ‘How can artists get more resources?’ In doing so, we offer more than cash funding offers. The traditional foundation funding model is a zero-sum game – if you get a grant, I don’t get it. With a barter model, the higher the participation, the more resources are available for everyone, and the more value is created.”

“When money mediates transactions, the interaction is impersonal, and the value is finite. When we barter, we get the value of the thing we bartered for and, in addition, we engage with the creative landscape and form relationships with each other.”

“The myth of the artist toiling alone in an attic is false,” Woolard and Ames say, “The creative sector runs on the unpaid labor of friends, peers, interns, and critique groups, as well as of the artist herself. The completed work is credited to the solitary maker, and the support system behind cultural products, both monetary and in-kind, is fragmented, vulnerable, and often invisible. How can creative people become more available to one another, working in relation to the creative community as a whole? We developed OurGoods as a new model for cultural production, valuing peer-to-peer support and interdependence.”

Instead of appreciating the artistry and skill entailed with someone fixing our computer, cable box, or sink pipes, how often are we just calculating how much money the transaction will cost? Sure, we live in the western world, and bartering isn’t going to be replacing capitalism anytime soon, but the concept could be absolutely invaluable to individuals and communities as an alternative method of commercial activity.

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