Not what it’s worth, but what she needs

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This is what she needs

This is what she needs

Art4Barter is the brainchild of studio artist Antonio Puri. I met Antoino at an Art4Barter exhibit in the Northern Liberties of Philadelphia in mid-December. The front room of his home is a neat and well presented gallery, in which he was presenting the work of some of his colleagues in the world of studio art. The walls were hung with drawings and paintings, the floor populated with sculptures and objects.

Art4Barter exhibit, Antonio in beret

Art4Barter exhibit, Antonio in beret

I am no expert on studio art, and I reject value judgments about art which use terms like “good” and “bad”, but I can write truthfully that I found the art on display there delightful: whimsical, beautifully executed and bursting with creativity. I would have bought several pieces but for a two problems. The first is that I have no money to spend on art. The second is that nothing was for sale.

Hung next to each piece was a simple announcement describing the piece and its creator, and a list of items or services the artist needed or desired. Some artists listed plumbing and home repair. Others listed airline tickets. Some said, “make me an offer”. Then there were lines on which a viewer could put her name, email address, and an offer to meet a stated need of the artist, or make a different offer. I was inspired, astonished, delighted, and dearly wished I could have made an offer to meet the desire of one of these artists. Instead, on Antonio’s list, I wrote: “endless love and admiration”.

IMG_2414I was there because a board member from my production company had tipped me off, knowing that Art4Barter is working towards the same paradugm for supporting artists as White Pines Productions. While at the exhibit I spoke with Antonio at length. He has been at this for longer than I have, and has actually put into practice ideas that I have only been dreaming about. Of all the things he said to me that were exciting, none was more so than this: “Benjamin, I can tell you that I have bartered works of my art with many people all over the globe. And I can tell you that everyone of those people is today still my friend, and I stay in touch with all of them.” I asked him if he had read the book that served as my inspiration to create White Pines, The Gift by Lewis Hyde. He had not, which I found astonishing since Hyde writes as follows: it is the cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people, while the sale of a commodity leaves no necessary connection.

Art4Barter is not about giving gifts, but is about establishing the feeling-bond between artist and audience. I maintain it is that bond upon which the transforming power of art rests. Rilke, Erik Satie, William Shakespeare, Joni Mitchell, Van Gogh, Meshell N’dege Ocello all feel like friends of mine, because each has reached into my most private place and held me there, the way a friend does. And that’s a very, very short list. They do not rest at the center of my soul because they are “good” in any objective way. They are there because they and I have met through their art and found something deeply shared, the way lovers do. My lover is not “good”. My lover is my lover, and is precious to me because of what we share.

IMG_2413What Art4Barter and White Pines Productions are both interested in is moving the support of artists away from a system in which we ascribe a commercial value to a work of art and sell it, to one in which we name what the artist needs and exchange what the artist makes for support of that need. Barter is one way to do that. In 2013, White Pines will roll out the Artists Registry, in which artists list needs/desires on a White Pines page, and those needs/desires are linked to local vendors. Let’s say Alex wants her bathroom remodeled, and there is a line connecting that need/desire to a local contractor. You click the link, pay for some or all of Alex’s new bathroom, the contractor gets sone business and Alex gives you something fabulous she makes in exchange.

Initially, this system works better for studio artists who make objects. But I believe there are ways it can work for performance artists too. Imagine a singer/songwriter performing for your dinner party, reunion, bar mitzvah. Imagine a dance company creating a “This Town Is A Mystery” – type in-house performance in your home, a la Headlong Dance Theater. Private acting classes for your kids, singing lessons, public speaking coaching, body work, voice work, free tickets to the next four shows I’m in. See what I’m saying? As soon as you begin to think about all the gifts the performing artist has to offer the possibilities open up.

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This year, White Pines intends to partner with a bunch of like-minded groups in Philadelphia to develop ways in which these innovate strategies can begin to make a real impact on artists lives, and bond them in friendship to their audiences. Among the groups I have in mind:

Art4Barter

CultureWorks Greater Philadelphia

Swim Pony Performing Arts

Small but Mighty Arts

Performing Arts Kitchen

Headlong Dance Theater

Philadelphia Artists Collective

Are there any I’ve missed that I should be in touch with? Let me know!

Along with this initiative, White Pines is going to launch an initiative for health insurance for artists too. These two initiatives may have something to do with each other, we’ll see. Stay tuned!

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