These artists are bartering their work for plane tickets, medical procedures, and more.
Figuring out how to price your artwork can get a little complicated. Some artists stick with simple pricing formulas while others might negotiate by the piece of art. But what some artists might not consider is the option of bartering—trading their artwork for other goods or services without the exchange of money.
Here, Artists Network contributor Daniel Grant interviews a handful of artists who have enjoyed participating in the barter economy. He also speaks with other professionals who have traded their goods and services for artwork. Their experiences unveil a whole new world of art valuation.
Artists Who Barter
What is the cost of orthodontics these days? $5,000, $6,000? For Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, painter Carolyn Utigard Thomas—one of whose children needed braces—the price was two full-sheet watercolors for the orthodontist’s house. In the barter economy with which she is familiar, that is a reasonable price. It cost her one watercolor for a two-week vacation in a condominium in Santa Fe and three framed paintings to settle some of her husband’s debts, so two paintings to get your child’s teeth straightened seems pretty on par in value. “I’ve bartered for services for decades,” says Thomas, echoing the sentiments of many other artists.
Trading in Art
More often, artists trade their work with each other, but people in other professions also find the idea appealing. “I was moving from one house to another,” says Minas Consoles, a painter in Baltimore, Maryland. The mover became interested in some of Konsolas’s work as he was carrying pieces into the new house. “The mover started talking to me about my work, and he asked about buying (one of my paintings).” At the end, the artist paid for his move half in cash and the other half with a painting.
Los Angeles artist Lindsey Nobel is also no stranger to bartering her art. She’s traded between 50 and 100 paintings, allowing her to live healthy and often rent-free while pursuing her work. An acupuncturist treated her neck and back pains at the rate of three sessions for one small (1’x1’) painting. A dentist gave her a check-up, which included x-rays and a cleaning, for a 3’x5’ painting. Another person took a painting in exchange for airline miles that Nobel used on round-trip tickets to New York City.
Bartering Artwork for Medical Care
Few people advertise that they will trade for art. Nobel has found that some people just need to be asked. “I go to a lot of art galleries for fun,” said Dr. Michael David Borookhim, an internist in Los Angeles, and it was at a gallery that he first ran into Nobel. “You meet artists there, and I like artists. They ask what kind of medicine I practice and if I might accept their art in trade for medical services.” He estimates that he has taken art in trade for medical care a dozen times.
Bartering art for medical services has been codified by Opositive, an organization in Kingston, New York. Opositive creates weekend-long arts festivals where performers and exhibiting fine artists receive free treatments at a clinic at the site. “Artists gift their talents to the festival, and in exchange, they receive medical care,” says Theresa Lyn Widmann, who chairs the organization’s board of directors. Those who need additional care are referred to medical professionals who will accept these artists on a sliding scale.
Nobel met the acupuncturist, Dar Gadol, owner of Chelsea Healing, while she was staying at the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan (a stay that was paid for by several paintings). “Lindsey said, ‘Look, I don’t have any funds at the moment. Can I just give you a painting?’” Gadol agreed to three sessions in exchange for a small work.
Accepting Art as Payment
Dentist and abstract painter Sheldon Figoten of Venice, California has dental office in Santa Monica that is “filled with paintings,” all of which he acquired through trades with what he guesses might be 100 or 200 artists. Word spread. “People would show up at my office needing something and looking to trade. I said yes almost every time.” Since the early 1970s, he’s traded for cleanings mostly, but sometimes more than that—crowns and bridges—for art.
You can’t eat art and, at some point, enough is enough. Even Carolyn Thomas, who has traded paintings for numerous melanoma treatments from a dermatologist, says, “I can’t (get) sick anymore, because she has so many of my things on the walls as it is.” Still, she adds, all these paintings represent free advertising.
The Legal Side of Things
“Valuation is an issue for making sure that the exchange is fair to the artist and to the business. It would also potentially require an appraisal for both income and sales tax purposes.”
— John Cahill, a lawyer in New York City
“The obvious obstacle,” says art lawyer Nicholas M. O’Donnell of Sullivan & Worcester LLP, “is the difficulty of liquidating a work of art to cover the bottom line.” On rare occasions, he has taken art from clients but not so often that it got “to the point of discussing it with my partners.”
It is not uncommon for those whose clients are artists to be asked to accept artwork for goods and services. When an artist she had previously represented pro bono in his public art commissions became quite successful, New York art lawyer Barbara Hoffman told the sculptor, “I have helped you for free for many years. Now, it’s appropriate that you pay me for my services.” She sent the artist a bill, and he sent her back a painting, which she not only did not like but resented. After repeated phone calls and other correspondence were not returned, she gave up the idea of ever collecting from him. So before entering into a bartering relationship, it’s important to be mindful and assess the risks of starting something that may turn into a precedent.
“Accepting art as payment can be challenging,” said John Cahill, a lawyer in New York City. Cahill represents many art collectors, art dealers, and artists. “Valuation is an issue for making sure that the exchange is fair to the artist and to the business. It would also potentially require an appraisal for both income and sales tax purposes.”
Other potential problems:
- disliking an artist’s work
- disagreeing with an artist’s valuation of his or her own work
- not wanting to determine valuation of an artist’s work
- being unable to pay for certain business expenses with paintings
- not knowing or remembering to report in-lieu payments as income
- not wanting to get artist clients in trouble if they neglected to report their traded artworks as sales
The Potential Upside
One of Cahill’s partners, Christopher J. Robinson, stated that he had been a partner at the Seattle, Washington-based law firm Davis Wright Tremaine, which had accepted three collages by Romare Bearden in lieu of fees from a gallery that represented the artist, as well as several photographs by Nan Goldin, who herself offered her works in trade for legal services. He wasn’t part of the selection process for the Beardens but was for the Nan Goldin prints, which “were chosen from among her prints at different times by an ad hoc art committee of three or four partners,” he said. “The artworks are popular and have all increased in value quite significantly since they were acquired.”
Perhaps the names Carolyn Thomas, Minas Konsolas, and Lindsey Nobel will be on everyone’s lips in a few years. But while accepting art as payment could result in owning artworks that have appreciated in value, that potential outcome is not guaranteed.
Something to Consider
For some artists and the professionals they barter with, trading their work creates a dynamic way of engaging with their customer base, leveraging their creative pursuit where funds might not be available, and discovering new things in unexpected ways. For others, it’s a special case or temporary option. “I have an art dealer now,” says Nobel, who, even with her knack for swapping her art for goods and services, has slowed down on the bartering in recent months. But knowing your art has currency is truly satisfying.
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