Marketing Mondays: The Art of the Trade

The recession has done wonders for my personal art collection. I've been trading a lot lately with my artist friends. When the market was going great guns, it was hard to give up work that I knew would sell; this is how I support myself, after all. But after the market crashed and sales slowed to a crawl, trading has allowed me to make the very best of a bad economy.

Steven Alexander, with whom I recently traded a painting, thoughtfully puts the process in perspective: "Those of us who devote our lives to making art objects place a particularly high value on aesthetic experience -- and it is little bits of that experience that we trade among ourselves. It is distinctly different from buying a work, which very few artists are able to do, or from the notion of "building" a collection in any commercial sense. It is more connected to life experience, personal relationships, and shared affinities. The whole process is based on a deep and fundamental understanding of mutual respect and appreciation."

Based on my personal experience here are some observations about the art of the trade. Feel free to add your own comments to the discourse.
Trade with your Peers
Some years ago I saw a fabulous show of work on paper by an artist with a more advanced career than mine (I'm being purposely vague). I'm not sure what I was thinking, but I proposed a trade. She looked at me as if I had six heads, all of them empty. I felt like an idiot, as well I should have. My enthusiasm got the better of my good sense.
Offer Work in an Equal Price Range
Your quid pro quo need not be painting for painting, or sculpture for sculpture, but it needs to have a reasonably equal "street value." Surely there's some leeway with friends--but not too much.

Offer Your Best Work
This is not a yard sale, it's a trade. You want good? Give good.

If You Can't Show the Work in Person, Make a Good CD
Sounds like a no-brainer, but if you or your trading partner want to be satisfied, the J-pegs need to accurately reflect the work. Recently I selected a painting from a CD whose images were not all that great, but I knew the artist's work and palette, so I felt secure in my choice. The artist included a recent catalog of his work, so not only did it clarify any issues I might have had with the less-than-perfect Jpegs, I was delighted to have the catalog for my library.
Create Your Own Parameters
Maybe you want to trade just work on paper? Maybe there's just one series you’re willing to trade? Maybe you want to keep things small? Then that's what you should do. Trading is fun. If you feel pressured into trading something you're prefer to keep, that's not satisfying and you shouldn’t do it.

It's OK To Say No
I have a friend whom I like, and whose work I like, but there were just a few pieces for which I was willing to give up one of my paintings. When it turned out that the ones I wanted were unavailable, that trade lost its appeal. I kind of weaseled out by not following up. I'm a forthright person, as is my friend. I should have been able to say, " I really liked paintings X, Y and Z, but without them as a choice, I'd like to postone the trade for a while."

How Will the Work Be Exchanged?
If you're in the same studio building, no problem. If you don't live nearby and cannot arrange for a mutual dropoff, send it via a carrier of your choosing. You pay for sending yours; she pays for sending hers.

Where's the Dealer in All of This?
To be honest, I haven't brought up the subject with the dealers I work with. I'm not hiding anything. No money has changed hands. As Alexander notes, this is a personal connection between two people with shared affinities, not about making money.

Do You Need Paperwork?
I know everyone I've traded with, so paperwork has seemed unnecessary. If you feel the need for it, bring up the subject with your trading partner. If the two of you agree to provide an invoice of exchange, or whatever, you should probably be the one to initiate any paperwork since it's your idea.

Bartering for Professional Services
This is a different ballgame. Instead of trading for fun, you’re bartering for need. I bartered for legal help once, and it was a wonderful experience. The attorney had a wall full of good art, and he understood the quid pro quo. I also know artists who have traded for dental work. Regular bartering for professional services will probably plunge you into IRS waters. This may be where paperwork is worth doing. Who has experience and advice here?

Related: Painter Antonio Puri has created an exhibition project called Art 4 Barter. No money changes hands. The exhibiting artists list the items or services they'd like to receive in exchange for their work. Indeed, Puri often trades his artwork for the gallery space in which to hold the exhibition.

Over to You
Have you traded work? Do you have any stories, comments, advice?


Unknown said...

I've been doing this for a while now. I uploaded images of all of the work I was willing to trade to Flickr and invited other artists to take a look. They would pick out a couple of pieces and offer up images of what they would propose to trade. Eventually we came to agreement.

For artist with a robust history of sales, matching monetary value is a good way to go. Most artists have no real idea what they monetary value of their work is. In those cases (i.e. all of my trades), it comes down to being happy with what you get in return for the piece you give up. If both people are happy, it's a fair trade. There have been some deals where I might have gotten the benefit in monetary value and others where I've lost out. In the end I feel it's been a wash.

I agree with all of your advice. Thanks for writing about it.

Admiral said...

This is very good advice that many artists should heed. Personally, as an attorney, I have been involved with trades for art work before -- in particular, it can really help attorneys brighten up lackluster offices.

But yes, be aware of possible tax consequences.

Joanne Mattera said...

What are the tax consequences we should be aware of? Worth worrying about if individual artists are trading artwork? When does bartering art for services become interesting for the IRS?

Hylla said...

The IRS finds all barter interesting and worthy of reporting. Gift giving, on the other hand (and assuming value under $10,000) is a private matter.
So mutually exchanged birthday gifts are not barter.

Larry said...

The above is true. If you're trading gifts, the transaction is tax-free. If you're offering artwork as payment for professional services, the event is most definitely taxable. You might also want to learn about the rules for section 1031 like-kind exchanges, where the property being exchanged is not taxable until it is later sold for cash. But the two parties can't just give each other work for personal use for it to qualify as a LKE.

Further reading:
(Yes, that link is correct.)
(especially pages 33-37).

Karen Schifano said...

On a non-monetary note, there's something called the Fine Art Adoption Network (hope I got the name right), where you can donate work which will be connected up with a desiring but poor collector. The artist is being generous, and the work is really appreciated, so I guess there's an exchange of wonderful energy. A book was published by Art in General about this project, where the recipients talk about the work they received and why they love living with it.

Joanne Mattera said...


Thanks for this info, but I am not inclined to give my work away for free. I feel this way about donating to causes, too (better to donate cash, which can be fully deductible). Trading is different, of course, because while no money is being exchanged, the "poor collector" is another artist with whom the trade is being made. This is much more satisfying to me. (I'll bet those "poor collectors" have money for going out to dinner, for $20 appletinis, for cabs, etc., and I'll bet they're not paying a grand a month for studio space.)

Somebody, correct me if I'm wrong.

Karen Schifano said...

I actually haven't done it yet myself, but I keep thinking about the loads of stuff I have in storage, and that it would be nice if it were out in the world being appreciated by someone. I have older work, things that weren't shown, tons of small drawings, etc. Would love to hear other opinions on this too...

Unknown said...

I love trades, as long as both artists are honest and respectful. Owning a piece of art from an admired colleague is incredibly rewarding.