Cloud-sourcing arts patronage. Trust Art: a stock market for public art projects

Art Press Release from Australia. Published by Rebecca Gabrielle Cannon on Thursday 23 April 2009.

Cassie Thornton image Dave Olsen - Salt Fields image

New York, United States: A new company has set out to show the economic value of culture by allowing financial and in-kind investors to purchase stocks in artworks. Whilst we sit back and eagerly await convincing evidence that art can make a short-term financial gain, author Miyuki Jokiranta (of Seven Thousand Oaks) interviewed Trust Art's founders Jose and Seth to see what the odds are. -Ed

*In early 2009, Trust Art asked ten artists to create work for the public domain and is now selling shares online to each of these works. Shareholders can contribute to the project in various ways- investors give dollars, venues contribute space, and in-kind donors give materials. In Spring 2010, the works will be publicly auctioned and proceeds will be shared 50/50 with the artists and with all shareholders. Founded by Jose Serrano-Reyes and Seth, who have worked extensively with art that addresses economic issues, each project is the result of tangible economic and intangible social exchange between the artist and their shareholders.

M: How did you two come up with the idea? Was it as a response to an increasingly insecure financial climate?*

S: Trust Art is about funding large-scale social art projects. We think that given the economic climate, making large-scale art is important but a lot of people don’t know how to participate in it. It’s a way for people to become patrons of the arts on a massive scale, through the Internet. Each of the projects have a social bent to them and really are trying to address the current situation and see art as a means of cultural renewal to get us through this time.

J: The idea was we could create a model that was about the public good and that had a private return component, hoping to signal a new kind of practice in current climate. It’s a way to generate public wealth, which is sensitive to people with more micro-economic concerns. So people who become shareholders participate financially in the proceeds of the auction that will happen in 2010, but at the same time the real wealth is social wealth. As they are all social installations or public art objects that are meant to create a sense of well being in our communities. We are finding that in an economy in which there is a framework of trust, there is more potential for economic success.

M: There appears to be several levels of commitment to an artist’s project that you can choose, how do you value them and what is the 50/50 artist shareholder relationship?

S: We are about to launch the new website, which will allow us to really get the campaign happening by attracting a large amount of shareholders. You become a shareholder when you buy a share for $1 each. What that does is create an online network of financial contributors, but it also sets up a space for other kinds of ways to contribute to the project through social connections or in-kind donations.

J: The way that the projects are meant to grow is from an active base of shareholders. So shareholders will use their connections to connect the project with people who can contribute resources that may have required financial capital. E.g. we needed a space for Cassie Thornton’s project for her to revive a frozen asset, or a frozen piece of real estate, and we are now working with the NYC Parks Department through another connection. They are essentially giving us a piece of land to work on, so Cassie’s initial budget is a lot smaller than initially thought, which is a bi-product of a strong network of shareholders. We are actually hoping a lot of projects come in under budget.

S: We will be publicly auctioning each of the ten works in Spring 2010. The profits from that auction- and we’re working with a more traditional art auction house- will be split between the artists and the group of shareholders who invested in the project 50/50. And the investor’s pool will be divided up based upon how much financial capital they have contributed, on a pro-rata basis.

M: I’m starting to see something of an alternate economic model, that’s based around the idea of personal and professional networks, which you describe as social capital. What is social capital and how does it play into Trust Art’s work?

S: I think social capital should be defined in a broad a way as possible so everyone can understand, and is generally considered something of a resource that is not financial. Social capital could be considered the social wealth someone has- the networks, connections and influencers we have at our fingertips, whether it’s your professional colleagues, or your online social network, or your family. The Trust Art projects are the result of when you connect them.

M: Could you describe two examples of the ten projects currently running and the reaction to the projects overall?

J: We mentioned Cassie Thornton’s project before- The Community Stimulus Package. Real estate is the hardest thing to come by in NYC, so by working with the Parks Department, they gave us in-kind property. Cassie is developing a school on a rundown piece of land along the Brooklyn highway and will build a community center where she teaches classes on things like architecture and urban design, and how to bring those ideas into your own communities. She will also redesign that natural space, so doing the work of a developer but as an artist.

S: There is another artist, Dave Olsen, who is a performance artist and a sculpture and he is proposing an installation called Salt Fields. He is going to create salt fields along the banks of the East River in NY, one of the most polluted industrial waterways in America, and probably on earth. His work treats the idea of re-energizing the earth through a series of rituals and performances that address alternative ways of thinking about how we deal with current environmental post-industrial realities. He is essentially creating salt from this super-toxic water. The Parks Department has connected us with the owner of the land and will lend us their name so it’s a tax-deductible contribution from the landowner and a non-monetary contribution that works out for everybody. In all of the projects we have been overwhelmed with the great public and shareholder response and it’s been really rewarding.

M: Whom do you expect to purchase the public art products?

J: We are hoping to attract the attention of a number of visionary collectors and art institutions that understand the social victories that the auction pieces will embody, and who will see the value in preserving them for future generations.

M: How do you cover the cost of your contribution in running the scheme?

J: We have included in each project’s budget an estimate of what it will mean for us to document the projects professionally, as well as any miscellaneous operational expenses we expect to incur in managing and raising funds for each project. Those are listed as “documentation” in the budgets.

M: Do you see your work as an alternative to the contemporary arts commodity scene?

S: I would never say we are antagonistic to other art markets, because the more art the better, but given what is going on, we think it’s great that artists are figuring out ways to exist in the economy. It’s necessary and also kind of exciting with the collapse of the commodity market to see these new approaches.

M: There is a huge value in putting the artist with a developer with, for instance, the Parks Department in the same room and having those cross-disciplinary dialogues. We are starting to see the artist’s knowledge being involved in discussions in ways we haven’t seen before. Have you seen similar trends with your work and the development of your project?

S: We have had so many amazing discussions throughout the duration of this project. Artists bring a great bit of dialogue to the community, an engaged and aware dialogue that would not normally be out there.

J: It’s such an interesting time for different people to take leadership roles in their communities. There is a school of ideas called relational aesthetics, which has with specific interest in looking at how the artwork performs in the culture or the “real world”. That’s actually pretty optimistic if we start asking ourselves whether our society values art for their work in their actual community. The parallel school of ideas we like to reference is actually from economics. It’s called social mechanism design and it’s essentially taking economics and looking at it more from a leadership perspective. Whilst standard economists observe reality, there is a growing number of people in the discipline that are trying to create social institutions on knowing how markets and economies work, but designing for more social good. So it’s great to see artists take leadership roles beyond the art world within the economy and that’s what keeps us in love with this project.

After testing and working out the kinks in the prototype phase, Trust Art is about to launch its new website on May 1st. Learn more about the project, the progress of each of the art works, or join a community of shareholders who believe public art can revitalize societies at

1. Purchase at least one $1 share in a project
2. Share this act with 3 people who trust you.
(essentially: $1 + 3 friends = new public art)