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Art barter

Carl Nasman, BrusselsFebruary 10, 2014

Want to buy that painting? Put away your wallet and pick up a pen and paper. At a Brussels art fair, art lovers are trading everything from a home-cooked meal to an anatomy lesson for their favorite creation.

Julian Antoine places a bid on an artwork at Art Truc Troc in Brussels, Copyright: DW / C. Nasman
Image: DW/C. Nasman

Inside a crowded Brussels art gallery, Julien Antoine (pictured above) quickly scribbles on a post-it note and sticks it on the wall beside a framed photograph. Certainly not appropriate behavior for a wine and cheese art sale, but at the Art Truc Troc exhibition his note is just one of thousands.

"Truc Troc" means "thing-swap," and that's exactly how art is purchased here at this unique art event, one of Belgium's largest. Artists are offered trades in exchange for their work: an item, service, or maybe a vacation. Anything that is, except money.

"I offered a box of champagne, construction advice because I am a contractor, a thermal bath and a bonus - whatever the artist wants," said Antoine of the offer he hoped would win him a black-and-white photograph.

This year's event, took place over the weekend, featured a unique array of swap suggestions: 20 homemade Argentinean empanadas, an iPhone 4, 15 nights of babysitting, a homemade quiche Lorraine, a hug, two nights in a house in London, and a personally composed song.

At the end of the three-day expo, artists pick the best or most interesting offer from the notes surrounding their artwork.

A bidder looks into the work "Miroir, Miroir" by David Richiuso at the Art Truc Troc exhibition in Brussels, Copyright: DW / C. Nasman
"Miroir, Miroir" is a work by David RichiusoImage: DW/C. Nasman

Art buyer gets active

"It's a very interesting way to get art," Truc Troc organizer Serge Vanderheyden told DW. "Usually it's for the money and here you don't have that. You can meet the artist, you can see the work that you want and you can try to make the exchange. You are not just a spectator of the exhibition, you are an actor."

Art Truc Troc began as an open-air art market in 1971; back then patrons had to lug along the item they wanted to exchange. While the affair hasn't become digital, sticky notes now make the trading a bit easier and open the door for more creative swaps. In recent years a three-piece suit, a hot air balloon ride and a nine-day trip to Armenia were all successfully traded. Most outlandishly, in 2006 an artist reportedly accepted 10,000 earplugs as payment for one of her prints.

The event was revived in 2004 in its current form and has steadily gained in popularity ever since. This year nearly 30,000 people packed a downtown Brussels gallery featuring a range of art by hundreds of new and established artists.

More money in the art world

Truc Troc's recent success parallels an influx of cash into the art world by deep-pocketed collectors. Last December, Miami's Art Basel reportedly sold more than $100 million of artwork in just one weekend - $20 million more than the previous year.

According to a report by Bloomberg, art shows and galleries are increasingly functioning like the stock market, with collectors buying and selling a single painting five or six times in one year. The result is a steady rise in the price of contemporary art and an art scene that appears inaccessible to the average aficionado.

Bid on an artwork at Art Truc Truc in Brussels, reading "My violin - all the way from South Africa", Copyright: DW / C. Nasman
What would you bid for an artwork?Image: DW/C. Nasman

"They don't want to go to a gallery to buy something because they say, 'Oh, that's too fancy, that's too expensive,'" said Vanderheyden, who sees Truc Troc as a breath of fresh air. "I think an exhibition like this one has its own position in the world of art."

One art fan attracted by the unique barter system was Vitus Wersig, who traveled from Cologne, Germany to shop for photographs at Truc Troc. He took his time as he sat and contemplated a potential swap before pasting his note next to a double exposure photograph of a New York City subway station.

"You feel much closer to the art. You could have it in your own room but you have to give something," said Wersig. "So you have to think with your own creativity."

A young man places a bid on an artwork at Art Truc Troc in Brussels, Copyright: DW / C. Nasman
The barter concept is especially popular among young art fansImage: DW/C. Nasman

Call for creativity

Bidding strategies varied among the attendees. Some offered their most valuable trade for many different pieces of art, hoping to win at least one. Others, like Anne-Sophie Delft from Brussels, tailored her offers to each piece of art and its creator.

"It's like you look at the art, you try to understand what's around it and what you have that could be good to exchange," Delft said. She offered to trade a photo scanner for an unusual installation featuring a beaker of bubbling liquid that projected a moving image on to the wall.

Walking through the narrow gallery, the paper notes can be more interesting than the artwork at times. Show-goers posted many creative offers, sometimes with a tongue-in-cheek reference to the art. A wooden sculpture of a foot received an offer for a free anatomy lesson and a photograph of a woman with no teeth prompted a trade for complimentary dental services.

It also became quite clear which art resonated with the public. Hundreds of post-it notes surrounding a painting were an obvious sign of success. A lack of post-its meant no one was interested. For the artists, there was nowhere to hide.

"I also like regular exhibitions where it's quiet. But it's very interesting to see the different reactions," said artist Marie-Therese De Clercq, a photographer who was pleased to see dozens of notes next to her work. "People are free to go, to move, to look, and say anything they want."

A woman places a bid on an artwork at Art Truc Troc in Brussels, Copyright: DW / C. Nasman
The more post-its, the more popular the artworkImage: DW/C. Nasman

Art for the 99 percent

The event attracts a more diverse and significantly younger crowd than the average art exhibition and is also a way for up-and-coming artists to build a fan base. Art swappers must include an email address with their proposed bid, helping artists add more contacts to their monthly newsletters.

But despite the more democratic feeling of Art Truc Troc, money has not been completely eliminated from the process. The majority of last year's successful swaps involved long stays at a vacation house, fancy dinners or private exhibitions. The event's organizers say the intention is not to remove money from art shows altogether. In fact, Vanderheyden believes a healthy art ecosystem needs the extravagant exhibitions.

"I think it's getting out of control, but maybe it's not a bad thing," said Vanderheyden. "You will always have galleries and you have to have them."

But for the rest of the 99 percent, Art Truc Troc is one of a growing number of affordable art fairs, reflecting a post-recession desire for art at a price that mirrors the reality of stagnant wages and higher unemployment.

"We have seen since 2008 that a lot of people can't afford it; the first thing you cut in your budget is art," said Vanderheyden. "This is an open door, an access to contemporary art. And that's a good thing."