Funding public art with community currency?

Last week, Interactive Architecture ran an article about the Singing-Ringing Tree sculpture in Burnley, Lancashire, UK. The video resonated very much with some of my recent thinking on how public art that is part of the commons can be at the heart of community economic development.

First of all, it reminded me of an interview of Douglas Rushkoff about his latest book Life Inc where he tells the story of how Middle Age cathedrals were built:

The Vatican and central Rome did NOT build the cathedrals. The funds came from local currency. They were what we would now call “demurrage” currencies that were earned into existence. Towns ended up creating more value than they knew what to do with! They started investing in their infrastructure and their windmills and their water wheels; and also in their future in the form of cathedrals and other tourist attractions.

The second thought I have had recently is that a currency is a unit of contribution to a common goal, and it is this common goal that gives the value to the currency, because the common goal provides a social incentive for everyone to participate in their own way, some by contributing directly to the common goal and being issued currency, others by contributing indirectly to the goal by accepting it for goods/services. In my view, individuals’ common goals or common individual goals are what initially create community, more than anything else.

A public art piece like the Singin-Ringing Tree is such a common goal. It creates long-term value for local businesses like the cathedrals of the middle-age. It creates identity and pride for the local population. It also create jobs.

One approach to funding art is to seek grants from tax-funded government development agencies, but this approach can be viewed as quite inefficient since it requires tax collection, projects competing for funding with other projects, and a hierarchical and highly centralized decision making process.

Another approach could be to use a community currency dedicated to the particular art project. It would work like this:

  • The art project would issue acknowledgments for in-kind or monetary donations made to the project. Issuance would be made public.
  • Businesses could show their support by accepting some of these acknowledgments for partial payment of goods/services they provide.
  • The notes, if printed in paper, could bear an artist rendering of the public art piece to be built.
  • After it is built, the public art piece would likely attract tourists to whom the notes could be sold as a “piece” of the art piece, likely for many times the face value in dollar, since originals would be in limited supplies. This would provide a natural way for the currency to disappear from circulation, and be replaced by new ones for new projects.

Farmers markets and community currencies

Crescent City wood token

Yesterday, I found myself explaining the concept of local community currency to someone who had never heard about them before. Because we were next to a farmers’ market, I picked that context to support my stories about the benefits of local community currencies.

I built upon the story of the Taft Farms local currency, in which a farmer issued his own money to raise funds for the winter, and I explained that a farmers market could create a bank that would issue paper money redeemable only at the farmers market the following year, possibly at a discount (ex. $9 for $10 face value) and use the cash raised to provide credit to farmers in need during the winter season.

Additionally, the farmers market bank could promote itself by donating some of this paper money to non-profit organizations of its choice in exchange for ads for the farmers market in promotional materials issued by the non-profit organizations. Non-profits could follow the Community Way and sell this paper money at auctions to raise funds in real cash.

Last, I explained that the farmers market currency might be denominated in a different unit than the US dollar, say a “basket”, which composition would be defined by the farmer’s market every year. You could buy today baskets and use them as an inflationary hedge if you are a regular customer of the market and are worrying about your fiat national currency losing purchasing power over time.

Today, I found that some of my examples are not that far-fetched from reality.

The Farmers Market in Venice, CA has a program, which is very similar to Community Way: it offers certified market money subsidized by vendors to the organizations of their choice in exchange for mention of the donation in the printed materials of the events organized by organizations receiving donations. Organizations can use this market money to purchase good or auction them off to raise funds for the organization.

I also found two cases of farmers market tokens used as cash alternative: Crescent City Farmers market and Portland Farmers Market both provide a way to buy at one time batches of wood tokens that can be used as cash on the market. This is actually provided as a payment facility for those who want to shop with their credit card at merchants on the market not accepting the, but it could be easily extended to support the scenarios presented above.

Community Capitalism: increasing your wealth with community currencies

YouTube screenshotThe idea that our money system is wrong is becoming more visible every day, but creating money systems designed for grassroots adoption (without government involvement) is quite a challenge.

At the unMoney convergence event last spring, Michael Linton, a pioneer of alternative community currencies, gave a presentation of a money system that I found very convincing (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4).

The basic premise is that an alternative money system designed for grassroots adoption should not require long, philosophical explanations, but should simply make economic sense for all participants.

Michael identifies three kinds of participants:

  • businesses
  • non-profits
  • people like you and me

The system works as follows:

  1. businesses issues promises in their “own currency”, i.e. in the goods/services their business provides. Could be movie tickets for a movie theater or bread coupons for a baker. They issue them to the non-profits of their choice, for instance a church or school or hospital. Note that this does not cost them anything as long as they don’t issue more than their business can deliver. For practical purposes these promises are issued in the same unit as the legal tender currency, say the US dollar.
  2. non-profits take theses local currency notes and sell them to people like you and me for real cash, which they can use to pay for their operating expenses. Again, here, people like you can me buy them from the non-profits of their choice.
  3. people like you and me work for hard cash at businesses and volunteer/work at non-profits. We earn both real cash and local currency notes. Local currency notes can be spent at local businesses who accept them according to their policy. For instance a restaurant might accept to be paid 50% in real cash and 50% in local currency, while a grocery store might accept to be paid 90% in real cash and 10% in local currency. This will depends essentially on how much real cash they need to support expenses that can’t be covered with local currency.

As the quantity of local currency increases, both in terms of absolute quantity issued and velocity, the benefits for each participants is that real wealth is created (better education, better service for old people, better roads, better health, etc.) but unlike real cash, it cannot be extracted from one community and spent in another one. In other words, the wealth of neighbors is captive and no one but the neighbors capitalize on it.

So, wealth increases, but it’s also shared:

  • businesses get more revenue in local currency that they can use to hire more people they pay in local currency, buy from other businesses in local currency, etc.
  • people like you and me get more real wealth via the non-profits and get more money in terms of things that are truly valued: local businesses and local free services.

My comment

This model follows some of my own ideas that promises from businesses are probably a better backing mechanism to a local currency then thin air or hours of people like you and me, or a commodity, especially if these promises are in their own currency, i.e. what they produce. I think borrowing in your own currency is a privilege everyone should have (not just the US government) to the extent that they can deliver on their promises.

This model is a sort of Scrip 2.0, which is great since it builds on an existing well established practice of using coupons issued by merchants to non-profit for fundraising (with the major disctinction that in Michael’s model case, there is no impact on the profit margin of the business: $1 of local currency is $1 of real cash vs. $1 of local currency is issued at say $0.9 real cash and sold at face value – $1 – to you and me in the case of scrip).

I think one issue might be that the distinction between businesses and non-profit is pretty vague in the current description I’ve watched (but I’ve probably missed some content). An improvement in that direction would simply be to say that may not discriminate who they provide their services/goods, in particular on the basis of who gave and who didn’t buy local currency from them. I think a local “shaming” or abuse reporting system might be enough for a local currency.

I think it’s important that the notes issued carry the brand of the business who issued it (either in paper or electronically). This would prevent businesses to print too much local currency which may ruin the system via inflation, which is essentially paper wealth or fictitious wealth):

  • Businesses could easily be forbidden to use local currency they’ve issued for paying other businesses or their employees: business would have to recycle money they’ve issued and got back via the non-profits.
  • People/Non-profits would quickly notice if the business has a hard time redeeming the local currency they’ve issued. Again here a local shaming/reputation system would put pressure on the business to limit their issuance.

I think Michael’s model is very exciting and I am planning to talk about it with people in my neighborhood. Feel free to comment here on the pitfalls/improvements you see. What I’d like to do as a next step is a more detailed analysis of the model with hard numbers.