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.

Study finds that shopping near you is better for you

In May 2007, Civil Economics, an economics research company specialized in sustainable prosperity has issued a research note titled San Francisco Retail Diversity Study (Full Study
Executive Summary
Talking Points).

The main conclusion of the study is that

A 10% shift in consumer spending, from chains and internet to locally owned retail, would create nearly 1300 new jobs and over $190 million in increased economic output for San Francisco. Consumers don’t have to spend more, just spend differently.

Guillaume here: something not mentioned in the analysis is that more jobs and more economic output in a specific geography where you own a house means that your house increases in value (or keeps its value or decreases relatively less). In other words, by collectively chasing deals online and saving $100 in Christmas gifts, a neighborhood may be actually be contributing to a decrease in their wealth. It would be nice if the money system was making this link more obvious.

Anyway, it seems that Association of Alternative Newsweeklies heard about this study and launched a national campaign that

urges their readers to spend at least $100 of their holiday money this fall at locally owned stores in their communities – a move that could pump more than $2.9 billion into urban economies during this recession-plagued season.

(full press release).

In the Portrero neighborhood of San Francisco, local merchants have adapted the campaign into a drawing of lots for a prize whereby people can “buy” tickets for the chance to win gift certificates from local merchants by sending an email with a pledge to spend $100 locally.

Here is an example of the emails circulating.

The Potrero merchants are running a promotion, giving away $1000 worth of
gift certificates to locally-owned, independent businesses. The drawing is
this Thursday; all you have to do to enter to win is to pledge that $100 of
your holiday spending stays here in the neighborhood, with locally-owned

Send an email saying “I pledge” to and you are
entered into the drawing. Someone will win $500 worth of goods and
services, and thanks to local merchants, there will be two 2nd prizes: $250
worth of goods and services.

So… think about redirecting just $100 that you might have spent at, or Macy’s, or on Starbucks gift cards. And help the local
economy — find out more at

And please — forward this to others you know who live and work in Potrero
and Dogpatch. OK sure, it will slightly reduce your chances of winning the
drawing, but it’s great for people to learn more about our local

Portrero Buy Local campaign

Guillaume here: I think this is a great step towards local community currencies. I think I would have liked the Portrero Merchant association to go a step further and let merchants issue merchant branded “Portrero Bucks” that merchants would have sold for real US dollars, with say $100 “Portrero Bucks” for $90 U.S. dollars. These would have acted as a guarantee for the pledge, and would have been a first step towards the creation of an actual community currency.