Center for Community Engagement

There Are Some Things Money Can’t Buy: the Bank of Exchange/Value

What is the value of art? In 1948, Sotheby’s auction sold a Jackson Pollock painting for a whopping 140 million dollars—the most expensive art auction to date. Yet in order to enjoy the beauty of Exchange/Value, a project of the Collaborative Art Class at Amherst College, you do not have to pay a penny. Welcome to the Bank of Exchange/Value: an art project that emphasizes the importance and utility of non-monetary exchanges in the community. I sat down with Leila Tamari ’11 of Smith College and Maura Plante, program director of the Amherst Senior Center, to discuss how they are working to expand the bank’s operations in Amherst.

Non-monetary exchanges at this bank are not necessarily the same as bartering. Bartering suffers from a dilemma called the “double coincidence of wants.” Suppose I wanted to learn how to juggle chainsaws, and I could offer self-defense classes in return. Even if I found someone who could teach me how to juggle chainsaws, he or she might not want self-defense classes. Therefore, bartering does not take place.

At the Bank of Exchange/Value, the exchanges are different. The person who would teach me how to juggle chainsaws can do so, but he or she does not have to expect anything in return. If that person has a need that comes up sometime in the future, another individual can step in and provide that service. Essentially, the Bank of Exchange/Value is a central hub of information where people can share what they are willing to offer and what services they would need—all without spending a single cent.

The line between art and life blurs constantly, and the Bank of Exchange/Value is no exception to this rule. Tamari emphasizes the importance of staying true to the project’s origins when expanding the bank’s scope. For her, working on the bank is “an interesting challenge because we want to be able to retain a lot of the project’s [original] meaning…but we also don’t want to lose functionality; we want to increase that. So the question is how to manage that balance, which is difficult.” So far, though, the project has successfully walked the tightrope between aesthetics and functionality. For instance, Tamari and Plante work together to publish a biweekly newsletter that describes past exchanges that have taken place. They use as the newsletter’s background a page from the business pages of traditional newspapers. This choice conveys the idea that the Bank of Exchange/Value strives to be “an alternative to the norm” of monetary exchange.

Both Plante and Tamari hope to formalize the bank’s operations through making the exchange listings more robust and concise for current and future “depositors.” Plante describes the initial challenge of transforming the bank from a symbolic concept to a practical system. “The feedback that I’ve gotten from elders is that ‘This is too much information. You need to be more concise. This isn’t clear. It needs to be really clear what this is. Direct. Succinct.’” In order to address this difficulty, Tamari is developing a blog where exchanges and contact information can be updated in real-time. Still, the human element of the bank remains. Plante and Tamari want to avoid imposing lifestyles on those who do not prefer to use the Internet or may not have constant access to a computer. In this case, they envision a “banker” who is in charge of managing new deposits via other means.

Those who participate in the Bank of Exchange/Value reap many benefits beyond the actual services or product that they receive. For one, the bank facilitates the opportunity to meet more people. Furthermore, it gives individuals freedom to offer whatever they deem as their most valued service. Most importantly, as Tamari mentions, the bank “encourages selflessness.” When one offers a service, no expectation exists of having to repay the person immediately, or at all.

The project is continuing this fall, as Professor Wendy Ewald is teaching the Collaborative Art: Practice and Theory of Working with a Community class again at Amherst College. Like with all community-based learning courses, students constantly interact with individuals beyond the classroom. Tamari informs me that senior citizens are also attending class. The inclusion of community members is important because “it is easy to hypothesize how things are going to turn out... you are in a studio thinking of all these good things together, but when you apply them you might be disappointed because you don’t have the outside input.”

The Bank of Exchange/Value enables people to enrich the lives of both themselves and others. Instead of using money, we can think of it dealing in an alternative currency: happiness. Now that’s a work of beauty that nobody can put up for sale.

Tracy Huang ’11 is a double major in Economics and Political Science. When she’s not busy daydreaming, she enjoys practicing martial arts, writing blog entries, and juggling chainsaws (just kidding). She welcomes any comments at yhuang11[at]amherst[dot]edu.