Will Teach for Goods: An Experiment in Bartering

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Last month a Trade School popped up on the Lower East Side offering classes on subjects like composting, portraiture, and one class titled “Demystifying Caviar.” The subjects are not the only thing that's different about this school. There is also no tuition. That’s where the “trade” part comes in.

Trade School barters, rather than charging a fee for classes. Teachers post what they want on a Web site and students agree to bring those items when they register for a class. (Click here for a primer on how bartering works.)

For 35 days, more than 800 people crammed into a narrow storefront on the Lower East Side for classes at Trade School. The temporary space was more like a glorified hallway with a chalkboard on one side, coat hangers on the other, and modified buckets that were turned into tiny benches. Here, people traded skills and knowledge, but money never changed hands.

One student, Michelle Chu, an unemployed graphic artist, went to Trade School to learn how to build her own Web site. She signed up for a class on Web design and a few others.

“I came on Friday for a beginning piano and song-writers class. That was my first class, and it was excellent. It was very informative, and I happened to stay for the next class, which was 'Foundations in Ghost Hunting,'" Chu says.

"For the Web design class, I brought spices. There was a whole list of things, like fancy cheese, fruits and vegetables, herbs and spices. For the next class I’m signed up for I brought a mix CD,” Chu says.

Trade School is an experiment, but, the founder of Trade School, Caroline Woolard, says it is not a new concept. “Artists have done this forever to get their work done. This is just a way to expand the number of people that you could interact with,” Woolard says.

“What I am more interested in right now is finding a network of people who are open to sharing their skills and slowing down to have a conversation about how we could work together,” she says.

Woolard and a group of four other young artists applied for a grant from an organization called The Field, which helps artists come up with sustainable economic models. Their original plan was to build a Web site that matches people based on what they can offer and what they need. And while they were working on that they had the idea for Trade School.

Alex Mallis, 25, is a documentary film maker and took a class on composting. He was so excited by Trade School that he immediately offered to teach a class on photography called “Death to Auto: Maximize the Manual Mode On Your SLR.”

In exchange, Mallis asked for an assortment of items.

“I made sort of a strange list. I asked for Legos, socks, sharp cheddar cheese, '90s hip-hop 12-inch records, and general ephemera,” he says.

He didn't get exactly what he asked for. “I walked away with exclusively sharp cheddar cheese. Everybody brought cheese. I was really hoping for Legos, I was really hoping for socks, records, general ephemera would have been cool, but no. Nothing but cheese," he says.

While bartering works within this group, it doesn’t solve people’s larger financial issues. Trade School organizer Woolard still needs to pay her bills.

“We have to work day jobs in order to pay for this project because I still can’t barter with my landlord,” she says.

But Woolard and her group are determined to figure out a way to make bartering work, for the sake of their art and the community they’ve created.

The first Trade School finished March 3, and this month Woolard says they plan to reflect on what worked and what did not. Next on the list: finish their bartering Web site and plan Trade School 2. The site launches this summer.

For more on Trade School, visit the WNYC News Blog.