Away With Your Money!

It’s not that I’m a capitalism enthusiast, but it seems that every artist in the world is trying to make a living from their work. Ok, not every artist: while some paint to exhibit and sell, Dickson Schneider has spent the last five years giving away his art for free. Now, this relationship between art and money always raises discussion due to the blurry boundaries that stipulate the value of a piece of art. Although many people consider an artwork a good with an immeasurable price, there is no way we can deny the power of the art market. During the past decades, the habit of buying contemporary art has broken the myth of artists dying unknown and impoverished; recently, a painting sold during at auction turned Gerhard Richter into the most expensive living painter.

On the opposite direction, University of California (East Bay) professor Dickson Schneider has created the Free Art Project. Using Kickstarter – a website developed to raise money for creative projects via crowd funding – he was able to raise funds to bring to Berlin the experience of donating artworks to complete strangers inside a gallery space.

Disrupting The Art Market

Everything started as an activity with his students: “You know, students make work and then it has nowhere to go. And somehow it came up that we would just give it away on the street – so we got together a few times and just started doing that and then, after they stopped, I kept doing it because I really like doing it" he tells me.

Dickson Schneider and his Free Art Project cart at Art Basel Miami. Photo: Hannah Sentenac. Via Miami NewTimes

The project didn’t start in a gallery environment, however. Back in Oakland, the act of giving his art away happened in an unpretentious way: he would push a cart filled with his artworks on the streets. But the Kickstarter system was incorporated to help him invest on more expensive and quality materials. Although the cart doesn’t support big artworks, he used the same rustic technique on Free Art Project’s edition at Art Basel Miami. That’s right – an artist was handing out free art outside one of the most important art fairs in the world.

Performance Or Not?

I wondered: the moment the Free Art Project happens at Art Basel, doesn’t it become a performance piece? Schneider explains: “A little bit, yes. But I think that’s only a small part of it. The big part of it is trying to break the barrier between owning art and making art; to have some kind of commentary about the art market because most people can’t afford art.” 

Hold your horses Schneider, they can’t afford or they think they can’t? As BAPs writer Tristan Boisvert wrote recently: “A collection should begin with love. A love for an artist’s work, a love for dedication, for history, for knowledge, for expression and yes, even a love for money.” And that’s what the Free Art Project has been doing: it's creating instantaneous art collectors.

Instantaneous art collector Denise Sarholz with a new piece by Dickson Schneider. Photo: Chris Phillips

They may be newborn collectors but they are not accepting anything just because it’s free: “The people are still critical. I had a guy at the cart and he was looking at it for a long time and said ‘That one is not for me.’ He looked around and he didn’t find one.” This feeling is disappointing for Schneider as he expects to have something special for everyone. But at the same time, he also likes to challenge the reach of his work. Once he made a drawing that he just couldn’t give away – nobody would take it. So, what did he do? He taped one dollar to it. Did it work? Of course not: “When it says free, people are suspicious. So it takes a bit of talking to people to get them to understand that it really is free,” says Schneider. Imagine when you’re actually paying for someone to take it? Would you take it without hesitating? I doubt it – I bet you would think it was a cursed drawing. In the end, Schneider took the money away and wrote “free” on it. The drawing was eventually bought by someone who used to collect things with the word “free” on it.

Art Is More Powerful Than Money

So what is the value of art? “It has to be something I value to give away,” he explains, “That’s the best thing. It’s an issue. You have to give away something you care about. Otherwise it doesn’t make any sense.”

BAPs: Do artists hate you because you undervalue their work/efforts?

Dickson Schneider: I’ve had a few artists angry at me in Oakland. It doesn’t make sense because if I gave away something, somebody has more money to spend on others' art. Right? And the idea that everyone has to get something in return when you give a gift is the opposite of what a gift is. If I give it to you, you can take it home; you can throw it away when you get outside. So it is up to you to figure out what is worth to you. And when I give it to you it is unconditional, it’s yours.

BAPs: What about the galleries? You are giving away something that they earn money from.

DSI doubt it. It’s a generous thing to do, I guess. But the gallery world is going to go on, despite whatever I do. Well, but it's basically just commentary on how we value things. What is something worth if it is free? That’s sort of what this is all about. To get people to come in, look at it and value it without having to worry about money. To take the barriers away. I found that just fun, interesting—beautiful, even.

A work by Dickson Schneider, now part of the Artparasites collection. Photo: Chris Phillips

Taking the barriers away, creating new collectors and spreading the art—and this artist is not finished. For now, Schneider will go back home and share this latest experience – which he has been extensively documenting – with his students. He says that the Free Art Project’s next destination could be South Korea and that he would love to see it happening in a museum space. Will the institutions be ready to give away some art? If so, I call dibs on a Pollock!

If you're interested in more money talk, take a look at these past articles:  Artists or Bankers: Whatever Suits You BestCollector's Corner: Show Me The Money and Money Talk: Should Prices Appear In Art Reviews?

Article by Bel Borst