Creating An Alternative Economy For Underpaid Artists With A Brand New Currency

Culture Coin wants to be a way for artists to get rewarded for the generosity they give other artists–generosity that keeps the underfunded art world going.

Creating An Alternative Economy For Underpaid Artists With A Brand New Currency
Abstract via Shutterstock

Most people making art don’t make a lot of money. They do it for love, because they hope to be recognized down the line, or because they simply don’t know what else. And, of course, the last few years have been especially bad. When the markets collapsed, philanthropic portfolios tanked too, cutting funding for arts groups.


Traditionally, this sort of under-resourcing has led arts organizations to simply bang the drum louder, reproaching the rest of us for not appreciating the culture we tend to take for granted. But HowlRound, an arts think-tank based at Emerson College, has a more sideways solution. Rather than simply asking for more money, it wants to create its own way of compensating the under-compensated.

You can think of Culture Coin as an alternative currency, a bit like frequent flyer miles. Say a playwright wants to organize a reading of a new script, but has no money to pay actors. She would “pay” actors in Culture Coins, which they could then use to “buy,” say, spare rehearsal space. The theater offering the space could then contract a photographer to do some promo work, using the same culture coins. And so on. Everyone participating in the market, which is hosted online, has an account, where transactions are recorded.

“We are trying to figure out a way of recognizing volunteerism or sweat equity that doesn’t burn out artists who spend five to 10 years working on something, and aren’t able to make a living,” says Vijay Mathew, HowlRound’s associate director.

In technical parlance, the currency is a “mutual credit system.” There’s no issuing authority, like a central bank, as there is with a conventional currency. Rather, the coins take on value when someone exchanges them; their value is backed by the resources participants put in.

Mathew sees it as a way of crediting activity that would normally go uncredited, creating a sort of alternative economy. By eschewing cash for some transactions, he argues it might be possible to put the arts on a more sustainable footing (where organizations aren’t always forced to have their hand out).

“We need to look outside the notion that there’s unlimited economic growth, and really get out of total dependence on money as a way to make the arts vibrant,” he says. “Most artists are barely making a living. There’s this whole underclass who actually make the culture. There’s so much more that could be done if they were in an economy together.”


HowlRound’s idea is one of seven finalists for the Business Unusual Challenge, which is organized by EmcArts, a social enterprise. The goal is to crowdsource ideas that could make the arts more viable. The winner is announced in mid-October, and gets $35,000.

Mathew compares Culture Coin to a sharing site like Airbnb, in the sense that it makes unvalued resources more visible. Previously, there was no way of exploiting the latent value of your home while you’re on vacation–now there is. Similarly, there isn’t a way now to pay people whose work is undervalued. If a different currency unlocks that, then maybe it’s worth considering.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.