Caroline Woolard is an artist and the founder of OurGoods and Trade School. I spoke to her in person at the Cuchifritos Gallery at the Essex Street Market in Mahattan, one of the locations where Trade School is currently taking place.
So let’s start at the beginning: where OurGoods and Trade School came from, how you decided to start these projects, and then you can sort of explain how things stand now.
Caroline: Sure, so the story is different for each co-founder. For OurGoods there are five co-founders, but I came to it because I started a studio space with a bunch of friends around 2007 and we built out this 8,000 square foot space. Suddenly it became my family, and I realized that most of my friends that were artists were feeling kind of isolated and in competition. I had just been looking for cheap rent. That’s why we started this live-work space. It was really moving to start pooling our resources and committing to each other on that scale because it was a five year lease.
That’s a big space, too.
Yeah, so now there are thirty people there. We don’t all live there. Only eight of us live there, so it’s pretty big. I was working this job, the night shift at an art studio, and I applied for a grant about a resource sharing network for artists. I got $5,000 and that’s when I started talking to Louise Ma and Rich Watts, who became other co-founders, about building a beautiful website that could embody this philosophy because they’re really good designers. They were like, "Yeah, we’re interested in that." They started building the site. At the same time, this woman Jen Abrams came in. She’s from dance and choreography. She’s been doing a sweat equity system, where when she helps her friends produce their theater shows, they help her produce hers. There’s a space on 4th Street that does this. So she was talking to a lot of people who were feeling really strapped for cash in 2009 about using her model to continue making work.
So we were all understanding that even though there was less money out there, we still had a lot of skills and we just needed to help each other make our work. The one person we didn’t have was a computer engineer to really write the code in order to scale the project the way we wanted. So just through talking to a bunch of different people, we met Carl Tashian who is the fifth co-founder (previously he built Zipcar).
He was team member nine or ten or whatever. He saw it grow from a very small network to a huge company. He was like, "Yeah, I want to do this for artists. I’m a programmer who believes in this." He’s done Code for America. He really sees it as a creative pursuit. So we were all aligned in terms of resource sharing for a creative community. It would be artists, designers, crafts people and activists, anyone with an independent project that doesn’t have market value. And the way we work is we talk about what the most important features would be and then we each go into our area, whatever our area of expertise, and work on it. So Louise does the front end, Carl does the back end, and Rich ties them together. And Jen and I do a lot of the social events and write grants.
So after doing OurGoods for a year into it, Rich Watts had a client who wanted to negotiate for a particular project and they had a storefront. And he was like, "Well, I’m doing this barter site, what if you just give me the storefront for a month? I’ll use it to do something." That’s how Trade School started. We had this storefront and we didn’t know what to do with it but we knew we wanted it to be about barter. So Rich basically gifted it to the group. Jen Abrams was too busy. Carl had moved to San Francisco. It was just me, Rich and Louise and we talked to the group, they’re called Grand Opening. The other stipulation was they had to like our idea, so they brainstormed with us and after talking about a lot of horrible things like a barter Christmas present exchange (because it was in December) we were like, "Let’s wait until February, really develop the idea, and make a school." Because a lot of our friends were doing thing related to alternative education models.
So the Trade School idea hadn’t even happened yet, it came out of that opportunity.
We were like, "Let’s do this learning system because we see people on OurGoods that we want to barter with, but we don’t know whether they’re actually good at what they say they’re good at and we also don’t know if our personalities will work well together." This is a way to meet someone that you might want to barter with in a class setting where the stakes are a lot lower. It’s just one to fifteen versus one-on-one.
I saw it filled up really fast.
Yeah, I think we just invited a wide range of teachers the first week. Everything from this guy Gary Lincoffthat I know from another project, who is a big Audubon field guide mushroom forager who is like 65, to someone who does event planning in Bushwick. We tried to get a range of classes and communities, because each person then told their community about Trade School and we encourage students to become teachers, so it kept spreading by word of mouth. By now it’s the third year and we’ve moved from organizing it as me, Rich and Louise to having ten organizers. So we have a huge event at the Museum of Art and Design this time, so it just keeps spiraling and getting bigger and bigger.
Now it’s still run as a pop-up event where it happens and then it’s over until next time. Has there been feedback from people wishing that it was around more?
Definitely, it’s an internal crusade. We want it to be around all the time, but some people feel like we’ll all burn out. Since this is all volunteer, we raise money for rent because the second year we had to pay for rent. We wanted to open for longer. This year we’re in a gallery so it’s free this month, but next month it will be for money. I can talk about the global possibility, too. The other thing I know is that Trade School is now available for anyone to use in any city or area worldwide - it can be customized in any community that contacts us. This summer we’re going to open Trade School in Spanish in New York (Christian Diaz, who is an organizer who helped out last year, has been pushing for that for a while.)
Maybe a better way to ask that question is, "What about OurGoods has worked well and led to other initiatives?"
"What is success for OurGoods?" is still a question that’s hard for us to answer. It seems like the answer should be the number of completed barters that have high ratings, but, since we’re artists, I think we also are really interested in deep change for a few individuals and we don’t want to look only at scale. It’s really hard to know how effective OurGoods has been. I think if anything, it’s a model that people are conscious of in the creative community as a possibility. That’s something that I think is powerful, but we still need to grow it. I think we only have something like 2,000 people and there are way more artists and creative people.
Trade School is really effective in terms of person-to- person enthusiasm. It’s a low threshold barter. All you have to do is bring the thing that the teacher says they want. There’s no negotiation about equality or value, whereas in the one-to-one barter, that’s the conversation. That’s a conversation that nobody wants to have, but that’s part of our project, making people discuss subjective value. We’re asking people to do something really hard.
It’s interesting because there are other themes going on in the collaborative learning, collaborative consumption or collaborative making arena. Some of the commercial approaches are quite successful, and I wonder what you think about how your projects relate to them.
We are in Rachel Botsman’s book, and the way I see it is as a continuum from the more mutual aid, free or non-monetary project, to now it to me is like the solidarity economy. Something activists use to identify that kind of work all over the world. Going all the way to collaborative consumption, which is like, "I have a drill. Rather than lend it to my neighbor, I’m going to rent it." And to me that’s really scary. I understand why some people who are so obsessed with consumerism might only be able to recognize their neighbor in terms of a money exchange. Maybe it will be so weird that since they identify as consumers, they’ll meet their neighbors through this awkward interaction and slowly lend it for free. That’s what I hope.
I guess is is strange to imagine people renting their neighbor the same drill a second time.
Maybe it’s a gateway drug. It’s like a gateway drug for people who want to buy a lot to head back toward a kind of gift community. Yeah, there’s a continuum. In terms of making money, we’re interested in this idea of communities of practice, having resource sharing networks on OurGoods. Since we’re coming at it as artists, there’s the model of residencies, where artists go to residencies and then they could continue sharing with people they’ve met there once they’re back in New York. Those organizations could pay us a fee to set up their circle. We haven’t headed there yet, we’re going to develop that now and deploy it in May, but there’s a lot of room for that with schools. NYU has talked to us about it. The Freelancers Union wants it. A membership model is interesting to us if we can demonstrate value to the members, because we don’t want to rely on grants for ever. We’re trying to get away from that.
So Trade School is actually starting up now. It runs for how long?
It will run in English until May 1st, and then hopefully in Spanish sometime in the summer.
I’m attracted to the Trade School approach because it’s active and interpersonal. It’s not like getting sent a Ted video where you’re just in front of your computer hearing about the things some brilliant stranger has done (while you probably should be working anyway).
Yeah, we say that we value the social nature of exchange. One thing that I hope, I don’t know how much it actually happens, but I think is a real possibility, is most of the time you can find someone who can give you an opportunity on the Internet, but it’s not always the case that they’ll meet you in person. So if you go to a Trade School class, my hope is that a lot of people are opening up their opportunities and seeing you in person helps them trust you and maybe give you opportunities that they wouldn’t feel comfortable with otherwise.
A lot of people talk about all of the online learning as a great solution and I think it’s amazing. I listen to all of the OpenCourseWare stuff while I’m working, but I think that to really break down some class barriers and privilege barriers around learning, you need to meet in person.