When the Art Reserve Bank opened in Amsterdam in May 2012, Bill Drummond was the first artist it approached for its experiment: using art to create a currency with real physical value.
In August 1994, Drummond had packed £1million into two suitcases and boarded a light aircraft to Jura, an island in the Scottish Hebrides. There, on the earth floor of an abandoned boathouse, he burnt the lot.
Drummond had made the money organising raves and releasing music as part of the Kopyright Liberation Front. When KLF stopped and the money kept coming, Drummond and his colleagues were left with £1million that they didn’t consider theirs and with no artistic projects on the horizon. So, after another project fell through, they burnt the money in a disused shed at the edge of the British Isles.
Since Drummond designed the first coins, the Art Reserve Bank has minted designs by eight other artists. Each designs a series of four coins and the bank sells a different coin each week. Coin owners become members of the cooperative, with a decision on how the bank is run.
Although the bank sells newly issued coins for €100, older coins can be purchased in an online dealing room, where the average sale price determines the currency’s value.
The aim of the project is to get people thinking more about the financial system. According to Ron Peperkamp, the bank’s founder, money has become little more than numbers on a screen since the end of the Gold Standard.
“The base money should be linked to some real value”, says Peperkamp. “Or at least something that we, as humans, value as being worthwhile to keep and preferably in physical shape”.
Engaging with the public is a key part of the experiment. Now operating in central Eindhoven, the bank’s 1910 minting press stands inside a large glass cube, purposefully visible to the public. Engine green and weighing six tons, it is a relic of a time when steam engines still ran. Just metres away from the press, passersby can purchase coins directly from the bank’s office.
“We are testing the trust of people in our currency”, says Peperkamp. “We don’t want to test it with just art lovers or collectors because we know they will appreciate the value of their coin. No, we want to test it with the general public”.
Peperkamp is adamant, however, that the bank is not merely an art project.
“It has some artistic features in the way that everything is visualised but it is not an art project; it’s an experiment”.
This experiment imposes some constraints on the bank. Unless members decide otherwise, the bank will only operate for five years. After this, members will have the option to redeem their coins. The 10 % interest rate offered by the bank might encourage many to do so and, if too many do, then the bank will go bankrupt and the experiment will fail.
“One starts to weigh the art value of our currency against the value of ordinary fiduciary money”, says Peperkamp. “We hope that enough people will keep the coin and, if so, then in five years time we can prove that the public trusts art as the backing of a currency”.
The coins don’t always sell out, however. The number of coins purchased often depends on the popularity of the artist. Those not sold are kept in a vault while a number of older coins sit in an office desk drawer.
The currency has, however, performed well so far. Initially valued at €100, buyers now pay around €112 for a coin in the online dealing room and Peperkamp remains optimistic about the experiment and the ideas behind it.
“It is really a sort of magical thing, our monetary system. If you look at it with the eyes of an artist, you can see the most wonderful conceptual piece of art that’s ever been created”.
If other people prove just as enthusiastic, then the Art Reserve Bank’s experiment might just succeed.