Wednesday, May 08, 2013

How Charity Auctions Can Do More Harm Than Good For An Artist’s Career

How Charity Auctions Can Do More Harm Than Good For An Artist’s Career

A while ago I wrote the following in an attempt to purge feeling slighted by yet another charity art auction.  I waited a while to give myself time to get over it and then reread to determine if I would publish it.  I’m going to go ahead and publish it as I’m sure there are many other artists who've had similar experiences.  Hopefully it will open dialogue between artists and charity coordinators who seek contributions of artworks from their creators…

I’m feeling overwhelmed lately by a mixed bag of emotions; depression being the most paralyzing in the mix.  I recently donated an original triptych for a charity auction.  It’s a good cause, I know and admire the coordinator and it was potential for my work to be exposed to a new crowd.

Belief in a cause and the potential for new exposure; the only sensible reasons an artist donates artwork for charity auction.  Sorry auction coordinators, but “free event admission” for the artist is not a favor to the artist:

1)      it’s not a party for us as we’re working to promote,
2)      you can’t get as much buck for the art if the artists aren't there working the crowd,
3)      the artworks auctioned for charity almost always sell for significantly less than their fair market value (this can devalue artists’ work and create disgruntled collectors) and
4)      Most importantly artists may legally deduct only the cost of the materials used to make the artwork NOT fair market value or even the winning bid amount.
a)      Oh but if a collector purchases a work of art then donates it to the same auction that collector gets to deduct the amount of the sale (or the original purchase price if the work sells for less).
i)        There’s not an inequity here is there (snark).
5)      Let me clarify number 4 above!
i)        The artist may only deduct the actual amount of the cost of materials (meaning we have to figure out how much every dab of paint cost us)
ii)      If any one tells you otherwise they are either woefully ignorant or purposely misleading (I am so grateful for my well informed tax accountant.)

OK so why am I now sitting here foolishly feeling sorry for myself and debating…should I bitch and whine or take the high road and suffer my silly emotions in silence or should I vent my frustration and publicly expose this socially accepted practice in the name of charity as the exploitation of artists it really is?  My self pity is a culmination of several small disregards for my efforts, any one of which like water on a duck’s back I would have barely noticed.  Unfortunately an accumulation has coalesced into an uncomfortable lump in my craw…

The day of the auction, I was Facebook messaged asking if I submitted my art and paperwork.  I wrap all artworks that I submit to a gallery.  You don’t want it to get scratched or dinged before it’s even hung on the wall.  So I replied describing the protective packaging and they found the work.  But that should have been my first clue … no actually my first clue should have been the email from the auction coordinator the day before asking if I’d turned my work in yet; I’d turned it in on the due date several days before and replied as much.  Anyway when I got to the event I looked for my work. And found it, nicely on the first wall as you walk in…unfortunately it was behind the band’s speaker… They were nicely hung together; too bad they had the wrong artist’s name on the bid sheet.  Too bad they had no title listed.  Too bad they had the media and substrate wrong.  Too bad there was no pen nearby for interested collectors to write a bid on the bid sheet.  Too bad… and this was the hardest slap to the face of all… too bad they put a fair market value of $250 on it…

That’s a total of $250 for 3 original paintings; a triptych is 3 paintings that hang together as one artwork.  Twenty years ago a Christy's buyer valued one of my single color woodcut prints at $175, yesterday a local gallery employee put a fair market value of $250 total for three original paintings.  Under valuing, one example of how charity auctions devalue an artist’s work.  Also the final bids on most artworks in charity auctions is usually significantly below fair market value; another way the artist’s work is devalued by charity auctions.  Do you understand why many artist’s feel misused by charity auctions?

Last night I smiled, shook people’s hands and was honestly pleased to make potential new friends and hug dear old friends; but inside I was hurt and could barely restrain from removing the work from the wall and taking it home.  OK so now I've done my whining and you know it’s been said that a person should not bitch unless they can come up with a solution (that’s kind of defeatist isn't it – if you’re not allowed to complain about a wrong without proposing a solution doesn't that just perpetuate the wrong [may be someone else has better vision than I and my complaint triggers their creative problem solving skills]).  Any way I have a few ideas. 

Keep in mind for it to work artists will have to stop donating their work unless charities and auction coordinators agree to start respecting our efforts.  This means we will have to ask for one or more of the following and if denied then we have decline.  If they get turned down often enough charities will eventually realize they’re cutting off their own feed.  If we turn a charity down because of past abuse we need to tell them why.  And most importantly we HAVE to educate our budding artists and convince them that it’s in the best interest of their careers that they insist on full and proper respect from auction coordinators.  If we don’t warn and educate them we leave them vulnerable and WE perpetuate the abuse.

Some Ideas for Fair Art Donation Practices

1)      Charities and auction coordinators have to start respecting the artist’s efforts
a)      Donating artists aren't getting in free; they've already donated a work of art that will bring in money (probably more than the price of admission) and they’ll be working the event to get the highest bids for the charity. Give your artist a comp ticket to the event so they can give it to a favored patron or companion who can cover while the artist takes a break or works the room to compliment her and talk up her colleagues work to admiring collectors. In the past my artist friends and I did much toward increasing the bids for each others work by bragging on each other; something the artist cannot do if she has to stand by her work all night to answer bidder questions.
b)      Ask the artist for a minimum bid amount and market value of their work; do not change these numbers on the bid sheets without the artist’s permission.  If the two of you don’t agree then leave the artist with the option to remove the work.
c)      Do offer a fair percentage of the sale to the artists.  Most will offer to donate the full amount.  Some, especially the younger less established artists, will appreciate the return of their material costs; mediums, substrates, framing, hardware, transportation and other costs.

2)      The artist says, “I’m sorry I cannot donate my artwork but I’ll be happy to write a check”
a)      The charity gets a donation from the artist albeit probably not as much as an artwork would sell for.
b)      The artist gets a monetary tax deduction
c)      The artist informs the charity and auction coordinators why they can’t get artists to donate artwork for their event.  It’s hard to have a charity art auction if you don’t have any artwork to auction; on the other hand we artists have a responsibility to make charities aware that they are abusing us.

3)      Artists who are asked to donate for an event exchange artworks with each other
a)      The artists exchange receipts marked paid in full with the payment amount being what the trading artist would have asked for it in a studio sale.
b)      The recipient artist donates the trader’s artwork to the charity
c)      Recipient artists get to deduct the auction sale price.

4)      Give the artist a reasonable tax deduction.
a)      A charity gets payment for a work of art.
b)      The Charity pays the artist the amount of the sale minus an operating percentage (20-30% is fair and covers their operating costs if any artist reneges on c below)
c)      The artist then writes a check to the charity for the amount the charity paid to them, making the donation a monetary contribution that is fully tax deductible.

I once asked for number four to be done and was told by the charity that it would be a bookkeeping nightmare… at the time I accepted this, I was much younger and a whole lot more naive then.  Today I realize that this is pure laziness on the part of the charity and/or auction coordinators who don’t want to do a little extra paperwork.  Today I have but one thing to say to this;  Excuse me but I just put 30 hours or more of my time into making this work of art, plus the time and money in steps toward getting it professionally ready to exhibit (Bases, packaging or framing and hardware) then add in time and gas/shipping to deliver the artwork.  And you want to tell me it’s too much trouble for you to assure I get a fair tax deduction for the full value of my donation!  Hello is this not an exploitative disregard for my loss of livelihood?

Now I knew of the disadvantages of the usual practices of such events when I committed to my contribution.  I was well aware of and accepted that there would be a low starting bid; that’s the best way to get that first bidder.  I knew that the winning bid would probably be well below what I could sell the work for; but probably be higher than I could afford to give out of pocket to a cause I valued.  In the past my artistic efforts were always appreciated and I've donated to many charity events I care about.  But this time I was near hidden in a corner, unrecognized, significantly undervalued and hurt, its not just my ego that was bruised but a setback in my reputation and career that I also have to overcome.  And most importantly it’s made me most reluctant to ever contribute my artwork to these events.  It just became cheaper and less painful to by a ticket, eat drink and schmooze…which is something few artists do because most of us hate these events; preferring to hang out with colleagues making art than selling it.  I guess another solution is to do what many other artists do…continue to contribute but only give away old unsold works that are taking up precious space in my studio storage…huhmmm there are some very ancient early works under the bed collecting dust…

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