Pros and Cons of Donating Art for Art Auctions to Benefit Non-Profits – Any Non-Profit

Well here’s a subject I feel I have dealt with many times over my 20 + years of doing commentary for any of the three versions of our paper or on this blog. As much as artists tell me they hate being asked to donate art to these fundraisers, how much they are often sorry and humiliated when they do, and how much it is hurting their market – they continue to do it – as a group, if not individually.

I’ll state up front that I have heard many more cons than pros on this issue, but then I heard mostly from visual artists who are on the giving end of this issue. And let me be very clear – many of these artists are happy and willing to give to many causes, but the number of times they are asked is just too many.

It should be noted that I am going to open the Comments link to this blog for the first time. So for all those folks who have been bugging me about taking comments – here’s your chance and if you don’t show up – the link won’t be opened again. (The Comments link is now closed due to all the good folks who wanted to bring you their commercials on the coat tails of this blog.)

I’m also going to make some links to past commentary I’ve made on this subject to cut down on this posting’s length and link comments made by artist in other blogs. Click on them for further opinions. It should be noted that some of these links will go back as far as ten years ago, so comments will contain dated references.

Why does this subject continue to be a nagging issue with visual artists? I’ll try and look at several points of view offered over the years. And, hopefully we’ll hear from some of the artists out there and maybe some of the organizers of these auctions.

Who is the Victim and Who is the Villain?

Who is to blame? Is it the charities and non-profits for realizing that artworks make the best and easiest auction items? Is it the Federal Government for making an artist’s donation of art to a charity or non-profit less valuable than a cash donation? (For those who don’t know – the IRS only lets artists take a deduction for the cost of materials it takes to make a work of art – not its market value.) Is it the art buying public’s fault for waiting for these auctions to grab greatly under-priced art for their collections? Is it some galleries fault for pressuring artists to give to causes that bring accolades to the gallery and gallery owners? Is it the artist’s fault for ever considering making such donations to begin with?

Maybe it’s my fault for bringing up this subject – time and time again. That’s what some people say – I’m to blame for artists’ unrest over donating art. But I neither make art or attend these auctions anymore – so there is no effect on me other then the effect art auctions have on the art market and art galleries in general and the resulting effect that has on our support base. Some folks who support us also conduct art auctions as fundraising events – so that factor may be a wash. My main problem is having to listen to countless stories and complaints from the artists about being under siege to donate art to these events. My sympathy is with the artists, but it does get old after a time – as nothing changes on this subject since some of the same artists who complain – keep giving.

I’m not saying all art auctions are bad. I’m totally in favor of art auctions which help causes that the artists providing art directly benefit from – like potters donating works to help keep the doors of the NC Pottery Center in Seagrove, NC, open. But, I’d think twice about donating to an arts organization or institution that would never let my work through the door.

I’ve heard from artists that Brookgreen Gardens in Pawley’s Island, SC, conducts a fair and positive art auction. Artists actually hope to be asked to participate, but I never see any public publicity about this auction, meaning Brookgreen has a waiting audience for this event and that means people may be waiting to buy art at this annual event. So there could be a downside for art galleries the artists don’t see themselves.

My advice to artists who complain to me has always been – sell your art at market value and then make a cash donation to the charity – getting a full tax deduction – if you feel the cause is worthy. No not donate your art, even art you have had collecting dust in your studio. How could a charity complain about that unless there is more to this practice than gaining funding for their charity – like the auction event itself.

Donating for Publicity

Yes, a few artists benefit from this practice, but it is only a few high-profile artists who are used as bait to gather in others. It must be nice when one of these few individuals are featured in a newspaper or magazine article on how their generosity helps provide funding for a certain charity or non-profit, but what about the 30 to 50 other artists who donated work to this auction – where is their publicity – where is their moment to bask in the sunshine of public praise? In most instances, I can barely get a full list of the participating artists. In those instances when we can’t get a full list – I won’t publicize the event on our website.

I’ve seen billboards promoting art auctions where just one featured artist has artwork presented on the billboard. I’m sure every artist contributing to that auction cringes when they pass one of those signs thinking, “I’m helping too.”

And every solicitation for donations to these art auctions always includes the statement – “This event will include artwork from the finest artists in (fill in the area)”. Who wants to be left out of that group? And do you think all art auction organizers are that picky to only accept works from the finest artists in a certain area, and if you don’t give does it then follow that you are not one of the finest artists – even if you might be considered one by your peers and informed authorities?

As an artist who donates works to these auctions, are you always glad your name is on the list when you see the full list of artists included in the auction? Or are you shocked at who is on the list and who is not – maybe even artists’ names that are not included but you were told they would be to get you to make a donation – it happens.

Is it Fundraising or all about the Event?

Some might be shocked to learn that some of these art auction fundraising events don’t generate a profit – that at the end of the day, the events cost more money than they generate or at best just break even. Some charities claim they have to throw a big party to attract the folks with the deep pockets. I always thought that the idea behind charity was for those with money to give to worthy causes – not expect the organization to go in debt hosting a fundraising event. The audience should be bidding up on auctions – not bidding down.

I once had the pleasure of asking an organizer of one of these art auction events why the event didn’t make any money. They explained that the cost in providing food, drink and entertainment for the event was more than the art auction took in. When I suggested why they didn’t ask the folks providing the food, drink and entertainment to donate their work – they were outraged at the suggestion and said these folks were professionals. I later found out that art works that were donated but did not generate any bids were taken home by volunteers working at the fundraiser – for all their hard work instead of being returned to the artists. I’m not usually dumbfounded by some people’s remarks but this was early on in my experience and I was just stunned at this person’s lack of respect for the value of the art being donated to their cause. It seemed that the artists who were making this whole event possible were holding the lowest spot on the totem pole as far as respect goes.

I’ve kept a close eye and ear out for this group and I’m happy to report that they have never done another art auction as a fundraiser – as far as I know. If they do – you’ll read about it here.

Not Just a Local or Regional Problem

This is not a local problem or even a regional problem – it is a problem for all visual artists nationwide and around the world.

Here’s a link to a commentary I made in our Carolina Arts‘ Aug. 2006 issue entitled, Fundraising With Art Auctions.You’ll have to scroll down the commentary to find the part about art auctions.

Some Comments from a few Blogging Artists

Here’s an entry from Joanne Mattera Art Blog about receiving requests to donate art and the comments her comments attracted.

Here is another entry by the blogging artist, Joanne Licsko about donating art.

It’s not hard to go to Google and search for comments about donating to art auctions and you’ll find all kinds of opinions – pro and con – mostly con.

Offering Some Alternatives

Here is a commentary I offered in the Dec. 2000 issue of Carolina Arts onHow NOT to get in a Gallery. It covers the issue of how art galleries feel about artists who donate works to numerous art auctions, how gallery owners feel about competing with art auctions and offers an alternative way to fundraising.

Here is a commentary I offered in the Mar. 2004 issue of Carolina Artscomparing three art related fundraisers taking place in Charleston, SC, during the same time entitled, A Tale of Three Fundraisers. It shows how creative or clever some folks can be in fundraising or boosting attendance.

Here is a Guest Commentary offered by Jerry Spencer, a gallery owner in Charleston, SC, in the Sept. 2003 issue of Carolina Arts about art auctions – offering his view as an artist, gallery owner, and art educator.

Congress could soften the blow of art auctions for artists by allowing them to take a market value deduction for their donations of art to non-profits – for art auction fundraisers or even for institutional collections. But it still wouldn’t relieve artists in demand from constant requests for donations. In fact, it could even make the problem more server.

So what do you think? Can artists ever break free of this practice or burden? Can charities, non-profit organizations, art institutions ever come up with a better way to do fundraising and give the visual artists a break?

I wish this would be my last words on this issue, but I know it won’t. I’m glad to be the point of the spear on this issue, even though the subject is exhausting at times. But I can only imagine how exhausting it is for the artists.

Here’s a real kicker. A week or so ago I got an e-mail from an artist who wondered why we didn’t do an art auction fundraiser to help us out of our financial problems – they would donate. They missed our color covers. I do too. I had been working on this piece for some time when their e-mail came. My answer was that we are not big proponents of art auctions, they were the first artist to suggest it, and I felt that we have mentioned our financial troubles enough that if there was a ground-swell of interest in doing an art auction for us – it would have happened already. I thanked them for their thought, but felt that readers have heard me loud and clear on this subject and artists are weary of art auctions. Besides we’re all having financial problems.

EDIT: Comments were lost in 2014 due to website difficulties.

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