No, I Will Not Donate to Your Auction

Recently a regional museum requested that I donate a small painting to their auction. I said no.

This museum has never shown the least interest in including my work in its thematic shows. Its curators have never expressed sufficient interest in my work to make a studio visit. But they’d be happy to sell it to support their program, which to this date has not supported me. What’s wrong with this picture?

Of course this is not the first time I have been asked to donate work to an auction. If you are an artist, you have been inundated with requests. They’re all good causes: support for museums and art centers, college scholarship programs, AIDS research, breast cancer research. If there’s a need or an illness, there’s an art auction.

Here’s the problem: the people least able to afford to donate are the ones repeatedly being asked to give it up. And the ones most able to afford to buy artwork are getting it for a song. What’s wrong with that picture?

Reasons to Donate Your Art
. "It’s great visibility,"
they tell you. Maybe. If you're an art student or an emerging artist and you pick your causes carefully, yes, you may get some visibility and attention. Some local dealers do look around for who and what’s hot at these events. A collector might acquire a piece at the beginning of your career and remain supportive as your career develops.
. Is there an illustrated catalog? Even midcareer artists might appreciate the boost of a full-page color image and a listing in the "Bibliography" section of your resume.

Reasons Not to Donate Your Art
. Auctions are like Loehmans: they condition collectors to buy lower than retail. This means the rug is effectively pulled out from under your carefully cultivated prices. You’re cheapened.
. Auctions eliminate the dealer. Here’s how the art world works: Artists make the art. Dealers sell it. It’s a symbiotic relationship, because a dealer creates a market for your work, creates a collector base, places the work with private and corporate clients. Undercut the dealer and you undercut your own best interests.
. You get nothing. Zip. Zippo. Nada.
. You can’t even deduct the cost of your work; you can deduct only the cost of materials.
. Think you can put these shows on your resume? Think again. What dealer wants to show an artist who is giving it away?
. And if the work doesn’t sell, you’re really screwed. Subtext: "This artist can’t even give it away."

How You Can Give
. Ask for a percentage of the sale
. Artist-friendly institutions understand that you can't keep giving it away. For emerging artists, it’s a good deal because you get some visibility and a small sum for your work.
. Give cash. Come tax time you can deduct the full price of the donation.
. Look at alternative auction ideas. For instance, I enjoy participating in Postcards from the Edge, part of the Visual AIDS project, which is hosted by a different gallery each year, and Wish You Were Here, the postcard show to benefit A.I.R. Gallery, both in New York. These events draw thousands of people. For each event, I produce a postcard-size painting that will sell for a standard price, about $50.
........No one signs their name on the front of the postcards, so you could be getting a Faith Ringgold or a Joanne Mattera or a Josephine Schmo. That’s part of the fun. And the price is equally accessible to both artists and collectors. You don’t undercut your price because the price is the same for everyone. What’s more, I appreciate that these institutions understand and respect that they are asking artists to donate work, so they’ve devised a win/win situation.

A Few Suggestions to All the Institutions Who Want My Work and Yours
. Make a high enough minimum so that we’re not cheapened by the sale price.
. Give the artist 50 percent of the selling price.
. Make a good printed catalog with one color image per page. Spell the artists' names correctly.
. Create a well-designed website with images of each artist's work. Spell the artists' names correctly.
. Give us the name of the person who purchases our work so that we can put her/him on our own mailing list.
. Give us a free ticket to the event, not just a ticket with a reduced price.
. Acknowledge our contribution by showing our work in your institutions--not just for the auction.

Oh, and don’t ask too often.


Joanie San Chirico said...

Bravo! You said it much better than I. My post about the same subject is on my blog here:

If we all stay firm, artwork won't be selling at bargain basement prices at these so-called prestigous events.

Martha Marshall said...

Kudos to you, Joanne! Here's my take on it as well:


Ruth Robards Thompson said...

My job is Arts Recovery for Hancock County, Mississippi, an art community that was devastated by Katrina. Every organization on the Coast is asking the artists for donations for art auctions. I keep telling them that the artists need to "SELL" their work, that they are recovering also, but it doesn't stop them from very nearly insisting. From now on, I'll give them a copy of your article.
Thanks so much for the ammunition.
Ruth Thompson
Arts Recovery Coordinator
Hancock County Chamber of Commerce

Joanne Mattera said...

Ruth, While you're at it, take a look at what Martha and Joanie (above) have to say on the topic. Joanie's blog post also has links to other artists who have written on the topic. More ammunition for you. Clearly this is an ISSUE for many of us!

Gallery Ant said...

I don't believe that helping can possibly hurt anyone, including the artist. It's art, and we're talking about helping people with much more serious issues than how much their painting sells for, but I agree with you on the point that there are limits. Thanks for stating a few of them.


Anonymous said...

I hate these art auctions.

The ONLY people that end up donating to whatever the charity is are the poorest, the artists.

The buyers are "giving" money, but getting artwork (at a reduced price).

Say yes to one and you generate five more requests from others.

It's a scam. HATE. Can't Stand!

Anonymous said...

I agree with gallery ant. Too bad more artists don't feel the same way. They are much better off than the people they are helping, and getting these people help by any means possible is what matters. And the hate you have for the system, that doesn't help anyone.

Joanne Mattera said...

Anonymous 10:55,

You're speaking in generalizations about financial status and hate.

I can speak a bit more specifically based on interactive experience: Most artists barely earn enough to pay their bills. Why should they be asked, over and over, to fund projects by institutions such as schools and museums? Do you really think a studio artist who nets a few thousand a year is better off than a museum looking to increase its acquisition fund--so it can buy work from artists other than the ones who are donating?

We as artists can give to worth projects. A check to a non-profit organization is a deductible expense. That's a win/win for giver and givee. No hate there, my anonymous friend.

Catherine Carter said...

When art institutions send written solicitations for my paintings for their auctions, often their cover letters go on and on about the high visibility of their auction, the number and sophistication of the collectors who will attend, etc.

If they are pleading their case so desperately (and unrealistically), they obviously know that what they're asking is unreasonable from the artists' point of view.

And I always have to smile when these letters offer me a DISCOUNT on tickets to the auction if I donate. Wow, for ME?! THANKS!

Anonymous said...

How are artist's who "barely earn enough to pay their bills," and "net a few thousand a year" able to write tax deductible checks to a charities. What are they deducting from exactly? They are able, I believe, to donate work, not to increase the acquisition fund of a museum, which would be an absurd cause, but to help a worthy cause. Making informed choices is up to them. And if they are making only a few thousand a year, they need all the exposure they can get. And why does everyone have to win all the time? When did life become a contest?

Gallery Ant said...

Joanne Matter has a good point. It's hard for an artist concerned about where his or her next meal is coming from to think about charity and donating their work, but I imagine it's also hard for them to think about taxes and deductions. As for the artists who are surviving, I believe that donating work can help if the cause is right. I don't donate work every time I'm asked, but I do when I can, when I feel strongly about the charity or what they are trying to do. I don't believe that saying no all the time, or saying yes all the time, makes any sense. As an artist I try to see the situation from as many perspectives as possible, and that makes it difficult not to think about the people who need help.


Daphne said...

An artist that I met this summer went to great lengths to explain why she no longer donated her work to auctions.

Much of what she said was the same as what you so clearly stated.

But what resonated with me the most was her saying that it was typically about "the poor supporting the poor".

Additionally, (and this is just my thought on it)if I spend more than two weeks working on a piece and then donate it I am conceivably donating my grocery money and then some for those two weeks.

Non-artists don't seem to realize that.

Can you imagine if charities called or wrote to you multiple times a year asking you to give your $500.00 paycheck to them to be auctioned off to charity?

Someone could conceivably buy it for $100.00. The hundred would go to charity and then the lovely purchaser gets to go home with your paycheck.

Does that make any sense?

At the moment my preference is to contribute cash to charities...

Daphne said...

And one more thought...

Artists are part of the general public too. Therefore some of them are no doubt affected by illnesses and disasters to name a few.

The romanticized notion that people sometimes have of artists either being extremely wealthy or alternatively starving is pretty two dimensional.

We're just people doing our best with what we have.

AluapPaula said...

Thank you for sharing your widom and experience! I have donated to some causes that I had been passionate about, but it does condition the audience to pay less than the fair market value. In fact, sometimes it doesn't even cover the cost of the materials to make the piece, let alone the time you spent making it.

Anonymous said...

I came up with a solution a couple of years ago. I offer a 'gift certificate' redeemable at my studio or at a show where my work is for a small amount -like $200- toward the purchase of a piece. Everybody gets something.

Joanne Mattera said...

Anonymous 6:53,

Identify yourself and bask in the appreciation of a good idea. While it won't work so well for gallery-affiliated artists who can't be selling out of their studios(and note, "gallery-affiliated" doesn't mean "wealthy enough to give it away"), it does present a wonderful win/win for many emerging artists.

But where is the cutoff? How many times can you have people come to your studio to purchase work that should be going to the exhibitions that will give you visibility?

Kathi said...

Just wanted to add:
Institutions that ask for artist donations should be turning instead to the wealthier practitioners in the communities and asking them to donate their services or goods for auction. Let the lawyers offer legal services, doctors offer medical care or, auto mechanics offer tune ups and oil changes,restaurants offer meals,hotels offer rooms, etc. etc. I think you get my drift. The people who bid on these offerings can then donate them to the underprivelaged in the communities. The museum or charity keeps the auction income. The wealthy auction patron gets to actually help several causes at once! The successful business people, health practionaers and service industries can actually give back a little! Imagine that!
I stopped donating my art work years ago for all of the myriad reasons stated in the above blogs. Artists should really stand firm on refusing to participate in these events. If you want to support a cause, give them a monetary donation. Don't allow yourself to be taken advantage of.

Anonymous said...

THAT is SOOOOO right!

and you said it so well.
sometimes i can not understand why the espect the poor artist all the time to give the art, the time and the material away for fee!

i like to donate for things, BUT i hate all this institutions to ask by th lower incoming people to give all this for 100, or better 200% for free...

and NOT ALL ARTIST HAVE enought. whats about this with cancer who still make art and try to pay the medic bills, as i did?
whats about this with MS who try to make every day still one step and an part od aRT?
whats about the artist who nearly can not make an living and starving?
there are MANY many much who also would need an little bit of support ad help but they stay there in the corner, helpless, why they just should donate their art...

please, everything have an limite. i give per year 2 pieces to something ME deciding what it is... that is all I WILL efford(and most of the time that are niche things and not high visible helpingcompanies...)

sorry for all my misspellings, english is not my native language


Stephanie Sachs said...

Thank you Joanne for speaking up.
I do not participate unless I receive at least 40% of the sale. Talk to your accountant but a fellow artist recently told me her accountant allowed her to deduct the value of the auctioned painting as advertising. Sounds iffy but it is better than the materials.

Donate a Car said...

Thats depend on what the vision / purpose.

Professor Deb said...

The problem with the Postcards to the Edge idea is that some museums ask children or hobbyists to donate works alongside professional, working artists. And some of us don't make 5"x7" works of art. I don't want to donate a work where I'm anonymous and shown with someone who makes art once a decade. It's a bit insulting. Anyway, if you're on FB, check out the page that's evolved from this issue in Louisville, KY.

Joanne Mattera said...

Professor Deb,

Good point. If one is going to donate work, even a postcard, it's worth understanding what the context is.

I was referring specifically to events in New York, which take place in galleries with postcards made by artists.

Professor Deb said...

Hey, just sent you an email using my other address. Sorry for the overlap. We had a "protest" here last weekend. The JB Speed museum held a "benefit" called the Louisville 27 -- anyway, they asked artists to anonymously donate 5"x7" "tastes" of their artwork -- and didn't differentiate between amateurs, professional, children, etc. Our protest involved entering 80 works -- all individually signed by artists. Each work was a slice of baloney, carefully packaged to meet the museum's entry requirements (our FB group is called Speed? Baloney!). The protest has been in the local media -- TV, newspaper, LTEs, and of course, our FB page. Anyway, the museum accepted the works -- but they still aren't talking to us. The biggest resistance to our effort has come from some of the museum's young employees. It reminds me of the Harlan Ellison video, when he speaks of younger writers willing to give their work away for free. Same kind of attitude by some (and certainly not all).

Anonymous said...

I am so glad to run across this blog. I've been researching ways to say "No" because donation requests have had a sneaky way of creeping up on me over the last couple of years. Most recently, one was by a good friend of mine who is a director for a local non-profit. Most of these responses contain everything I have felt. I don't want to jeopardize our friendship, but I agree with many comments here that by continuing to donate without compensation ultimately jeopardizes our art and our career. Thank you for being here(even 3 to 4 years past the posts).

Penny Auction Online said...

I think that charity task should be supported but not on the cost of respect. If someone is expert in some art than that is its own property and it depends upon him if he is interested or not in such act. Rather I have doubt that these funds are properly used. So accept my thanks for rising this topic.

Colleen said...

You didn't even mention the worst part! If the winning bidder decides to show off your work to their friends, they'll brag about how little they paid for it. Any clients they send your way will be hoping for a similar bargain.

Lynn Bevino Felts said...

Thank you for this wonderful post! I love, love, love your tips at the end for making a win/win situation for everyone. Was beginning to feel like a real heel for starting to say "no" so much, but I can't afford to give away mosaics that take four months to create and cost a fortune to make! If someone gets one of them for a bargain basement price at a charity event, why on earth would they pay full price plus a commission mark-up at a gallery for it? Whew! I've enjoyed the rant! Thanks! :D

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more with your arguments about not giving your art away. It's how you make a living.
I have been painting for about 20 years. I started after retiring from my very successful graphic design firm
here in NYC. So when I started it was going to be sort of a retirement pastime. However after a few years I started selling,
ran a few ads in American Art Review and got some very wealthy collectors plus a gallery in Easthampton…it felt good selling.
At this point, hover with over 800 sales in the past 20 years I felt it was a time in life to give back. I know this sounds corny, but when you reach my age and have achieved success you will understand it's not all about sales. The only event I am in yearly takes 50% from a live auction and 30% from a silent auction…not a bad deal and I have gained many, many collectors from friends of the people that bought my art. One lady even made a "Lee Haber" brunch at her home. I donate my work of my own free will to charities that I truly believe in without their requesting me to. My galleries know this and are fine with it as they understand my position in life and the charities are nowhere near their locations. It feels good to give.
Lee Haber