Marketing Mondays: The Endless Requests To Donate Your Art

no . . nein . . NYET. . nay . . NON . . unh-unh . . sorry . . no way. . AIN'T GONNA HAPPEN

I love this video of the novelist Harlan Ellison on You Tube talking with some vehemence--well, ranting (and good for him)--about why he doesn't let his writing be used for free. Change writers to visual artists and you know how I feel about donating to art auctions.
I posted an item on the subject, No, I will Not Donate to Your Auction, on Tuesday, September 11, 2007. I've decided to repost it here with a new postscript:

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.

In most postcard shows, 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 (or the option of receiving it).
. 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.
. . . . . . . . . .
Update: November 2009
Some of the postcard shows have changed their rules to identify the artist with a wall label. While the mystery is removed, the excitement remains because there's a huge surge early on as collectors look to acquire work from their favorite artists. It's fun! And for artists, next to trading, it's a great way to build a nice personal collection for not a whole lot of money.
Wish You Were Here 8 at A.I.R. Gallery in June and July this year. Always a great show, it has updated its prodecure by making artist's names visible
Below: Debra Ramsay, top, and Elisa D'Arrigo--with identifying wall labels

No good deed goes unpunished: Several months ago, against my personal no-art-donations stance, I donated two paintings to Montserrat College of Art. I didn't hear anything after the auction, so I assumed the paintings had sold. When I emailed the event director two months later to get the names of the collectors --information that should have been sent to me without asking--I got this reply: "You should have been notified (quite some time ago) and I apologize if you weren't. The paintings did not sell."
Yes, I should have been notified. To add insult to injury, the custom boxes in which they were delivered, and which were obviously meant for safekeeping (i.e. This is a custom-made box plastered on the front) had been thrown out! Although the paintings were bubble wrapped and in good condition, I wasted time on pickup--I had to retrieve them myself-- follow-up, and box construction.
So . . . Additional Suggestions to the Institutions Who Want My Work and Yours
. No excuses. If you ask for work and it does not sell, return it immediately. If an artist has to call looking for her work, you have not done your job.
. Working with volunteers? Lay out some working parameters so that they don't throw out packing materials meant to be saved. Or worse, the art itself.
. Understand that when art is lost or damaged, or when the artist or artist's work is not treated with respect, that artist is not likely to donate again to your institution--or any other.

Over to You
Does anyone have horror stories or cautionary tales about donating to auctions? Has inclusion in an auction ever led to additional sales or attention beyond the auction? If you've had a wonderful experience, please share the details. Have you donated to, or purchased from any of the Postcard shows? In other words, fill us in.
Note: This will be the last Marketing Mondays post of the year. I'm making room for the Miami posts, Fair and Fair Alike, which will begin shortly and run through most of the rest of the month.. Marketing Mondays will resume in January.


Catherine Carter said...

I once participated in a well-known semi-annual Boston-area art auction to benefit a very worthy cause. Like you, Joanne, I inquired about the sale of my painting and was given the run-around for months, then vaguely told that it had sold to "a couple in the South End." I should have pursued the matter but I was young and naive, and also intimidated because it is such a prominent organization. I would certainly never work with them again.

On a more positive note, I have participated in the annual winter-holiday-themed small-works show, "icons + altars," at the New Art Center in Newton for a number of years. They put on a wonderful-looking display in their attractive exhibition space, their portion of the sales benefits their art programs, and they give 50% of the $250 sale price to the artist. It won't pay the mortgage, but you can treat yourself and a friend to a nice Christmas dinner, knowing you've helped a decent local non-profit organization.

I will miss Marketing Mondays, but look forward to your fair coverage!

Deb Lacativa said...

A few years back, when I was still feeling my way to understanding fiber art, I donated a piece to be auctioned at a benefit for hurricane relief (Katrina?)- I was gratified to hear that it was one of the few pieces that actually generated a short bidding war. Someone benefited I suppose.

Lately I have been particularly irked by requests for donations from several "invited members only" and "$100 dollar members only" online fiber organizations. Some gall.

60 years of Making Art said...

I agree with you Joanne. Years ago, I donated a painting for a "good case". I never heard back from them, but a couple of years later, I saw my painting, minus the frame, in a Good Will store, priced at $2. Then the sales person said, "Isn't that a lovely painting? Would you like to buy it?", I answered in the negative and have not donated anything since.
Ezshwan Winding

Donna Dodson said...

I have donated artwork to several auctions- some were ok where I got 50% and the contact information of the collectors- the other one(s) were horrible, where I didnt get a single bid. I've watched some very savvy artists work the system to their advantage by arranging with a collector who wants a piece to buy it at the auction- at least then it's sold at a fair price to someone who wants it-nothing worse than sitting in the audience and no one bids or it sells for less than its value. I've also seen smart art organizations who solicited donations from restaurants, shops, spas, etc... to donate goods and services to the auction to raise money for artists from the community and that makes sense to me. Art is one of the hardest things in the world to put a price tag on and it makes no sense at all why organizers of art auctions think that is the best commodity to sell publicly.

Larry said...

I bought two excellent pieces of postcard art @$75 each from last year's Postcards from the Edge at Metro Pictures. (Don't know if I should name the artists here.) Naturally not all the work was of equal interest to me, but there was plenty of good stuff. Lines are long, so get there early.

Joanne Mattera said...

So glad you went, Larry.
Postcards from the Edge is one of the good ones. It' a win/win/win situation. Artists feel good about donating without feeling ripped off; collectors get a good deal; and the money goes to a good cause.

andrea said...

Well said. Of the donations I have made in the past (it rarely happens any more for the reasons you mentioned!) the best was when I donated a painting to a struggling independent playhouse. There was a ton of exposure for me and they gave me a 25% cut. Another win-win-win.

Miranda said...

I absolutely agree that we need to learn how to say no. This is another example of how undervalued art is. Especially starting out, it's easy to feel like you shouldn't turn anything down. Having said that, I also feel like as people it's our responsibility ot give when we can. Personally, I can't give money, but I can give art. Perhaps a compromise would be to pick a single charity event a year to participate in just to give back?

The win-win events are a great solution too! A couple of years ago I took part in Timeraiser, an fundraising event where the coordinators purchase art from artists at retail value. Then they auction it off for volunteer hours. That's win-win-win!

I've never heard of Postcards from the Edge, I`ll have to check that out!

Marjorie Glick said...

I too think that nothing good has ever come from donating my work to auctions. I agree- when the work is sold at a "bargain" price, it is insulting. The last auction I donated work to, my work was sold for 1/10 of its selling price(didn't even cover the cost of the framing) even though I set a minimum bid. I also have donated to auctions and not received a thank you note. When the same people asked me to donate again, I told them I would not donate again because they didn't say Thank-you. I've been told that now they send out Thankyou

Stephanie Clayton said...

When I ran the art department at our island's international private school, I was expected to donate my art to their annual Gala Auction.

After the first time, in which I did not request proceeds from the sale, I decided this was a bad way to continue, so the Development Director and I agreed on a fixed payment. This worked for a few years; in the meantime, I'd left the position to work as full-time artist, while still donating art to the cause.

This year the request came with strings attached. Apparently the Director had an epiphany, realizing it was unfair to the school to continue paying me a minimum, citing that a "donation is a donation"; I took that to mean that I had no right to ask for anything. It was quite insulting. I won't donate to their cause again.

I replied that although it was an honor to be asked again, I had to decline, with reasons: unfavorable tax laws for donations, and time and cost of materials that go into the work, which make it financially disadvantageous to donate without some compensation for sales.

So now I have a letter for responding to donation requests- very professional, polite, informative and to the point. In a nutshell- I may donate to your cause, as long as I receive a small compensation.

That said, I now occasionally donate work for the local animal shelter's auctions- not to the wealthy school. And still, I have to track down someone to get the collector's name. Oh, and no thank you letter (the school at least did that much). But the animal shelter is a cause I strongly believe in, so I can deal with the negatives.

I don't believe my career has benefited from such donations. Not one collector from these auctions has ever commissioned me or bought outside these events.

Anonymous said...

Agreed! I have donated to no less than 10 auctions this year. Everything has sold, but of course not at gallery prices. Some of the institutions have given me a percentage back, and others (Postcards from the Edge, Visual Aids, etc.) operate on a shoestring and with a fixed sale price and I will always donate, no matter what.
In the end, I probably made $600 from auctions this year. But this is from $4,000 worth of work. It's not a good way to sell work and probably not so good for the career either.

diana green said...

This is not endemic of the art world alone. Any donation to a nonprofit elicits pleas for more donations. Understandable from a business standpoint, I suppose, but quite vexing to be on the other end of it.
Despite that, I encourage my students to enter open shows, to get their work out there and overcome the fear of exhibition and potential rejection.
Also, so glad to see you quoting the excellent Ellison documentary DREAMS WITH SHARP TEETH. It's important for every creative individual to see this work, as Ellison is one of a very small handful of such individuals who has never compromised on anything he believed in.
He also does not suffer fools gladly, so I am both proud and relieved to have met him twice and come away unscathed. We had a wonderful, but brief, talk last time about the difference between telling a story and telling it well.

Liza Myers said...

Very interesting blog. I remember when a friend was fundraising for a statewide arts project (the VAC VT Palette project) He first asked companies to donate a full week of their time, 18 hour days, with no compensation. When they, of course, said NO, he replied: "That's what artists do. You can just write a check."Which the companies usually did.

Joanne Mattera said...

Liza says: " . . . donate a full week of their time, 18 hour days, with no compensation. " Excellent approach!

The idea of donating money is a good one for artists, too. We can deduct the full amount.

Julie Caves said...

I just wanted to say that I hadn’t thought of it that way before but what Donna Dodson said is true: “Art is one of the hardest things in the world to put a price tag on and it makes no sense at all why organizers of art auctions think that is the best commodity to sell publicly.”

Ladislav Hanka said...

In SW Michigan the precedent was set by the Blue Lake music camp near Muskegon which holds a large art auction every year and returns 50% to the artist. They receive the best works we have, honor our minimum bids, advertise well and attract a clientelle expecting to support the camp and art rather than appealing to those expecting a bargain. Artwork there typically sells for well over normal retail prices.
I have been holding out for those conditions ever since and trying to educate those who will listen. It is hard to convince most auction organizers that the buyer is not a donor, but somebody being subsidized by the artist. It is however also hard to argue with success. Other art auctions around here do far worse and are disliked by the artists who mostly donate older work with cheap frames that has not been selling rather than suffer excessive loss and cheapening of their product. The Blue Lake Camp set a high bar and demonstrated that it is a far more effective way to run an art auction.
Ladislav Hanka, Kalamazoo MI

Ladaislav Hanka

Anonymous said...

This is one of the most pretentious, conceited stances I've ever heard.

Yeah, art is a frequently sought donation and given away at low prices during fund raisers. You know what else is? EVERYTHING. That's how charities make money.

A lot of people don't like to donate. If that's you, great, don't donate. Charities will seek out other people willing to give what they have.

Artists may be one of the most self important group of people I've ever encountered. "What I do is so much more important than everyone else! How dare struggling non profits ask ME for MY help! Don't they know that I have chosen to struggle and therefore can't help those who haven't chosen this path? Nevermind the hundreds of other professionals that give away their expensive services for free... mine deserves special consideration."

I'm not saying all artists are like this, but as a MAJOR appreciator and supporter of local artists, I have to say this kind of crap just reinforces the negative image a lot of people have of artists.

Joanne Mattera said...


You may be, as you say, "a MAJOR appreciator and supporter of local artists," but do you work for free?

The average artist earns something like $20,000 a year, which has to go for living AND studio expenses. And if any tiny little bit is left over, for taxes.

Here's pretentious: Asking the same artists, over and over, to donate work for charity.

Kathy said...

This is a great post, but I have taken it one step further. Instead of asking the charity to give me 50 percent of the selling price, I give them the option of buying it for 50 percent of my retail then allowing them to sell it for "whatever they want". This still makes them work for it. It has definitely stopped the requests except for the serious art advocate charities.

Anonymous said...

I have donated only once. It was to a local project space that I went to a lot with friends. We typically drink beer there for free and used this place to meet up with each other over the years. I owed them a little. I spent a few hours on a smaller version of a piece knowing it was a visually pleasing piece. They did a nice thing where a lottery was drawn up. The 200 pieces were designated a number and each buyer (paying $200) walked away with a piece of art. I was pleased to hear the 2 'collectors' walking by say kind words. They could not have known I was the artist. Long story short: all went smoothly. I didn't make it a practice after that. I resist the urge to do it again because it does suggest the work can be had for very little. The materials cost me about $40. I spent an entire day on this piece. I suggest sending money to your favorite charity and feel good about it.

Anonymous said...

I don't normally donate work, but this year I did donate to the Rochester Art Center "You Asked For It" 6"x6" show. Every piece is the same size and buyers don't know who did the piece until they buy. Kids can contribute, artists, famous people. Every piece was a flat rate of $20 to go to the RAC. What I really liked about this event is how much communication and documentation the organization did. They cataloged and posted images of every single one of the over 3,000 images they received. They put little red dots on the website so you knew if your piece sold. When an organization clearly appreciates the artist's efforts and take the time to show off the artists, it makes it worthwhile. It was all in the spirit of fun, not the heavy bullsh*t an artist hears about how worthy the charity is and why you should donate work. I am against donations of more significant work because it trains people to expect to pay pennies on the dollar for art.

phillippa lack said...

I hesitated to tell my story, but here it is. I was asked by a museum to show at their holiday show. I sent a package of scarves, carefully wrapped in tissue. Imagine my horror when I got a box back (not my original box) in LATE JANUARY with a trash bag containing my scarves, just thrown on, knot tied on the bag. they wanted a donation, too, and kept sending me notices to show. In the end I emailed and said that my work had been sent back to me in poor condition, and please could they take me off their list. What were they thinking?