The Donation Dilemma : Artists and Charitable Events

by Laura Durham

Utah may not have art auction houses, but charity auctions are emerging as more and more non-profit organizations use them for fundraising. Ideally, those administering the auctions would ask the wealthy and the collector to donate artwork. Ironically, they more often turn to you, the artist, whose very vocation is repeatedly linked with the words “poor” and “starving.”

Holding auctions is an excellent way for non-profits to raise money and for bidders to acquire art at reasonable prices. But with art auctions occurring so frequently, many artists (and gallery owners) fear collectors will no longer look to local galleries to build their collections. Why would they when they can buy equal quality for less and support their favorite charity at the same time? This mentality has made art auctions, as one artist put it, the “Wal-Marts of the art world,” rolling back prices and subsequently, value. When asked to donate work, many artists are tempted to sacrifice their least favorite pieces, fearing the works they prize most will undersell.

Some people, mostly those asking for donations, argue art auctions provide free exposure and publicity for the artist. Unless it is a cause you truly believe in, this is no reason to donate your work. The term “free exposure” holds as much truth as “free cell phone” or “free CDs.” Future fees under contract cover the cost of that cell phone; just as the piece you donate covers the price for whatever exposure you might receive. The time and materials you put into creating your artwork is money. If you walked away with 100% of the sale from your piece, then the exposure you received was free. They may also say your donation is tax-deductible.

Many auction coordinators do not understand that the artist can only deduct the cost of materials, unlike the collector, who can claim the full market value for their contribution. I’ve heard of artists swapping artwork, donating it to the auction, and then taking a deduction based on the full value of the piece to get around this IRS limitation, but I’m not sure how legal this is so you did not get the idea from me.

The City of Hope

Donating time and work to a worthy non-profit is a benevolent act, and those of you who generously do so, I hold you in high esteem. Charity auctions can be a good thing for the artist, providing the artist and the coordinator are careful in how they carry out the event. The artist, along with a guest, should always be offered complimentary tickets to the fundraiser in order to make the most of the networking and “free exposure” selling point. Make sure the coordinator will allow you to include your bio and contact information in the auction catalog and/or displayed with your art. If a gallery represents you, acknowledge them with your contact information as a courtesy to the gallery and so bidders and browsers know where to find more of your work.

Always ask what kind of audience will attend the fundraiser. If the organization benefits the arts, you are probably in good company. But if the organization is non-arts related, your artwork will most likely be mixed with merchandise that will only attract politicians, health care professionals, or others who did not necessarily come to bid on art. You might want to consider donating to these auctions only if you strongly support the organization’s goals. If the coordinator is unfamiliar with your work, refer them to your website or a gallery that represents you. If your piece is not compatible with the other items up for bid or the bidders themselves, your work may not sell.

The quality of artwork you select to donate is something else to seriously consider. Giving away your best work is a great sacrifice, but your donation should reflect positively on your level of generosity as well as on the quality of work you currently produce. Do not be afraid to ask if you may take a percentage of the winning bid. It is becoming more customary (or it should be) for the organization to offer a percentage to the artist so you have the option to make a full or partial contribution.

Be selective and sparing with charity auctions. They can benefit everyone, but give because you want to give – not because a crafty coordinator disguised it as a smart career move. If it is for a cause you truly believe in, donating your artwork is a great way to give back to your community.

For a complete list of guidelines for donating to charity auctions please visit http://arts.utah.gov/visarts/artauctions.html

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