Friday 21 August 2015

The Artist's Donation Conundrum

Time Out
photo collage C. Ascher

            Well. I have been invited yet again to donate one of my artworks for a fundraising event. I’m always told it’s a great honour I am being given, the opportunity to have my name beside tens of others’ associated with a good cause. I am reminded of said good cause, the implication being that I am to gain as I support, if only the satisfaction of knowing I’m not a self-interested, greedy person. However, I’m told the real pay-off is that I get to attend the event itself as a guest of honour, which lets me expand my network of contacts while also helping to promote and sell the art.
            I have donated to such events for well over thirty years. There have been exhibitions, auctions, special recognition gifts, and numerous other ways that I’ve supported good causes, from breast cancer research to under-funded, not-for-profit art centres. It did warm my heart to know that I could put my own interests aside to rise to the call. There is, after all, more and more desperate need for already heavily taxed individuals to help fund social programs and services once understood to be the governments’ responsibility in my country (don’t get me started!).
            Did I benefit by association? Satisfaction aside, not one whit. Few who bid on or buy the art at such events seem to be aware that there could be further contact with the artists. And many seem to believe that it is somehow unreasonable or distasteful for artists to expect to gain by their own work.
            Often, I didn’t even benefit from a tax receipt for my donation, a tax receipt for the sale price, not for the actual value of the work donated. See, while artists are again and again asked to donate, unless they are famous their work has no value until someone actually pays for it, at auction often way below the fair market value of the work, or in another kind of fundraiser only the percentage the artist gets after any commission or donation is deducted. That’s if the charity or organization has official status as a not-for-profit AND the right to issue tax receipts.
           Over the years, any pride or satisfaction I felt as a donor was undrmined by a nagging feeling that I was being used.  People usually go to auctions to underbid for works on which they’d have to pay commissions if they went to a gallery or for which they’d bargain if they dealt with the artist directly. They feel great about it because, while the artist loses the work and gets it undervalued, the buyer is still supporting a ‘good cause’. Many feel this is just because after all, artists donated work which they love doing, should be grateful to be encouraged to do it and happy for the opportunity to act in a highly moral way.
           For years, I still felt good about participating despite any doubts. True, my work didn’t always sell, but I was there: I leant my name to the event, I helped advertise, I sent out invitations, I was present to interact with guests, I encouraged any sales at any price, But.
           There’s an added twist this year to one of these fundraisers, an exhibition and sale. In previous years, I was automatically invited to the event for which I donated my work. This was usually a grand reception presented with much hoopla and attended by big crowds of artists and ticket-buying public. Buyers of works were often family, friends, students or collectors of the artists themselves. It was an ok event: where artists got 30% of the sold work.
           This year, however, to get a ticket for the grand opening of the event, we the donating artists have to either buy it for $40 like anyone else or waive our commissions if our work sells, no matter what the value or price. It’s not clear whether tax receipts for any amount will be issued. The idea is that we get to donate our work and help pay for the opening reception, wine, hors-d’oeuvres and all (even if these are also donated).
          To many, that offer may seem reasonable. Artists are given the canvases on which to create by a local sponsor so is it really all their donation? The event is after all for the venue’s or cause’s benefit, the organizers want a crowd of paying customers who’ll buy art, not a bunch of artists milling about drinking wine, eating hors d’oeuvres and hoping for attention. If I don’t want to be at the opening, well, they might not sell my work. No one will be out.
          To me, that’s not only unfair, it’s disrespectful.
          Do I or don’t I donate anyway? It’s a fundraiser for an art centre, a place that supports the visual arts. It has always been my policy to support such places in any way I can.
          Hmmm. No. I’m thinking it’s time I let others who might not feel insulted participate. As a practicing, professional artist, I am statistically among the lowest earning, least supported individuals in this society, no matter how much education and training I have, no matter how much work I do, and no matter how much I donate. I happen to be one who has many, many ways to contribute to my society in general and to the arts and artists in particular. Constantly being asked to donate my artwork should not be one of them.
          So, what are my thoughts when artists ask me in my teacher or curator role  if they should donate work? These:
-                 Don’t be tempted by possibilities
-                 Make sure the venue, event or cause is one you believe in and can honestly support.
-                 Expect to be present and visible, don’t abandon your claim to your work.
-                 Remember that exposure, contacts, recognition, established sales prices, fair commissions, and       tax receipts are reasonable things to expect.
-                 Most importantly, evaluate just how much respect you and your work will be accorded.
          You are NOT being indulged, favoured or privileged. YOU are doing the good deed.

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