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Donating Art: Art donations and charity auctions

by Brian Sherwin on 5/26/2013 5:24:33 PM

This article is by Brian Sherwin, regular contributing writer for FineArtViews. Brian Sherwin is an art critic, blogger, curator, artist and writer based near Chicago, Illinois. He has been published in Hi Fructose Magazine, Illinois Times, and other publications, and linked to by publications such as The Huffington Post, The Boston Globe, Juxtapoz Magazine, Deutsche Bank ArtMag, ARTLURKER, Myartspace, Blabbermouth, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Conservative Punk, Modern Art Obsession, Citizen LA, Shark Forum, Two Coats of Paint, Vandalog, COMPANY, artnet, WorldNetDaily (WND) and Art Fag City. Sherwin graduated from Illinois College (Jacksonville, Illinois) in 2003 -- he studied art and psychology extensively. If you want your blog posts listed in the FineArtViews newsletter with the possibility of being republished to our 23,000+ subscribers, consider blogging with FASO Artist Websites.  Disclaimer: This author's views are entirely his/her own and may not reflect the views of BoldBrush, Inc.. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.

It is not uncommon for organizations (specifically arts organizations) to hold fundraising auctions in order to secure extra funding. I applaud those efforts. However, these auctions often involve donated artwork – the result of a 'flood' of donation requests sent to various artists. There is only one problem with this process – several problems, actually. I will explore some of the typical problems below.


I ask that you, dear reader, place emotive reasons for donating aside long enough to explore these problems:


1.) Charity / fundraising auctions rarely, if ever, acknowledge donating artist directly. I base my opinion on hundreds of conversations I've had with artists over the years. Don't expect a press acknowledgement unless you push for it. In fact, don't expect to be mentioned anywhere by the organizer (aside from the when the work is offered) unless you really, really, really push for it.


2.) In most cases the organization never showed interest in the artists before. In fact, the donation request is often the first point of contact between the organization and the artist. That said, the same organization may hold exhibits of art throughout the year – yet the organization only approaches YOU when artwork donations are needed... why? The answer is simple. The organization wanted free art... and a good cause is clearly a good way to fill that need – all while ignoring the core of YOUR needs.


3.) The organization may be well funded for the most part. In some cases the organization may be in the position to purchase artwork directly from the artist for the auction – and start the bidding above that mark. In fact, the purchase would likely be tax deductible... it would be consider an expense for the organization. Point-blank, many of these organizations could likely buy the artwork outright with little to no loss after everything is said and done. Most organizations won't do that though... they know they can obtain artwork from various artists for free.


4.) Sometimes the bidder has no intention of actually keeping the artwork that he or she has won. He or she just wanted to take part in the auction – and be the top bidder in order to help raise funding, social standing, whatever. Unfortunately, organizations rarely have options for where the artwork will end up if in fact the bidder is not truly interested in the piece. Thus, the artwork may end up gathering dust in storage OR donated to a non-profit thrift store where it will likely be undervalued or damaged (Trust me on this... I thrift shop regularly – and have been told a story or three).


5.) Artists -- at least in the United States -- can't deduct the fair market value of their artwork when donating artwork to a charity auction. However, artists CAN deduct the expense of creating the piece – material costs, framing costs, and so on. Unfortunately, many organizations forget to mention these facts to donating artists OR provide misinformation that may land the artist in 'hot water' with the IRS. Again, I base my opinion on what hundreds of artists have told me over the years.


6.) Art collectors have a financial incentive for donating artwork. They can -- and DO -- take advantage of tax deductions that are simply not available to the creators of the artwork. In fact, many art collectors donate simply to take advantage of the tax break... organizations know AND accept this. Oddly enough, artists are often described as being 'parasitic' or 'opportunists' if they stress the desire for having the same tax incentive that art collectors enjoy when donating artwork. I, for one, think that artists deserve that incentive.


With the emotion-driven reasons for donating aside... what do YOU think? Should artists expect more from organizations when donating artwork? Should organizations do more to support the artists they approach? Again, I want YOU to explore these issues with emotion cast aside. I'm not looking for 'you should only donate if you believe in the cause' type of answers – because that is a given. Art collectors, for example, donate to causes they believe in... AND benefit from tax incentives -- shouldn't artists demand the same? Food for thought.


In closing, it goes without saying that an artist will only donate to a cause that he or she believes in, right? That does not mean the artist should allow himself or herself to be treated poorly by the charity / fundraising organizers. After all, these same organizations tend to bend over backwards in order to promote corporate or celebrity sponsors... so why not expect them to bend a little for artists who contribute toward the cause with their donated artwork? Share your experience and view on this issue. Discuss.


Take care, Stay true,


Brian Sherwin

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Related Posts:

Remember to Respect your Audience

How to Give Without Being Taken Part 2

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An "Artful" Way to Cut Your Tax Bill

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Topics: advice for artists | art and society | art appreciation | art collectors | art law | Brian Sherwin | FineArtViews | Think Tank 

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Jean Roberts
Thank you for this one.

I am participating in a small local show that is a charity event. We as participants are expected to donate 5 percent of our proceeds to said charity. There is no cost to participate. I had considered donating a piece to the auction, now I will do my best to sell what I bring and make as many connections as I can.


Donna M Gordon
Like most professional artists, I get asked to donate my sculpture all the time. My solution is to tell them to set a minimum dollar amount, which is what they will pay me. Anything over that they can keep. Sometimes they take me up on it, sometimes not. And if they do, worst case I pick up my art at the end of the event.

Jean Roberts
Great tip Donna! thanks! :-)

Kathy O'Leary
This is a good topic for artists to discuss. It has never seemed very fair for charitable organizations to request that those with such comparatively small incomes donate the results of their hard work to raise funds from. Therefore, several years ago I set a rule for myself. I only donate a painting when the organization is one I support, and two, is willing to share the take from the auction/sale. Usually it is 50 percent split, Just as it is with my galleries. Other than this arrangement, I decline. With no feelings of guilt. And I find that many organizations will do this. It just requires some organization, for paying the artist, etc. on their end.

Brian Sherwin
Jean -- It is great that they allow you to keep a percentage. I see nothing wrong with that. In fact, my guess is that more artists would be willing to help a cause with art if a policy like that is implemented.

Donna -- Negotiating terms can be a good route to take. Some events / organizations refuse to negotiate though. I think the key point here is that these groups need to realize that artists have to make a living as well. The situation would be different if artists were able to deduct fair market value... but they can't.

Kathy -- We also need to remember that charitable organizations tend to pay their workers (at least those higher up the chain). In some cases you have people in key positions earning $75,000 a year. If they can do that... they should be able to throw artists a few bones. :)

Brian Sherwin
Donna, Kathy -- You both mentioned negotiating terms with charity organizers. A few questions: Would you say that those organizers made exceptions in your case? Should artists ask for specific terms even if the policy clearly dictates a standard?

mona ruby
i am working with a non profit organization,our aim is to provide a better life,education to needy people. charity donations

mona ruby
am working with a non profit organization,our aim is to provide a better life,education to needy people. charity donations

Brian Sherwin
Mona -- Did you read the article? Would you like to address some of the issues I've raised? Do you agree -- considering the disadvantages artist face compared to other forms of donations -- that charity organizers should do all they can to promote donating artists? Shouldn't it be a bit more than a 'thank you for the art, bye!' scenario?

janessica n
Thank you! This is very interesting and useful information.

Katarzyna Lappin
Great article. I do believe that the value of art starts with the artist respecting his/her artwork. More artists would vigorously and unconditionally give their work for free for so called "exposure" more bitter experience will follow.

I would be happier to see more awareness among those who request art donations that artists spend time, energy and a lot of money to do what they do.

Very often (I witnessed such an arrogant attitude) there is this idea that artist would be thrilled to give for free, that the payment is the fact that somebody would like it or use it. (urgh!)

I am not against the donations. I myself donated three artworks in the last two years and just recently I was asked for a piece of work for a prestigious fundraising event, which I accepted. In all these cases something good happened for me in return. It brought results of faithful support of people in the local community. In the consequence I sold some paintings later.

I am for donations if everybody wins. If the artist provides an artwork for a fundraiser, and then is sold for good cause, then in my opinion artist is the one who should gain the appreciation not less than the buyer or the organization in charge.

This is always a matter of negotiations. In many cases the organizations who ask for donations can afford meeting some conditions and requirements from artists (great tips in people's comments on this article, thanks) but if the artist does not firmly stand for his interest, no one else will.

OK, so I'm very interested in commissioning art for a charity auction, but I'm very interested in marketing it to the extent that it would bring in a fair sum for the artists. What percentage of the profit going to the charity would be fair enough to persuade an artist to participate? I really want to do this right, so that the charity and the artists benefit, make money, and generate publicity. I am willing to hear that this may be an unrealistic fantasy, but I'm optimistic about the concept if I can make it work

Thank you for this information!

janessica n
Thank you! This is very interesting and useful information.

Chris Meyer
I have read in some places (such as that if the donated art is auctioned, that the artist can then use the auction price for the artwork rather than the material cost. But I don't know if that's just more heresy - anyone know definitively?

BTW, as mentioned above, for our community art shows we also donate a percent to a chosen local charity (as otherwise we'd be giving a percent to a gallery etc.); that seems to work well all around.

Gail Daley
I agree with you 100 percent, and I would like to add these comments: The phone rings, and some well-meaning fundraiser on the other end wants you to donate a work of art to their charity auction. Usually this goodhearted fundraiser will promise you a tax deduction, great exposure, enhanced publicity, and public exposure if you agree; sadly, most volunteer fundraisers don't know what they are talking about as far as the actual benefits to you as an artist. Should you do it? This really depends on several things; how much do you support the cause itself? Are the benefits going to out-weigh the costs?
Well lets deal with the tax deduction benefit first. It's not great. Generally speaking, you as the artist are allowed to deduct only the cost of creation (materials, etc.) unless you have had an appraisal done by a qualified art expert. This is no problem if you are a big name artist whose art is going to bring in thousands of dollars to the charity because the charity will usually have the art appraised by their expert, which you can then attach to your taxes. However, if you are donating to your child's school, your church, local hospital, etc. chances are the charity is not going to pay for this appraisal because they can't afford it. Sometimes the charity is worthwhile (in fact most of the time), but unless they follow my rules for donation, what they are really doing is training whoever comes to their event to devalue my art and disrespect me as an artist. This may sound really harsh but it has been proven to be true.
The next two items typically promoted by fundraisers are -enhanced publicity and public exposure”¯ which sounds really good, but what exactly are they actually talking about? A line in the auction catalog and announcing your name when they bring up your art? Please. Remember that most of the fundraisers who do telephone contacts are volunteers with no actual experience in the field. In other words they really have no idea what they are talking about. Enhanced publicity should mean your name in the newspaper, on the radio or on the charity's Facebook page with a link to your website. Public exposure should mean that instead of just pointing to your art and asking for bids, the auctioneer talks about you, what awards you've won, how good the art is, etc. to encourage the audience to bid higher. He or she should also mention your web site, and the brochures advertising you as an artist, which should have been available when the bidders were doing the walk-through.
Predictably, at most of these charity events, they practically give away the art because the bidders are not art collectors, they are there to support the charity and are looking for two things””something they can afford to bid on to satisfy their tax deduction and to support the charity. A lot of them might be even comparing your fine art to canvas prints they can get at a department store! Auctioning your art for much less than you normally sell for undermines the art market in general, and makes it seem as if the artist (you!) didn't deserve the real selling price. Another negative side effect is to encourage your regular collectors and potential buyers to wait for events like this to buy your art cheaper than they could if they purchased it directly from you.
The -public exposure”¯ thing is problematical; unless the auctioneer makes a really big deal about your art business and how valuable your work is, everyone present is likely to still think you have a nice hobby. I was once asked by my church to design a poster/logo for a women's retreat. When the event coordinators husband saw it he remarked to her that it looked like a -real”¯ artist had done it. I find that no matter how good the art I donate to their event is, my circle of acquaintances in my church, my children's school and my family almost all still believe that my art is a hobby, so I don't donate unless the charity agrees to the following ground rules:

Ӣ I set a minimum price for original art. If it doesn't sell, I get it back. This is absolutely essential because unless you have an appraisal from a respectable appraiser attached to the art; all that you can take off on your taxes is the cost of material used to create the art.
Ӣ I qualify the event by making sure there will be folks there who can actually afford to purchase the art (this means getting actual names of who will be attending or at least who has been invited), and that the event will be well publicized: this means actual ads on TV, Internet, and Radio, hopefully with a mention of the art you are donating.
Once charities learned I stuck to these rules, I found that the requests dropped off dramatically. This doesn't mean that I am wholly against art donations; I do donate my art to worthwhile charities, but I find that it usually pays better tax deduction-wise to donate a good quality print than the original. If you donate a print, you can deduct the entire printing cost, framing and matting which is a much better deal for tax purposes. To sweeten the pot for prospective buyers, I do always sign prints that I donate, and make sure I tape information about myself, my website and the art to the back of the print.


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