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Art & Culture
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|Published in the Columbia Daily Tribune 6 November 2005|
AuctionsEight years ago, I wrote an op-ed for the Tribune about artists being asked to donate to charity auctions. You can find the original piece here.
This has again become an issue for concern, and so I am drawing on that earlier piece for this column.
Several times in the last few months I've been approached by people wanting help in finding artwork for their charity auctions. Artists are, in my experience, caring and generous to a fault. In this case, that fault comes in their willingness to donate their work to auctions.
No, I'm not against charity auctions. I'm against seeing artists used. And as too many benefit auctions are conducted here in Columbia, the artists are indeed being used. This hurts the artists, and will result in fewer artists being willing to donate their work.
Why? When a benefit auction is held, the sponsoring group contacts local artists to donate a piece of artwork for the auction, then invites its members and guests to attend the auction. The artwork is sold to the highest bidder, and money is raised for the specified worthy cause. Everyone has a good time, those who buy the artwork get a nice piece for their collection and will probably write off most of the cost of the item as a charitable donation, the artist gets recognition and can write off the value of the donated work as a charitable donation, and everyone benefits. Right?
Wrong. While the buyer of a piece of artwork might get away with deducting the cost as a charitable donation, the artist can only deduct the actual cost of the materials. The value of the artwork, as artwork, does not count. All the time spent in the work of making that piece does not count. All the time spent learning the artistic techniques used does not count. Only the cost of the canvas and paint, the clay or bronze used can be deducted. In most instances, the artist would be better off to simply write a check to the sponsoring agency, rather than donate artwork.
Well, what about the exposure that the artist receives as a benefit? That's of value, isn't it?
Only if the auction is held in such a fashion as to promote the artists. Unfortunately, too often information about each of the pieces donated is very limited, and in the rush to move through a number of pieces at the auction, the value of the piece and the background of the artist is lost. I've seen it happen countless times.
Also, with a large number of items being auctioned off in a short period of time to a limited audience, too often many of the pieces sell for well under their market value. This has a tendency to depress the ability of the artist to earn a living, since the abundance of "bargains" available at frequent auctions mean that buyers have no incentive to purchase the artwork at its usual market price.
There are ways that benefit auctions can be conducted so as to eliminate all or most of these problems, ways that are frequently used in other cities around the country, to the mutual satisfaction of the artists and the sponsoring group.
Here are some suggestions:
* Have information about each piece included in the auction, along with the background of the artist, available in a program or catalog that the attendees receive. This way those attending the auction will know more about the pieces offered.
* Set minimum bids. This can be done by the artist, perhaps in negotiation with the sponsoring agency. Certainly, if an artist sets unrealistic minimum bids, the sponsoring agency can refuse to include the work. This would help to keep the work priced in line with its fair market value.
* Provide the artist with part of the proceeds of any sale. That way, the artist is compensated at least in part for their work and will be more likely to donate. This is typically 30 - 40 percent of the auction price.
* Invite the artists to attend the auction as guests of the sponsoring group. They will be able to discuss the work, answer questions, tell people where their work is available for purchase. And they might very well bid on other artwork.
all work © James T. Downey, 1993-present
photos © Martha K. John, 1994-present
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