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Omphaloskepsis Blog

The broader economic implications of donating your art

Mar 5, 2014

Collectors, artists, and arts organizations are crippling the very institution they seek to encourage.

I’ve lived in Seattle for five years now. Seattle has a thriving and dynamic arts community. It’s been incredibly rewarding to live and work here as a member of this community.

One thing about this city, perhaps not particular to Seattle, is the spirit of community service that runs throughout it. Everyone seems to have a cause they support - you support theirs & they support yours. You go to benefit lunches, breakfasts, dinners and auctions auctions auctions galore! Last year or so we have made donations of all sorts to CareGifted, Copper Canyon Press, Artist Trust, Legal Voice, Green Schools, Evergreen School, The Bertschi School, Water 1st International, Cure the Kids, Art with heart, The UG Mission, Goodwill, Cascadia Wildlife, Children and Youth for Justice, Childhaven, Pratt, Allied Arts Foundation, the Food Bank, CoCA, S.L.E. Lupus Foundation, National MS Walk, SAM, SAL and others, plus a variety of private donations.


Arts organizations hold artist centric auctions. Orgnaizations such as Artist Trust, Pratt, Gage, Western Art Association, Kirkland Arts Center, North Seattle Arts organizations, Alki Art Fair, Soil, Poncho and many more. These wonderful organizations are doing good work and support artists through grant programs, resources, educational opportunities and jobs.

However, these art organizations are also undermining the very community they seek to support, and artists are complicit. Yes, that’s what I said. I know it’s inflammatory. I don’t mean to hurt feelings or make people wrong when all they’re trying to do is good. But try to see the broader economic implications.

As an artist, I make art. I exhibit art. I pay for my studio, transportation, storage, parking, insurance, internet access, electrical, supplies, application fees, promotion, parking, continuing education, business licenses, taxes and my own (currently non-existent) salary. Art is my passion, and it’s my vocation-my full-time+ job.

I’ve posted about this before, writing about the tax implications (the artist can deduct only the material costs, pennies) and how it doesn’t make sense, however, it more insidious than that.


Senatory Leahy introduces bill to change tax law for artists in mid-April 2015. Read about it here and then take action

What I observe happening in this community is overt support for the arts and a covert undermining of the same artists the community seeks to help.

Here’s how it works. Seattle has an abundance of consumers, but few real collectors. What does that mean? Many people look at art, experience art, enjoy art here in Western Washington. They visit galleries and museums and studios. They attend performances and readings. But the collectors understand they can acquire a delightful work of art from an emerging or mid-career artist at one of the many many auctions held in support of artists in this part of the world. These hearty collectors obtain this work on average at 40% of retail value. The fallout of the practice of artists donating their work to arts organizations is drastic.

  • The inherent value of an artists work goes down - when it sells for 40% of the retail value it’s only worth 40% of the retail value.
  • This means that every artist’s collector has just lost value on the work they previously purchased as well.
  • In addition, what happens is that collectors stop buying directly from artists. Why should they buy from the artist when they can get the work at bargain basement prices from the art auction? Who doesn't like the hook of a great deal?
  • Conducting business through these art auctions helps generate a specific art buying audience that buys less (or no art) outside that system. Why would you pay full-price when you can get it for a 60% discount? A portion of the art collecting audience just waits for the close out sale.
  • Meanwhile the money that’s raised through these auctions can go to grants that often support established, income-earning artists. So one artist donates to benefit another, but in the process, hurts their own long-term bottom line.
  • Finally, the galleries sell less, because, if the collector isn’t buying from the artist, they’re not buying from the gallery either. Three well-respected Seattle galleries are in the process of shuttering their businesses this year, Francine Sedars, Grover/Thurston and Featherston.

I understand there is some potential but passive value in meeting with collectors at these venues, but very few artists are good at schmoozing their way into a sale.

The argument that these auctions provide exposure is false. This is simply more of the mindset of “don’t pay the artists.” These organizations are not honoring the artists being auctioned when the financial stakes are so high. It’s not an honor to be poor. Anecdotal evidence reveals that artists do not get repeat business from these giveaways.

Getting someone in the door is the fist step to converting them to a repeat customer. Art as a product does not match up with the product model, as it does in the service industry. The problem with arts is that the promotional value is not really there for the artist simply because having one work by an artist does not really mean that a collector will be converted into a repeat collector.

The result of these events is a financially crippled arts community. When I see the artwork purchased at 40% of value to the long term detriment of all artists while a dessert gets bid up to $4,500, I think there’s something terribly wrong.

This is what Slavoj Žižek calls objective violence, when good intentions inadvertantly harm the intended recipient(s). Objective violence is "invisible systemic. It goes on but we don't even notice it as violence [...] our next ethical step is to be responsible even for this objective violence...get the entire picture."

The current paradigm is not working. It’s time for a new paradigm.

Artists, please stop giving your work away. In the long run you hurt yourself and your whole community. And arts organizations, lets rethink the current paradigm.

Instead of cannibalizing your livelihood at these artist centric auctions, change what you offer. Instead of letting these organizations sell your artwork donations you could:

  • offer a loan of the work,
  • offer a class,
  • a museum tour
  • a studio visit
  • a dinner with a couple artist in a private gallery showing
  • offer up a visit to your private collection
  • allow a patron to leaf through your flat files or look through your sketchbooks.
  • if the sponsoring organization will reimburse your expenses, at the most, offer a printed edition of your work, something that more closely aligns with the value of the actual work and what people are paying for it.

Patrons: if you want to participate in a rich arts cultural life in Seattle, support the artists.

If you want to do something good and right and honorable, support the artist, Buy art work from the artist or gallery. And if you don’t want to acquire artwork and you still want to support the artists, then donate directly to the artist, who can always use funds for studio space, supplies, and expenses. I would be happy to have your money and you can DONATE directly to me or by way of a tax-deductible contribution through my fiscal sponsor, Allied Arts Foundation. Simply specify my name on the pay site.

I would be delighted to hear your comments, preferably directly on my website. There is a small benefit to me when you post here.



Category: Donations
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