Who Do Benefit Auctions Really Benefit?

Original artwork by Jason Andrew for Hyperallergic

America has finally woken up to discover that the free life they thought they were living is really governed by a system. A system designed at first glance to be “for the people, by the people.” But in recent years we’ve all realized that this is furthest from the truth. Facets of the system are under scrutiny. So in light of the Occupy Wall Street movement, perhaps it’s time for artists to rewrite the rules of the game.

Not so long ago, William Powhida, that maverick satirist, finished a drawing/board game titled “The Game.” It’s a brilliant satire imitating the race made by most of today’s artists to not only remain relevant, but also make history.

To accompany “The Game,” which was published in the September 2010 edition of The Brooklyn Rail, Powhida wrote:

“The goal of the game is relatively simple, get your work into the Met and make history. You need to follow a path through the art world from an MFA program towards recognition, representation and museum exhibitions while picking up some supporters along the way who will help propel you into history. Like the real art world, whether you’re in or out is largely out of your control.”

Today’s art world talent remains transfixed by the rules of Powhida’s game (“Roll snake eyes and you’re in the Whitney Biennial!”). Having a work enter the collection of a major Manhattan museum is a golden day for any artist, and the relevance of having one’s work white gloved either into a fancy gallery in Chelsea or a museum on the Upper East Side should not be dismissed — but at what cost?

In today’s economy artist are forced to play the game whether they like it or not. The art world is polarized. There are those who are revered and those who pander for respect. Those who play by the rules and those who resist and remain outsiders. Artists have forgotten that they are the ones that control this game. There are many that make the rules, but why do artists follow them? Artists forget that they control the speed with which the art world moves. How long will they continue to fuel this machine?

One annoying aspect of the system that has gotten out of hand is the fundraising model whereby artist are asked to donate their work for auction. It’s a proven fundraising model, but does it take advantage of the artist? Is there a right way to do this?

Artists donating art to support important causes are nothing new. There was a time when Martha Jackson Gallery (open from 1952-1969) hosted an exhibition and sale to support the nonviolent, interracial program of the Congress of Racial Equality in May of 1963. Over 100 American artists participated in the exhibition. James Baldwin and Jackie Robinson were among the tightly assembled benefit committee.

Earlier that same year Jasper Johns and John Cage teamed up to create the Foundation for Contemporary Arts. In this passage from a 1963 edition of the New Yorker Johns explained a little bit about the benefit:

“A group of us began to think about raising some money so that Merce Cunningham could have a New York recital. Merce hasn’t appeared in New York in two or three years. Most dancers in his position hardly ever appear in New York, or they appear one night a year in some obscure hall, because there is simply no provision here for their kind of performance.”

Johns asked more than seventy artists to participate in his exhibition and sale hosted by Alan Stone Gallery. Artists included Mark Rothko and Jack Tworkov as well as Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol among others. James Rosenquist delivered a painting that was still drying, and Willem de Kooning never delivered on his promise to donate. The FCA continues to support its grant programs through the sale of artists’ works and through direct financial contributions.

A more recent example would be when actor, director and philanthropist Ben Stiller joined forces with the gallerist and art dealer David Zwirner to organize Artists for Haiti, a major, high-profile art auction that was held at Christie’s in New York this past September. The auction featured works from “today’s most prominent artists,” and raised $13.7 million.

But these examples differ drastically from the annual artist auctions that have become so repetitive and routine. These benefits are soulless and callous towards artist and are rampant in the art world and beyond.

Artist Austin Thomas, who regularly donates work to support nonprofit causes, notes:

“Artist auctions are problematic for me in two ways. I feel like there is irresponsibility on behalf of the nonprofits by the way that they treat artists. When I’ve dropped off work for a benefit, I’ve been treated badly. If I were a funder dropping off a $600 check you can be sure I would be treated with respect. Artists need to be treated like the important donors that they are. The second thing that is troubling is that artists should be notified about who bought their work. More often than not, there is no follow through. I’m never told who bought my work.”

Thomas recognized the Washington Projects for the Arts in Washington, DC, for the way in which they respect and treat artists that donate to support its mission. “It’s important for artist to feel a part of something. This is very problematic and easily fixed,” she says. And while many non-profits have “artist services” at the center of their mission, they continually mistreat the support group they serve.

Contemporary Bushwick-based painter Brooke Moyse has her own thoughts on donating to such benefits:

“Donating is always kind of complicated. I think it’s good to support the institutions that really need help and contribute to the art community. However, what makes it weird is the fact that benefits are basically a very expensive competition for the artist. Any presumed attention from an artist’s participation is also diminished by the fact that so many people are included in benefit shows, so the shows can end up being a big mix of 100 faceless artists.”

Since when did artists start putting benefit auctions on their CVs?

One such benefit that has gathered real steam the last few years is Nurture Art’s annual benefit. “Nurture Art has been having an annual benefit with donated artworks for sale since 2003,” says Karen Marston, president of the nonprofit’s board. “It typically provides anywhere from 25 to 50% of our operating budget. Without it in the equation we wouldn’t be able to survive. A couple of years ago we began having the benefit exhibition juried by a team of distinguished guest curators. This year we had 599 artists apply with 253 in the exhibition — which made it ambitiously twice the size of last year’s event, and resulted in us raising twice the money!” Marston feels that the benefit is “a celebration of our art community’s accomplishments and an opportunity for our artists.” This year over ninety individuals were listed on the Benefit Committee.

“My biggest problem with benefits is that it perpetuates the idea that artists are paid in ‘exposure’ and ‘opportunity’ for donating work,” William Powhida says. The system has made artists an anxious bunch, desperate for discovery and longing for recognition. There is always the hope that some collector attending the benefit will see the work.

Artist Jen Dalton concurs, “Artists are often willing to give work away in the interest of ‘exposure,’ a word that rings alarm bells with me every time I hear it.”

“It seems like a good way to increase awareness of my work among art world people,” says painter Amy Lincoln.

Marston elaborates on the issue from a nonprofit perspective. “We have had numerous artists make career advancing connections from participating in the benefit, from collectors that continue to follow them and buy their work to dealers that become interested in them,” she says.

Powhida reluctantly agrees, “It’s one of the few times that with a little luck, art enthusiasts can acquire art that normally would be outside their budgets. It’s a collecting opportunity heavily subsidized by generosity.” The generosity of artists.

Musicians are routinely asked to participate in benefits. Eric Lamb, a fluist with the International Contemporary Ensemble had this to say:

“I am happy to donate my time to organizations that I believe in. I play benefits for a lot of reasons. Most often I play because I believe in the cause, and certainly at times I play because it will benefit me professionally. It’s all very contextual.

It could be an opportunity to meet people, a friend-raiser and not a fund-raiser. But as I see it its all how one perceives the invitation. As a musician, when I play a concert in the context of a benefit, people don’t walk away with something in their hand, they are supporting an idea, and or an organization.

I’ve noticed that at the few visual art benefits that I’ve attended, people are more excited about the potential of purchasing art at a low price than really supporting an organization. This I find strange and obviously misguided. Having said that, these events can potentially provide artists with the opportunity to network with donors, collectors and wealthy art lovers in a setting that they otherwise could never afford to attend. I just wish there was a way to remove the flea market, ‘rock bottom prices’ environment. How to make that happen? Who knows? Maybe by allowing people to enter a space of creativity and not materialism? But still, artists have a choice.”

“There are a few reasons why I give work to auctions/benefits,” says multimedia artist Man Bartlett. “Some of these reasons are more altruistic than others. I donated to the Nurture Art benefit because I wanted to support their move to a new location. I am donating to the Flux Factory’s upcoming auction because I like them, and what they’re doing. I also feel indebted to them for not kicking me out when I was quite behind in rent last year.”

Moyse agreed that the reasons are always complex. “It’s all so complicated, because an artist’s level of participation indicates their participation in the art world and the artist’s desire to support it. But it can feel kind of shitty to give work away, especially when you are young and don’t have a lot of good work lying around,” she says.

It is this exact aspect of the artist auction benefit model that robs the artist of dignity. “Raffles start to have a whiff of cattle calls and can be kinda gross and that goes for the entire auction thing, but that’s just me,” says Powhida. “I don’t think they are things that artists should be subjected to with any regularity.”

“I don’t think it’s a clear-cut issue,” says Dalton. “I do have mixed feelings about auctions of emerging artists’ work as fundraisers for venues. I have no problems with established artists donating work, as they have easier access to other venues for exhibition and so are not sacrificing their work simply to show it.” Yet Dalton notes that, “Money is so tight for these underfunded nonprofit gallery spaces that they hardly have a choice but to fund-raise in every possible way. If they can’t sustain themselves, we all lose a crucial non-commercial voice in the cultural dialogue.”

One solution could always be to offer the artists a percentage from the sales. But Powhida thinks it would be “no more than a token gesture … Here’s $17.50 from the raffle ticket we sold!”

I wonder what percentage of benefit attendees truly follow through with post benefit studio visits and acquisitions? “From my experience,” notes one artist who asked to remain anonymous, “the stiff nouveau riche that tend to show up at a benefit, don’t make concerted efforts to stop by the gallery, attend further openings or pursue a studio visit.”

Another anonymous artist was more critical of some benefit goers: “Buying a $250 raffle ticket in my mind doesn’t make you a collector. It makes you a consumer.” I guess some artists are hesitant to use the collector label for those whose collecting activities start and end with a benefit ticket.

With regards to collectors: Where are our cutting-edge collectors today? Gone are the days of a Holly Solomon climbing five flights of stairs to make her own discovery of something great. From some vantage points, today’s collectors are lazy, spoon feed and blind. Do they rely too heavily on the paid advice of some consultant fresh out of Sotheby’s Institute?

With regards to our nonprofits: Isn’t it time that they look more readily out of the box to mold and shape new ways to raise funds? With so many organizations that have ‘artist services’ at the core of their mission you would think that by now it would be possible for artists to actually reap the full tax benefit for donation work or at least the equivalent of the raffle ticket. “This would probably go a long way for making right the ambivalence a lot of us feel about the benefit ‘ask,’” says Powhida.

What ever happened to the Artist-Museum Partnership Act of 2009? The Act, which was intended to make it more cost-effective for artists to donate their work by offering tax deductions, now only allows donating artists to deduct the cost of materials for making the work. The College Arts Associates notes that this “is not a fair incentive to donate and also hurts the missions of public and non-profit institutions nationwide to increase public access to these unique creations.”

So what are the solutions? For starters, artists need to stop complaining that they are being exploited even as they continue to participate in the very system that subjugates them. Artists have forgotten that it is they that have the power. I wonder what would happen if all artist’s suddenly said “no?” The game would have to change. The system would have to reboot.

If artists participate in art benefits, perhaps they should support the organizations that actively lobby for and on behalf of artists.

In the air of re-evaluating these systems that govern them, artists should re-write the rules that manage them and remember that they are the ones with the power.

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