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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Jason Andrew

Jason Andrew is an independent scholar, curator, and producer. Specializing in the field of Postwar American Art, Mr. Andrew is currently the manager and curator of the estate of Abstract Expressionist...

46 replies on “Who Do Benefit Auctions Really Benefit?”

  1. While this article does bring up some important and discussion-worthy issues, its overall tone and approach is unfortunately oversimplified and not fully informed. Yes, it is difficult to be an artist in New York in 2011. Yes, there are problems with the system. Are benefit auctions the root of the problem? Far from it. If artists don’t want to donate they don’t have to, that is always their option. Of course, some charities will run better events and will be more appreciative than others – just like everything in life, there are good apples and bad apples. This article uses benefit auctions (a relatively minor part of “the system”) to complain about collectors, suggesting there are no visionary and adventurous collectors today, and nonprofits, suggesting they are not doing enough to invent new fundraising streams. If our government, our citizens and the supporters of various charities (including artists) donated more money, or voted to allocate more public funds, our important charities would not be so reliant on other means of fundraising. Benefit auctions raise significant income for many very important causes. They are not created to benefit the donating artists, and artists who think they will get serious benefits from participating in these events are naive.

  2. “The system has made artists an anxious bunch, desperate for discovery and longing for recognition”.

    unfortunately the longing is a bit too unabashed. but that’s our world isn’t it? the problem hasn’t changed much, yet, despite all the promised democratization of the web: much that deserves attention is glanced over by eyes following the latest shiny object.

    recognition is valid, but as a means, while it most often, for many, is seen as an end.

    i personally do not want or need any recognition except that kind which one needs, and must give in return, when attempting something called dialogue. but for too many, it’s a monologue, and an uninvited one.

    which explains a lot as to why art is usually lumped into the egregiously generalized category of “entertainment”.

  3. While I agree with the sentiment of the artists speaking out, I read this article hoping for some sort of break-down in numbers, or transparency from the non-profits and other organizations that host benefit auctions.  I have donated my art to dozens upon dozens of benefit auctions and participated in fundraisers, never to hear of the results or any sort of breakdown of how that earned revenue is being portioned out within the organization.  It is in this area that I would encourage far more transparency.  The reason being if artists know how the money from sales of our donated artwork is being used, we would be able to make snap-decisions on whether to donate again, or how often.

  4. I have worked in the non profit arts world and the commercial art world. I keep wondering why no one does a benefit art sale….That way the flea market/rock bottom price and public humiliation for the artist is avoided. We did one of these at Arlington Arts Center in Virginia many years ago, and it was hugely successful. Everyone felt good about the event.

    From a commercial gallerist perspective, I have had collectors come into my gallery, look at the show on the wall and say, “I am going to the XXX auction tonight to buy this artist’s work for half price or lower.” Seriously. It was deeply offensive to the artist and myself.

  5. I normally like what I read in this blog, but found this article to be strange and mean spirited.

    Artists in my experience they are among some of the most generous people I know.  They do get called on often to help organizations, but in my experience again, it is part of the informal circuit of mutual aid that exists in the art world.  By the same token, these informal circles of friends include artists in exhibition, feature articles about them, help find gallery representation, etc.  It is not like we in the art world are served by some big Fortune 500 headhunting firm to help us with our career growth. 

    It is also a world populated by an interesting blend of for-profit and non-profit organizations – much unlike any other industry I know.

    As for the benefit art “auction” at NURTUREart, where I am a Trustee, the artists submit work as a donation to a juried show.  If the work is accepted, it is exhibited for a one-evening show, and the public who has bought tickets to the show get to each select a work to take home.  Not all, but many of the artists are not yet with galleries and for them, it is a chance to get their work out in a public venue.  Others who are with galleries and have strong sales records donate works of a lesser value to be supportive of NURTUREart.  With us, the artist is always informed as to whom has selected their work, and are invited to the evening.

    The mission of NURTUREart is to support emerging curators and artists through open-call gallery exhibitions, by maintaining an open-call artist registry, and by bringing artists into four local public high schools in Bushwick and Williamsburg, who otherwise have limited resources to teach art to their students.  Our circle of artist friends who submit work of course support our mission and find it a valuable resource to our community.

    I am very grateful to the handful of artist friends who I asked personally to donate a work.  All but one did it without even a second thought.  The one who had second thoughts was simply busy with other things and did not have the time to get something organized.

    Not sure what the agenda of the author of this article is, but it really overlooks an aspect of healthy human behavior – that of mutual aid and generosity. 

    1. My experience with NURTUREart was wonderful.  I thank everyone there.  I am glad to have helped raise money for this fine non-profit.  And I am delighted for my piece to be in its current collection. 

    2. NURTUREart obviously provides a meaningful model for other organizations to follow.  I think it’s important to take in the examples the original post cited, and not to take them personally because they clearly don’t apply to your organization.  You are, unfortunately, in the minority.  Perhaps you can use your influence to impart your methods to the other entities hosting such fundraising efforts instead of attacking the expression of artists’ personal experience.

  6. A great rebuttal to the on going debate posted by Ennuics:

    “While I agree with Andrews’ assertions, I want to express that artists do need to realize that just as with any product that is looking for a purchaser, publicity, marketing and advertising will make or break the bank. In this case a dissection of benefit auctions is really a deeper look into the hierarchal psychology of high art.

    In a “decaying” capitalist society like America, we can veil as many things around good causes or mutual benefit but at the end of the day I feel it’s really about how well you can balance personal avarice with goodwill. I don’t say this as a blanket statement describing the only two feelings that artists, coordinators, buyers and patrons are reflecting (obviously we are all supporting the progression of art) but art is very much a business. Finding your demographic (participating in auctions, in this case finding out who is purchasing your works), marketing your work and your persona (meeting, schmoozing, connecting with those within the community), and finally making the sale (and rinsing and repeating) is the core of how artists make a living.”

    Read more-> http://ennuics.com/?p=2212

  7. As Joanne Matera suggested in her blog: artists can’t TAKE the full value of your donation as a tax write off unless it’s a check.  Artworks are only deductible if they are someone else’s donation not yours, or if yours, only the cost of the materials you used to make the work. That’s our wonderful government for you.  Her suggestion: write a check if you believe in the cause and take the deduction. 

    For my part, I am often asked to donate works: I  give smaller works that I have “alot” of, therefore the loss in minimal.  I make sure the art comes back to me if it’s not “taken”. One of the very nice things I have found is that many artists who could not normally afford my work, come up to me when we meet and excitedly tell me “they got my work” . Honestly this makes me feel like a million bucks because these are my compatriates.  And clearly shows that many of the buyers are artists not collectors.

    Overall however, I feel artists are put upon. We do what we do even if we earn not a penny from it. We contribute our creative energy to the culture of our cities and towns. We volunteer for many causes, we weave gold from straw and expect nothing in return though one could say we so very much deserve it. It IS a problem when a buyer prefers to buy your work at a benefit instead of in a gallery and therefore I personally limit what I donate to works that would not compete, when that is possible. Anyway, haven’t you been in some “collector’s” home and you scan the walls and say oooo, this is a “collection” made from benefit auction works?? like its clear right? Serious collectors don’t just shop benefits.

    Who benefits from benefits? honestly the hosts do benefit.  the artists sometimes benefit. There do seem to be oh so many benefits and this floods the market w. benefits diluting success for all and the fact is, those who are really least able to afford to give, end up giving their only currency, their work. The 99% give.

  8. One final comment – though I think this is such a poor piece of yellow journalism that it barely derserves comment.

    The author, Jason Andrew, attended the NURTUREart benefit, was honored at it for his contributions to the art community in Bushwick, made a speech at it, and seemed wholly at ease and supportive of it.  Odd, then, that he should target us of all organizations to use as an example.

    Hidden agenda?

    1. Nammack. Your statement is both true and false. True: I did attend the benefit you mentioned. False: I was not honored. I was asked to introduce two very important and close collaborators who were being honored and this was the purpose of my ‘participation’. But these accusations distract from the essence of the article. Further, the above mentioned non-profit was used as an example of the hundreds of organizations that utilize the “artist donations benefit model” as central to their fundraising platform. Keep the healthy dialogue going…

    2. Something about the heavy and singular focus on Nurture Art, a fairly small and heavily supportive of emerging artists, not-for-profit, does seem odd to me as well. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of organizations of all sizes that have auctions, sales, or raffles of artwork each year in New York. Many of the small ones, like Nurture or Momenta Art, understandably rely heavily on artist support (especially as city and government funding lags and without the ability to dedicate a large staff to seeking out private foundation monies or programming which could facilitate having memberships). Ultimately, the artists who are asked to participate benefit from this system. Why disparage that? It really does feel like there is some sort of weird agenda, not that I would have any idea why… Also, plenty of larger not-for-profits that do these kind of benefits give back as much as they can (ex: the Kitchen splits profits with artists whose works sells and BAM gives free stage and movie tickets to each artist that participates, regardless of the work selling).

  9. i don’t have money to donate to organizations i care about, so my work and time is all i have to offer, and i’m happy to. i suppose it’s different for every artist, and it’s up to each of us to accept or decline. i don’t know if it’s fair to generalize about all organizations that use this model. i’ve had good experiences with nurtureart, for instance. also, i’ve organized benefits for other organizations i care about, and i’ve asked artists to donate their work and time, and i’ve donated mine. for me, it makes sense to consider each request separately and decide. we all give as much as we can and we can’t always say yes. i’m not sure that means we should always say no.

  10. “From some vantage points, today’s collectors are lazy, spoon fed and blind.” There is no room for risk taking in a hyper commodified art market driven by greed and inflated egos. Respect for artists has waned and shamefully the side effects will be felt by future generations of not only artists but also art historians and the general intellectual and cultural direction of humankind.

  11. Joanne Mattera Art Blog
    by Joanne Mattera
    Sept 11, 2007

    Recently a regional museum requested that I donate a small painting to their auction. I said no.
    museum has never shown the least interest in including my work in its
    thematic shows. Its curators have never expressed sufficient interest in
    my work to make a studio visit. But they’d be happy to sell it to
    support their program, which to this date has not supported me. What’s wrong with this picture?

    course this is not the first time I have been asked to donate work to
    an auction. If you are an artist, you have been inundated with requests.
    They’re all good causes: support for museums and art centers, college
    scholarship programs, AIDS research, breast cancer research. If there’s a
    need or an illness, there’s an art auction.
    the problem: the people least able to afford to donate are the ones
    repeatedly being asked to give it up. And the ones most able to afford
    to buy artwork are getting it for a song. What’s wrong with that picture?Read More -> http://joannemattera.blogspot.com/2007/06/no-i-will-not-donate-to-your-auction.html

    1. If you are not interested in donating to a particular event that requests a donation, then don’t donate. It is not accurate to say that the people least able to afford to donate are the only ones being asked.  The art benefit auctions that make significant income for their causes are comprised largely of works by established and successful artists, who can afford to selectively donate to auctions that matter to them. No one is forcing artists to participate in these events, just like no one forces individuals to respond to mailed cash donation requests by sending in checks.

  12. Frank Luther Mott (1941) defines yellow journalism in terms of five characteristics:

    1. scare headlines in huge print, often of minor news (CHECK)

    2. lavish use of pictures, or imaginary drawings (CHECK)

    3. use of faked interviews, misleading headlines, pseudo-science, and a parade of false learning from so-called experts (CHECK)

    4. emphasis on full-color Sunday supplements, usually with comic strips (which is now normal in the U.S.) (Not applicable)

    5. dramatic sympathy with the “underdog” against the system (CHECK)

  13. Re-posted from FB at Jason’s request.

    Jason, thanks so much for addressing this important issue. I certainly have art auction fatigue and I am, by far, not the only one. I am certain that if artists quit donating that it might force all concerned institutions to lobby for the passage of the Artist-Museum Partnership Act. It has continued to sit in committee because there is not enough active and loud public support. In addition, there is great ignorance from those who organize these auctions about what kind of deduction artists get (basically none) though many committee members continue to falsely state that artists get to deduct the market value of their art!

    In this disastrous economy, artists (who generally need the money just as much as institutions) should receive a percentage of the sales (30-50%). They should also receive assistance with the transportation of the art to the auction site; publicity (name in press); an invitation to the auction party; the name of the person buying the art; and a thank you note from the institution. However, the bottom line is that the benefit art auction model has been over used and other methods of institutional support should be considered.

    1. I really do encourage all here to check out Transformer’s benefit auction — artists can donate 50% or more to the non-profit, depending on their preference, find out who bought the work, get their name on the invite and press, and get a ticket to the party.  Many non-profits putting on auctions simply don’t know how donating art even works and do not have appreciation for artists, but many of the artist-centered ones do.

  14. I’ve spent a bit of time wrestling with this issue as an artist, it’s hard to have much sympathy for these organizations when past actions have delivered so little to the artists involved while only delivering any real value to the organizations and their donor base.

    I’m not looking for a quid quo pro situation, but I am looking to be treated as an equal and potentially as a donor. Instead what I often get is a promise of “exposure” (along with 100 other artists hung chock-a-block on the walls) and an indifference when dropping off the work, and rarely a thank you note. Really it’s the last two that irritate me the most.

    The only real solution that I have found (for me – and please understand I speak only for myself here) is not to participate in these kinds of events. I will not participate until the organizations start acting in a way that is in partnership with the artists that it claims to assist. It surprises me that artists are willing to assist with fundraising that does nothing for the artist but everything for the donor and organization.

    This is where William Powhida makes sense – artists are so crazy to get exposure they are willing to be treated like second hand citizens by the very community that claims to hold the arts in such high regard. This system is broken and needs to be critically re-thought.

    Postscript: as a New York and Washington DC based artist, I will say that the auction at Transformer in DC is the best one I’ve ever done and would do again without hesitation. You are thanked, put on the invite, given the name of the artworks buyer and even paid if the work sells – it’s a great model and I’d love to see this model duplicated. It truly is a win-win.

  15. Unfortunately or fortunately, benefit auctions are the only way some artists even get their work exhibited in New York. Keep in mind, many artists don’t necessarily live in Manhattan or Brooklyn, we all know that a lot of the time directors, collectors, ppl in the gallery biz, etc won’t even set foot in an artist’s studio unless they live in one of the boroughs (if even that).
    These benefits give non-nyc-centric artists a chance to have their work exhibited in a space that “just might” get a good amount of foot traffic, one can hope…Thanks for addressing this issue.
    -Faceless Nurture Art Benefit Artist

  16. This is a complicated issue for non-profit organisations and worthy of debate. Perhaps with all of our collective energy we could imagine other ways to fundraise. As a choreographer my company has performed in benefits for free, including Nurture Art. (I think a performance is a bit different than donating a piece of work. There is time allocated to my performance.) Of course, I have to make the choice and I make it on a cost-benefit basis. In general I will be out of pocket the cost of hiring the dancers for the event and their travel expenses (assuming the piece is in rep and rehearsed). I suppose I should get a tax write-off for this. It comes out of my own pocket. If it is timed well I can view it as a dress rehearsal or publicity for an upcoming show.

    I live in London and the idea of the benefit art auction is not understood by many here, that is, here they all assume the artists get money from the auction of their works. I don’t know what the different models are for each organisation in the US but I suppose there must be as many models as there are non-profits. So let’s keep inventing new models. Any suggestions?

  17. Hi Jason,

    Thanks for starting a good discussion.

    I don’t mind donating paintings and drawings to art organizations for fundraising events, especially when the organizations serve emerging artists and curators—and particularly if the organization has helped me in the previous year. I agree with Austin that the organizations should let the artists know who gets their work, all the artists should be listed on publicity materials (not just: “Work by Brice Marden, Byron Kim, Jenny Holzer, Amy Sillman and others…”), and the event websites should always include an image of the artists’ work with a link to their websites. If doing this is too much trouble, then organizations should consider a different type of event for fundraising.

    Other types of organizations, on the other hand, that have no organic involvement with the arts or a personal connection with me, shouldn’t ask me to donate art for their fundraising events. I recently got an email from someone who had gone to the Fine Art Adoption Network, copied all the artists’ email addresses, and solicited us all to donate artwork for their fundraising auction. This is what I find most annoying. After all, if they don’t support artists and the arts community, why should they expect the artists to support them?


  18. As someone wrote above, some non-profits are good at thanking people, some are not.  Transformer in Washington, DC holds a benefit auction every year in which they allow the artist to decide how much of the sale price to donate to the non-profit.  The minimum split is 50/50, and most artists choose this option, with some others choosing to donate the full amount.  In this way, Transformer’s artist-centered mission is carried through.  They also inform artists after the fact about who purchased their work.  It’s simple – if you’re going to donate, you need to care about the cause a lot, know that you will get fair treatment from the non-profit, know that the people attending are those who you might want to cultivate in the future as buyers of your work, and also, sometimes, there is great exposure for the artist to NON-art buyers, which is always a good thing.

  19. I think it is particularly egregious if an arts organization asks for a donation of art.  How does a sculptor say no to The Sculpture Center?  There is an implied carrot dangling in front of that request. 

    This business model is out of balance.  If the goal is to nurture artists then it is a wash if it takes from one to feed another.  In fact it probably is a a net loss as some of the sale goes to fund the event and the administration.

    Years ago I curated a series of art sales to benifit the Cascade Coalition Partnership that was raising money to fund the purchase of forest resource land in Washington State.  They threw the party and paid for all the PR, the artist agreed to exhibit their work, and I did all of the transportation, installation and returns.  The Artists got 50%, the organization got 40%, and I got 10% to cover costs.  The organization treated it as a friend raiser and any bonus they received from the sculpture sales was icing on the cake.  It worked brilliantly.  They gathered hundreds of new friends who signed up for $50-500 annual memberships, and they landed a few large donors who they wouldn’t have otherwise been in touch with to the tune of over $100K.  We sold work for dozens of artists, who btw who exhibitied their quality work rather then what they had sitting around the studio, and those who didn’t sell got their work back.  I got my expenses covered and my foundry received some orders that were a direct result of the sales.

    The Charity Auction business model is a net failure because it is so lopsided against the artist.  “Exposure” doesn’t get your teeth fixed.  I’ll eat my hat if you can point to one person who landed a Chelsea Gallery or a museum exhibition as a result of donating art work to an auction.

  20. Jason,
    One of your main points is that artists have the power. It is the only point you make without giving examples or specifics. It is not clear to me how our power as artists would manifest itself. What would this power look like? How would we exercise that power? Particularly how would we exercise that power as artists, since it seems to me artists frequently take power by changing their role and becoming curators, art dealers, writers, etc.

    Daniel Wiener

    1. Daniel,

      In general, artists have the ‘power’ because they control the ‘product’, i.e. the object, or the performance. Therefore they control the market. It might appear that this concept has more to do with established artists who can pick and choose how and when they show their work, but I argue that emerging artists that might lack representation have just as much ‘power’ or ‘control’. Their power is invested in the choices/decisions they make.

      What would the ‘power’ look like? Well for a start, the art world would certainly change pace. I argue at this change would be for the best. In a slower market, people take time, gaps open, opportunities arise. Galleries, curators, and collectors specifically would fall in step. Instead of racing to the next, to the next, to the next.

      The general perception of artists is that they are a transitional community (especially those that are emerging). When united, artists are a huge lobbying force. For example, if every artist in New York City withheld work from a gallery, museum, collector until every gallery, museum and collector lobbied on behalf of their artists, don’t you think legislation like the Artists-Museum Partnership Act which addresses the inequity artist face when donation their works to public institutions. As we all are aware, artists are not able to donate their own artwork to a nonprofit institution and receive a tax deduction of its fair market value. Unlike collectors and arts patrons (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/27/business/estee-lauder-heirs-tax-strategies-typify-advantages-for-wealthy.html).

      Imagine Art Week Miami if every living artist said ‘no’ until this Act passed. Then artist could lobby for housing, health insurance, etc. Now that’s real power.


  21. An interesting development this week:

    Subject: Thank You Party & Collector Info
    Dear NURTUREart Benefit Donating Artists,

    again a big THANK YOU for donating your work to the NURTUREart Annual
    Benefit, the night could not have been such a success without your help.
    It was such a great evening, and so great to see so many artists in
    attendance. We hope you enjoyed the night!

    To help show our
    appreciation to all the artists that donated works to the event
    NURTUREart is hosting an Artist ‘Thank You’ Party at our new Bushwick gallery space, on Monday January 23rd.
    Pizza and Beer will be provided! This will be an opportunity for us to
    say ‘thank you’ in person, for artists to meet the gallery staff and one
    another and to check out our new gallery. Please see below for all the

    Date: Monday, January 23rd 2012
    Time: 6-9pm
    NURTUREart Gallery
    56 Bogart Street
    Brooklyn, NY 11206
    (Nearest Subway is Morgan Ave on the L train. Entrance is across the street from the Harrison Pl/Bogart St Exit.)

    have also recently received several queries about whether works were
    sold on the night of the Benefit. If you have not been contacted by me
    to say otherwise (please check your emails) you can assume your work was
    sold on the night. If you would like to receive information on the
    collector that took your work home please reply to this email with a
    request. If you have already made a collector information request in the
    past two weeks you will be contacted with the information this week.
    (I’ve been out of the gallery for a couple of weeks and am just catching
    up on emails now!)

    Please feel free to get in contact if you have any other questions about the Benefit or the upcoming party.

    Best Regards

  22. I have refrained from chipping in, but this comment is really macroscopic. I don’t think it would be appropriate for me not to reply in some form to the exaggerations, paranoid allegations (Billionaires mentioned as an examples of those who benefit from donations? ) and general drama instigated by this thread – and the inflammatory writing posted above.

    We have shown our appreciation to our community AND donating artists in so many ways it’s even ridiculous to talk about it. The benefit (if you have been with us, as I hope) was a festive, joyous moment. The idea of a post-benefit party was in our plans since before the benefit itself. I’m really sorry someone would imagine that as connected to your little on-screen saga and sad that the timing was as such.

    Suggesting that we have not used caution and grace in managing our benefit is a ridiculous offense that can impress only someone who doesn’t have the slightest idea of how a nonprofit organization works. And how hard it is.

    Overall, if you dislike pizza and beer, you can have another year of operations from our organization: NURTUREart. That’s what the profits of the benefits went into, not the prospective bill from the pizza place. Our work is what we offer back, not only to the artists and curators, but to the whole community. Take it or leave it.

    For the information of many: artworks come with a ticket that needs to be filled in by the collector. If the ticket is not filled in, we do not have a way of knowing who took the work. Many tickets were never filled in. I don’t know what to do more than being sorry and going back to work. We don’t measure our success in re-tweets, so I know that writing this note has been a waste of time. For those of you who understand what we do and what it takes to do it: Thanks. For those of you who don’t: come talk to us. We are open to the public.

    Marco Antonini
    Gallery Director at NURTUREart

    1. Marco, 

      Thank for chiming in. If you feel this discussion is a waste of time, than you are welcome to ignore it. However, I think that would be a shame and a wasted opportunity to engage with a community of artists and supporters that genuinely want to see Nurture Art grow and continue to do good work in our community.

      I don’t agree with everything Jason, the artists quoted here or you say, but he has started an interesting discussion that anyone that claims to support emerging artists should be interested in having … and obviously many artists have mixed feelings about the topic. 

      I don’t believe anyone ever questioned the work nonprofits are doing. The post is pointing out an increasingly growing trend of benefits offering “emerging” artists exposure to curators and collectors in exchange for donating valuable work, and how it has increasingly become the default primary fund-raising strategy of many many art non-profits. 

      As a collector that has discovered artists at benefits (including Nurture Art’s) in the past, I actually disagree with Jason that artists don’t benefit at all from this exposure. and since we can’t buy everything we like, we have also bought works that we would likely have never bought except to support the organization.

      As these benefits become more and more important as fund-raising events, it’s not hard to see the incentives to donate, for emerging artists particularly, becoming increasingly focused on potential exposure over a desire to support an organization. 

      Which could create a dilemma for an emerging artist asked to donate to 12 benefits a year.
      I look forward to a constructive discussion if you are interested.

  23. And I am only taking three minutes out of a very busy day to add that Jason must be very bored  if he is spending time during ABMB writing about pizza.  Go to Joes Stone Crabs and try to sell some art for your gallery, please leave us alone!

  24. Marco,

    Is it so hard to see the other side of the coin? “Take it or leave it”? Really?  “Showing” your appreciation doesn’t pay the rent.  I’m sure the fundraiser was a joyous event filled with people who live in NY who could afford the $ for the ticket.  At the end of the night your organization received funding to go forward; while the donating artist had a blank spot on the wall of their studio to fill.  The emerging artist work’s hard too, probably at a full time job to pay the rent followed by another full time job in the studio.

    Is it so much to ask that no one leaves without filling in the tag?  That you make a concerted effort to connect the two?  How about inviting the “collectors” to the pizza party to make personal introductions?  Was it such a free for all that collectors were ripping works off the wall and running out the door?  Doubt it.  Being a non profit with your heart in the right place, working your ass off, going through hard times does not excuse the fact that fundamentally you are trading exposure for art and that is unfair and ultimately unsustainable for the community you work so hard for and your own organization. 

    Just pay the artist.  Is that so hard?  There is no more direct way to “realize [George Robinson’s]  vision of a non-profit dedicated to supporting artists” then handing them a check.

    I think that what you will find ultimately is that the quality of the work will rise dramatically and that the returns will follow as a result.  I beleive that you will raise even more money by balancing out the equation.

  25. This is really good! I like reading everyone’s point of view regarding this matter. As an artist,  I don’t regret donating for this year’s Nurture Art Benefit, because I wanted to be supportive of their programing and activities, and didn’t do it for exposure. There was a follow up, but in general, it wouldn’t hurt to have more information as a recap, right after the benefit takes place.
    There are many ways to go around having the Artist being comfortable, respected and compensated for donating, and this thread helps to find possible solutions, and that is why I like where it is going. 

    However I did donate for ANOTHER recent benefit, at the night of the benefit, I wasn’t feeling very comfortable and left right away. There were too many things going on that were not right, then the presence of “surprise” guest giving a speech at the reception. If they know a little bit about politics, they should know not everyone is going to be entirely happy with their presence, some things shouldn’t be mixed randomly like that, if I would have known about this “surprise” in advance I wouldn’t have donated nor attended.

    Anyway, I think this conversation should keep flowing, good and bad criticism should always been taken into consideration, it doesn’t mean you have to agree with it, but at least read/listen to it, breathe and then react wisely.

  26. another idea – buy the art and then the artist will have some money to donate to the good cause of their choice.

  27. In my experience most artists donate because they have profited from the organization (exhibition, residency, etc) and/or  believe in the programming. As an artist if you don’t have either of those connections it makes sense not to donate. Many of these non profits run on tight budgets with low salaries and volunteer help, fundraisers are really important to their survival, especially in the current economic environment.  As an artist and administrator (theres many of us!), I understand both sides of the argument.  It would be great to share more fundraising models or ideas to help support both non-profits and artists, we all work like crazy and are under-acknowledged with little monetary benefits.

  28. Jason,
    Thank you for bringing up this topic (and for mentioning my blog). We need to keep raising this issue again and again because the requests don’t stop coming. Represented artists are undercut in three ways: the artist makes no money, the auction price typically undercuts their retail gallery price, and their representing dealer is left out of the equation. We work hard to secure gallery representation, so selling out work outside of that arrangement does not benefit us. 

    As for unrepresented artists, I would like to know, really, how many have actually benefitted from the “visibility” of benefit auctions. I suspect the number is low.
    How about asking companies like these to donate:
    . the art supply companies to donate stretchers, linen, paint, paper, tools
    . the art shippers to donate moving hours; Fed Ex, too
    . lawyers to donate billable hours
    . doctors and dentists to donate office hours
    . Hell, ask insurance companies to donate coverage 
    . Restaurants  for gift certificates; cruise lines, too

    In other words, let’s take the burden of supporting the art community off the shoulders of the artists, most of whom are not supported in any way by the institutions seeking their art donations.

    Joanne Mattera


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