Artists will be asked to donate their work more often than they will be offered money for their art, This is a fact of life for contemporary artists and most emerging and mid career artists I know and have have worked with will struggle with this dilemma and there seems to be a lack of understanding by well intentioned individuals and this may be the time for a little shifting in the way things are done.
When I worked as a professional artist, I was asked and often donated valuable paintings for some very worthwhile non -profit organizations, often in the misguided belief that this was not only the right thing to do, but would be “Good Exposure” for my work and would lead to more collectors or galleries noticing my work and eventually to sales and success as an artist.
I can say without hesitation none of these benefitted me, and I was not allowed to take the full tax deduction for the work. Current tax laws only allow artists to write off the expenses spent on the physical art supplies. The paint, the canvas and possibly the frame, but never the value of the art, or the time spent creating these paintings. In the end, I stopped donating to every charity that asked, and would only donate to an organization I already volunteered for or gave my time and or money to. I gave to my children’s school auctions, but not to another school.
I remember the exact moment where my thinking shifted and I felt such clarity. My son was playing baseball and I owned a new art gallery as well as was still painting and selling my own work. The mom of my sons friend came to me with a “Tremendous Opportunity” to donate one of my paintings in the name of the Art Gallery to her son’s elite private school auction. She told me they made well over $50,000 in that one night auction and that the majority of the parents were my target market, and were high net worth families. We were struggling financially at that time and the gallery was losing money. My own kids went to public school and we struggled to make even $1000 for supplies at our school fundraisers.
I made the important shift in thinking at that moment that these parents could afford to buy the art and donate it, and that their children already had a high quality education and why was I the one to help perpetuate this cycle.
Remember, art is a business and you are a business owner. If your dentist’s wife asks you to donate one of your “beautiful paintings” to their children’s school auction, you can ask if they would like to donate their dental services to your kids school.
Ways to maintain boundaries and think like a successful business leader.
Only donate to the charities or organizations you already support
Split the proceeds with the non-profit 50 - 50 - this is in alignment with current artist gallery agreements and is a fair to both the artist and the non-profit.
Ask the non-profit organization to have one of their donors purchase the art, donate it and then get the full tax deduction. Yes, collectors can take the full tax deduction of the art, but artists are only allowed to deduct the cost of materials.
Donate your creative work on a temporary basis - for a week or a month. If the patron does not want to buy your work after living with it for a week or a month, they never will.
Donate your services to install the work personally, or to give a talk on you art.
Alternatives and What to Say Instead:
“Thank you for thinking of me, I am honored to be invited to participate. I have a policy which my Galleries appreciate and keeps the value of my work consistent. I have a set price (or a minimum price) and I get 50% of the net proceeds, which is consistent with working with my galleries and consultants.”
“Thank you for the generous offer to participate in this prestigious art auction. I have a donation policy where I ask that a collector will pay the retail price (or a small discount) and I get 50% of the proceeds. The collector gets the full tax benefit and I keep my prices consistent and am able to make a living through my business.” Sometimes well intentioned individuals who are tasked with the asking for donations fail to realize that you are actually running a business, and not just a hobbyist. This is a great teaching opportunity.
“I have already donated to my charities XYZ” It is nobody’s business who your charities are or how much you donate, but you can let them know you have already donated for the year.
Art is a business and artists are told over and over again by well meaning successful businesses and non-profits that this is great exposure, yet most professional artists I know have stopped donating works of art unless one of the above boundaries has been met. It is not always or even sometimes great exposure. There is also a perceived lack of value in a painting that was purchased or won at a local art auction for only $100 when the work is selling at a reputable art gallery for well over $1000. The client does not have as much at stake, or skin in the game.
We teach others how to view and value heart we create, and it is time to change that perception and to value the time, money and effort involved in creating art. Just because you love your job as as artist and you feel lucky to be paid to do this work, that is not a good enough reason to give your work away for free. Even large, philanthropic corporations who give away millions of dollars of goods and services will only do so if these donations benefit them.