There is no limit to the number of worthy and deserving causes that one can support. I am certain that business owners are constantly being asked to donate goods and services. But I also feel that visual artists must be a close second to businesses in the frequency of requests for donations of their art. Textile artists in particular seem to be targeted, perhaps due to the long history of raffle quilts. Is there anyone out there with “quilter” by their name that isn’t constantly approached for donations to silent auctions, live auctions, and raffle drawings? To my prejudiced eye, musical artists are rarely involved in these events. Theater and dance artistry are also scarce. Producing art that can be displayed and then held up for sale seems to make it so much more desirable for donation.
I have had the opportunity to donate my art to six different fund-raisers in the last three months. It was my intention to help them all, but I fell a bit short on my goals and only donated four pieces. It is a good feeling to be able to do the work you love and to have it help others, but it does make it a bit more difficult to have a body of work on hand to exhibit.
Years ago, when I first donated a piece of textile art to the local arts center’s annual art auction, I assumed that I would get to take a tax deduction for the retail value of the work I was donating. I knew, from even earlier interactions with this auction, that as a buyer, I could only deduct the amount paid over the retail price of an item. But artists can only deduct the cost of supplies used in the creation of the art. In 1969, Congress repealed legislation that allowed artists, writers and composers to take a fair-market value deduction for their work. Yet, while artists can no longer donate work for market value, collectors who come to own those works can take the full market value deduction if they donate to a nonprofit institution.
So, an artist’s donation of work must give its return in the satisfaction of supporting a worthy cause. My children and I had enjoyed many classes and activities at our local non-profit arts center, so I was glad to donate to the annual auction. I felt that this was a way to declare myself an artist, and a way to get my work noticed. However, when I mentioned the auction to another artist, I found that there was quite a bit of unhappiness about this annual event. Well-known local artists felt that the art auction ruined their chances of selling work in the area. They felt that collectors did not acquire art at the galleries that represent them, but instead, waited for the auction to buy, hoping for a bargain price. Agreeing with my enthusiasm about the arts center, they continued to donate their work to the auction, but it was at a sacrifice beyond the cost of that single piece of art.
Seeking to address this problem, the solution that our arts center came up with was to offer some additional benefits for donating to their auction. Artists receive a free membership to the arts center, two free tickets to the auction, and a web page supported by the center. Additionally, the artist can choose to take back 25% of the sale price to offset the cost of materials and framing.
I don’t know if these benefits have changed the perception of the auction being a local art market destroyer. I do feel that these efforts by the center are in good faith, and probably about all that they can do. In addition, an even more important action taken by the arts center is that they advertise this fundraiser to the entire community. It is not an auction of art by the artists, to the artists. Each year this auction also picks one local artist to be a “Featured Artist” and highlights his or her work on all of the advertisements. This is a way to celebrate the accomplishments of especially talented artists. Somehow this annual award of sorts does not bother me the way that fundraisers with “Invited Artists” does. I have more difficulty getting enthusiastic about donating to an event that loudly advertises work by a selected dozen or so artists, and then is willing to also take my donation to fill in. No doubt, if I were ever a “Selected Artist”, I would feel differently about this!
So, are you prepared to make a gift? Auctions are usually an open market. Anything can happen. Sales prices are unpredictable and occasionally painfully low. Make sure you are truly ready to donate your work to the cause.
For those who feel ready to take on Congress, supporting legislation to allow artists to take a fair-market value deduction for self-created works given to nonprofit institutions would be a great improvement to the current situation.