Donating Art

Equity For Artists

Written by Robert Steven

Patrons view and bid on artwork

The work that makes our society what we want it to be is often done by members of charities. Whether they are working to prevent or respond to tragedies, support those less fortunate, or simply build a more enlightened world, we can all admire the philanthropic work that participants of charities do; and as members of the society they are contributing to, we all benefit from their sacrifice and their efforts.

All charities depend upon donations to carry out their activities, which has been recognized in our tax system by the incentive that donors receive to make donations to registered charities in the form of charitable tax receipts. For many artists though, charitable tax receipts may have limited value, and donations of works of their own creation may expose them to special risks to their careers that other donors may not face.

A patron makes a bid during a live art auctionAs unpleasant as it is for us to face, it is a fact of life in Canada that most artists in this country have low incomes, and many may have no tax payable, in which case, a charitable receipt will have no value to the artist. For artists who make their living from their work, a key element in continuing to earn their living is to ensure that the market for their paid work is not undermined by the availability of their works at fundraising events at bargain prices. But even more practically, the investment of time and money an artist has made in the creation of a particular work of art may be greater than the artist’s ability to give – no matter how much they support the cause – especially if that artist is subsisting on a low income. Just as no charity would ask a low income family to donate their rent money or the gas money they need to get to work, no charity should ask an artist to give more than they can afford. Unfortunately, many charities do ask this much and more of artists, primarily because of the charities’ lack of understanding of the value of an artist’s work to the artist’s business.

Artists are known by many charities to be very generous, and works of art have become a standard auction or raffle item in many charity fundraising events thanks to that generosity.Artists receive ever larger numbers of donation requests from all types of charities, and many feel torn between their desire to help and the needs of their business.

The Art Gallery of Grande Prairie has recognized these concerns among our artist donors more than ever in recent years. For 33 years, every work of art offered for auction at our annual fundraiser, the Art Auction, has been donated outright to the Gallery by the artist. But for 2014 we are making a change. We have chosen to adopt CARFAC (Canadian Artists Representation/Le Front des artistes Canadiens) Guidelines for Professional Standards in the Organization of Fundraising Events. And so this year, our artist donors will for the first time be able to support us with the donation of works of art in precisely the way they wish, while also protecting the market for their work.

A silent art auctionTo accomplish this, the artist will inform us in advance of the event of two critical numbers. One is the portion of the sale price of the work that they wish to recover, which we can think of as the wholesale cost of the work. Just as every work of art is unique, the factors that influence the amount of this fee will be unique for each artist. Some artists may need to recover their out of pocket expenses for framing or materials in order to part with a piece they have invested in heavily with their money. Others may need some reimbursement for the large amount of otherwise unpaid time they may have invested in a work. We are not questioning this fee or restricting it, so long as it allows some portion of the value of the work to be donated to the Gallery.

The other critical number is the minimum sale price or reserve bid. The artist will tell us the minimum price they would allow the work to sell for in public, so that their ability to sell their works at full price and their relationships with their paying customers are not jeopardized by the low prices that are sometimes found at fundraising events. If bidding for the work in the auction does not meet this reserve price, the work will be returned to the artist after the event.

We believe that this approach will empower artists to donate more freely to our event at less risk to their careers and livelihoods. In turn, it is our hope that this will lead to greater fundraising success for the Gallery at the event. The artist will control how much they donate, just as any cash donor would, and they will also control the pricing of their products, as most business people would.

Of course we will continue to accept outright donations of works of art, just as we will always accept donations of cash: but we are very proud that we have finally, after all of these years, arrived at a plan that will make donating works of art, more practical and desirable for the artists of this region.

At the time this article was written, Robert Steven was the Executive Director of the Art Gallery of Grande Prairie.

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