DYING OF EXPOSURE

When asked for a donation for a fundraiser, ask yourself what you’re REALLY giving away.

This is a reprint of an article I wrote five years ago. My good friend and fellow artist Nicole Caulfield came across it after a discussion about artists donating artwork. It still stands today, so here it is.

DONATION

A thread came up on a discussion forum earlier this week, about whether, and how, artists should donate their work to auctions for charity.

There was an earnest discussion about who donates to what, and how. But nobody pointed out the downsides.

It can cheapen your work.

For most artists and craftspeople, our cost of materials (except for gold and precious stones) are negligible. Our prices depend on our creativity, our time, our skill–and what people will pay for our work.

At an auction, what people will pay can be a disaster.

Because most people attend such charity auctions to get a deal.

If you don’t believe me, ask a gallery.

I did. They said they BEG their artists not to donate work, for this exact reason. Of course, they have something at stake–they want to represent your and hopefully be the only one in the area to represent you. But they also are vested in having your work GAIN value, not lose value.

It’s funny, doctors are not asked to contribute medical services, and teachers are not asked to donate tutoring. I’ve never seen lawyers donate free legal advice. They may do pro bono work, but that’s not what they donate to auctions. Not to say it’s NEVER done, but I’ve not seen it. I believe this says something about the perceived value of our work–because artists get hit up a LOT for donations.

“Struggling artists” (including musicians) are often encouraged to donate for the “exposure” the event will create for them. To quote Jack White, artist and author of books about the marketing of art, “Artists die of exposure.”

My personal experience shows what kind of “exposure” you are risking. Take this chance to learn from someone else’s (mine!) mistake for a change.

I donated a wall hanging to a prestigious benefit auction in Boston. The show was filled with work by well-known book illustrators. (By the way, illustrators–who make commissioned art for use in books–have already been paid for their artwork.)

I attended the event, excited about connecting with art lovers who might be intrigued by my work. It turns out it wasn’t really an art show. Ski trips, wine cases and gift certificates were also being auctioned off.

I overheard countless conversations by the attendees that distressed me. (I knew some of them and I knew how much money they made) They were chortling about how cheaply they could bid on their favorite items in the silent auction. One woman had her eye on a beautiful handmade quilt, with exquisite piecing and sewing. She absolutely loved it. It was wonderful!

She also didn’t want to bid more than $40 on it.

I left before my work came up for bids.

A year later, a couple with the winning bid on my wall hanging came to my booth at a craft fair. Okay! This was it! It was working! Now they were going to become my collectors!

Not. They’d come to brag to me how cheaply they’d won it.

They weren’t even looking for me. They’d come to the fair on a whim, for the first time. They just happened to walk by my booth and recognized my work.

My booth was full of customers. The couple told me (loudly, of course) about their experience. “We got it for $35!!”, they exclaimed. (This was a small wall hanging valued at $350.) They couldn’t believe their good fortune. “It was so beautiful, and nobody else bid on it!” They went on and on about how excited they were to get “such a deal!”

Then they left. They didn’t even buying a tie tack.

The silence in my booth was deafening.

They meant well, I suppose, but it was humiliating.

So much for “exposure”. My work had been “exposed” as being worth $35. A hall full of people had watched as my work was devalued and ignored, with a repeat performance there in my booth.

I didn’t acquire a new customer, because they didn’t buy anything else, and I never saw them again.

I didn’t even have the tax write-off for the act, because tax law clearly states ARTISTS can only write off the cost of materials in the piece. Only people who actually BUY your art and donate it can write off the full value of the work.

And I cringe every time I think of them showing off the work in their home to visitors. “Guess how much we paid for this!” they probably chortle gleefully. “Only $35!!” What a steal! What a bargain!

OUCH. NOT how I want to be remembered.

That was years ago, and I’ve learned my lesson. I now carefully consider how and when I contribute my work.

Ask any gallery that represents artists, and they will tell you the same thing. Those auctions may be dedicated to “a good cause”, but people buy for one reason–they’re getting a deal. A bargain. Is that how you want your work to be marketed?

The ONLY time I saw this work was with an artist whose work and reputation were already strong–a strong collector base already well-established. His work was in demand because he was already at full production.

His piece started a bidding war, and went for MORE than the stated value. But his was the ONLY painting out of HUNDREDS of donated works that did so. Everyone–I mean EVERYONE–else’s work went for a fraction of the stated value.

Strong words, I know. And this is not an iron-clad rule for me.

I’m much more willing to contribute money or time to a cause dear to my heart. There are a few organizations I have supported with donations of artwork.

But I’ve also learned to say no graciously.

Here are guidelines that help me narrow the field that might also help YOU.

If your aim is to gain “exposure” (and I’ve already cautioned you how this can backfire), then at least donate something people will SEE. Now, if I donate anything, I donate jewelry, because at least someone will WEAR it. If it generates comments, perhaps the person will rave about the piece instead of raving about how cheaply they got it…

I pick fundraisers I care deeply about. And I let them know I’ve made an exception for them because of that. (This also controls how often my work is seen at charity auctions.)

Better yet is to suggest a CUSTOMER donate your work.

Or to offer to donate a portion of your profits to the cause. I’ve made special pieces with this in mind. I displayed them with a sign saying, “Profits from this pin are donated to such-and-such organization”. This is win/win–for you, for the charity, even for the customer. Your work holds its full value, the charity gets its donation, the customer gets to participate.

Or donate something free WITH PURCHASE. A free bracelet with the purchase of a necklace. Or a free sculpture with the purchase of a wall hanging.

Or offer a ONE-TIME discount. Bruce Baker, speaker and writer on the business of craft, cautions that customers tend to view even “one-time” discounts as PERMANENT discounts. I tried it once, and he’s right. But it’s still an option.

At the very least, offer to provide the item for your wholesale price. That is, the charity acquires it for what a store would pay for it. And set a minimum bid. More and more art organizations are using this model for their auctions, because it’s more artist-friendly. One person from such an art org confided in me, “We realized that saying we supported artists, then constantly asking them to donate work, was a contradiction of our mission statement!” Yes.

How do you say no to such requests graciously?

Tell them you get asked so often for such contributions, you now contribute once or twice a year to carefully-considered causes. You consider all requests, then make your decision in….pick a month or two. Say, June and December. And you are very sorry, but you’ve already made your decision for the year.

If you like the organization, ask them to submit a request in time for next year’s selection process.

Buy an ad in their event program. It will get you the same exposure and you won’t be donating your work at bargain prices.

Or send them a check. At least that’s tax deductible.

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18 Comments

Filed under art, craft, marketing, self promotion

18 responses to “DYING OF EXPOSURE

  1. Katherine Palochak

    Wise advice, Luann. After seeing my work go for less than the materials cost me, and people talking about how little they paid (or nothing at all!), I’ve quit. Ask me to donate cookies, donate an ad, but don’t ask me to donate my work anymore. And yes, I shared on the Wyoming Artists Facebook.

  2. As always you are right on target and the right timing is exactly right!

    Thanks,
    Louise

  3. completely agree. I do not lower my prices on Art for anything, that would be disrespectful to my Art Collector Investors. My prices for all art and services continue to increase. I donate my time to good causes and offer “donation only” yoga- which all people give graciously for and most give money generously.
    Value yourself and others will too.

  4. I am not sure when exactly I stumbled upon your blog, but I do love your posts. The are always so informative and interesting. Many years ago I donated a watercolor to an AIDS auction in Key West, the town I was living in at the time. I never found out how much it went for, nor did I find out who bought it. I have no idea where that painting is now. I find it distressing since I always kept track of who bought what. It feels almost like a missing child or something……..(well maybe not that bad, but you know what mean.)

  5. Hi Luann,
    Great article! I’d love to know your thoughts about the new trend with shows expecting a donation from every vendor? With the ones I’ve encountered, there’s a minimum value placed on donations and rather than a silent auction, they’re put up as prizes for raffle tickets customers can buy. So even if someone only spends $5 on raffle tickets, someone else is likely to spend $100 or more, especially knowing the money is going to a charity. Curious if you think this is better?

    • Great question, and I’m going to waffle on the answer. :^D

      Our League of NH Craftsmen’s Annual Fair does this. Contributing to this totally supports my bottom line–this Fair provides half my income for the year. So I usually donate something in the $40-$50 range. Also, the winner and the artist are announced over the PA system at the Fair. Because it’s a prize, and not a ‘deal’, nobody brags they got a bargain. And often the winner comes by my booth to thank me and look at my work.

      So yes, I think it’s better. Still not GREAT, but better. :^)

      And I don’t think I’d necessarily contribute to every show, unless I had a small, inexpensive, signature item that I could happily give away and not feel the pain.

      Does that help?

      • It certainly does! I’ve been waffling a bit on my feelings about it too so I appreciate your opinion. In one way, the “mandatory donation” cuts into my inventory, and therefore my sales, but I think with the minimum value, customers see the real value in the work rather than that they got a bargain. I’ve started making similar items to the one I donate and always let customers browsing my shop know the story behind them – and remind them if they don’t win, they can come back and buy the ‘sister item’. My hope is to get people excited about winning my piece so they’ll do just what you said and come back to shop!

        I had the opportunity recently to donate something to an auction fundraiser where I knew I would get the “exposure” among socialites in Dallas, but after reading your article I feel so much better that I chose not to! Thank you! :-)

  6. Pingback: All Things Metal Clay » Blog Archive » Are artists dying of exposure?

  7. The thing that is sad about this whole topic is that the attendees trying to get a deal are shortchanging the organization that they are there to support. By only paying $35 for your wallhanging Luann, they did very little to help support the charity or cause. If anyone ever came to me chortling about the deal they got on one of my paintings or portraits, I would tactfully point that out. I for one will not donate any of my artwork to any charity any more for this reason. But I think that what really gets my goat is that the fundraisers have not realized this, they allow it to continue and do nothing to change the perception of making a killing on donated items for auction. If only the fundraiser would educate their invited guests, they would raise so much more money!

    • Patti

      Also, if I understand correctly what the author said about the tax situation, the buyer also gets a full value tax write off from their token donation. Not sure if that is right? Does the buyer get to deduct the value of the object, rather than what they paid?

  8. Thank you soooo much for addressing this issue!! now if we could get this out there so others would read it and understand….I feel so guilty by saying no this year, but I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m not in the “business” of giving it away and yet that’s what I’ve been doing for so many years.
    I too had an experience at a show earlier this year….
    I went to this festival I’m usually a vendor at that I decided not to do this time around….I came upon a booth that had a few pieces that were oddly familiar….when I commented on them,he proceeded to tell me how he had
    gotten some pieces at an auction that he had won that he bid on purposely to see how they were made….I was pissed,hurt,mortified,you name it I WAS IT!!!!!! I asked him if he felt a little guilty about doing that and he told me that story about “nothing is original” and “it’s all been done before”……So I complimented the work again and handed him one of my
    cards…..he looked at the card,then looked at me, and then said “such is
    life”……..

  9. I did not see your original article and am very glad you decided to re-post it. As a new (and struggling) artist I have often pondered this question. On the surface of it this seems like an easy way to donate, so thank you so much for pointing out the ‘dark side’ of donating one’s art to a good cause.

  10. It’s ridiculous that the artist gets to deduct practically nothing but the buyer, who had nothing to with the creation process, can deduct the price they paid for the piece on their taxes.

    I usually graciously decline donation requests, saying that I’ve already donated my quota for the year. Taking out ad space in the organization’s brochure is a great idea, which is one I think I’ll use from now on.

  11. Ouch!

    Like a lot of artists, I suspect, I’ve had bad experiences with donating artworks for charity auctions. I think the charities don’t mind if the artworks go for very little because they didn’t pay anything for the works, so anything they get is profit.

    It does bother me when ostensibly well-meaning people, people who would be shocked to think of themselves as exploiters, ask artists, who are not exactly well-paid, to subsidize their activities.

    I’ve been collecting examples of ways artists get taken advantage of for a talk I’m giving later this month. Auction donations had slipped my mind — thanks for reposting this article. May I quote your experience?

    • Absolutely! A wonderful thank you would be to provide a link to my article, and credit Jack White (who writes for Professional Artist magazine and for Fine Art Views newsletter).

  12. Thank you for writing about your experience. I’m sure it was awful at the time and is still painful to write about. I have rarely donated jewelry for these very reasons. Now I’ll think even more about it and donate a check if I decide to give.

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