Australian art dealer Michael Ried has something he needs to get off his chest:
Unfortunately, over the years, everyone has seen it all. Every charity fundraising art gimmick imaginable from artists painting jeans for genes (they were appallingly bad) to artists decorating surfboards for a cleaner ocean (they were great). Only this week there was a children’s foundation seeking artworks from established contemporary artists for a charity auction and a small town drought-relief committee looking for donations from artists for a fundraiser. Both deserving causes.
Every week I receive at least one charity request for artists to provide artworks for the greater glory of the common good. On their individual merits one or two “can you help us” charitable requests are do-able. En masse, they have led me to conclude that many charities are worthy yet also ruthlessly self-centred, righteous-bastards whose lack of almost any scruples is breathtaking to behold. These charities give off a strong sulphuric whiff of the rationalisation that “we do good, therefore we can grasp”. So wrong, so very wrong. For God’s sake will charities give artists an even break and stop hounding them for artworks.
Why the burden for supporting any charity’s bottom line should fall on artists (who statistically have the lowest income and least financial resources of almost any group in society) defies belief. So what if the artist receives a tax receipt on donation. Hello?! The artist has to turn a profit before they can make a tax deduction and most do not. For every artwork an artist is morally pressured to give up (and that in itself is unethical) the charity deprives the leanest of the poor of an opportunity to sell that artwork and actually pay a telephone bill or the like. Economists call it opportunity cost – a concept that is freely applied to those with much, but almost always overlooked when a charity expects something from artists.
Do art charity auctions or raffles ever offer up free appointments to consult your local friendly doctor of choice? No way José. Why is it that artists constantly get hit upon to donate artworks for charity? Well sadly, it is reasoned by those who ask, wiping up an artwork is “easy”. Charities often arrogantly fail to understand the complexity and demands of the creative process, often seeing simplicity as simple. They are not, however, the same concepts. For simplicity and effortlessness in whatever field, generally takes the practitioner years of hard work to master. Aside from the creative costs associated with giving, there are the cost of materials and the cost of framing an artwork (often demanded), all to be born by the artist.
Artists have rarely said no. Guess what? They are, as a body of professionals, really decent people. This decency and heightened artistic sensitivity to the world is greatly abused by charities on the take. An artist’s acquiescence, often morally extorted, does not mean that charities have the right to ask for artworks without first taking into consideration the consequences of their actions.
The usual charity approach starts off along the lines of how good it would be for the artist’s work and their career to be associated with a high profile public event. On the coat tails of that dubious proposition, the charity goes in for the guilt-trip cum kill, leaving no doubt in the artist’s mind that, should they fail to cough up an artwork, their inaction will directly result in the death of a cuddly, furry, creature with large expressive eyes.
Because artists are so frequently asked to provide artworks for charity, it can hardly be surprising that even the most well intentioned creative force eventually simply runs out of ‘giving’ steam. An anonymous artist friend of mine and significant contemporary artist is asked to give somewhere around twenty paintings a year to charity. As the ‘giving’ steam runs out (and lets face it artists are often not the most organised of people) they scrounge around the studio to supply the best art they can find, often at very short notice. As a result, charity art auctions and raffles are populated by the least impressive studio cast-offs or work of a modest size hastily thrown together. There is also the issue of quality control at fundraisers and who, if anyone, is providing it. The buyers are inevitably taken for an art-buying ride – the charities are taking their patrons for suckers.
Oh but it does not stop there. There are many steak knives to be found amidst all this. There is a whole coterie of charity hangers-on out there who go out of the way to benefit from an artist’s giving largesse, often without so much as a thank you. Celebrity auctioneers, working as representatives of for profit organisations, gladly offer their selling services in order to extend their company brand across the charity’s VIP mailing list. Do an auction charity gig in the rostrum and walk away with the mailing list – it is far from uncommon and some auctioneers have all but built their businesses on this strategy.
Then there are the downright misleading auctioneers who sell charity art packages to schools for fundraisers. The auctioneers supply all the art, do the entire auction organisation and leave it to the school to sell tickets to the event. The parents bid at the auction for crud art, thinking at the very least that the proceeds of their purchasing have contributed to the school’s funds. They have not. The charity auctioneer takes the vast percentage of monies raised and hands over a small percentage of the sale proceeds to the school. Art again is the lure (artists are well and truly background noise in this scam) and the audience of well-intentioned parents are thoroughly used.
Putting aside the whole art charity horror story, there are of course, many good charitable causes that should be supported by artists and the industry. Within this field, charities should acknowledge that there is a hierarchy of artist giving. Artists would be more likely to give to those fundraisers that, God forbid, are related to the arts. Art museums such as the Museum of Contemporary Art (Sydney) for example go a long country kilometre to support the artists that they, in turn, call on for support. Art museums also work hard to expand the audience for art and artists whereas a charity engaged in drought relief, for all its worthiness, does not. Therefore it is hardly unsurprising that some of the best art auction charitable events are often hosted by large art institutions since they come with a guaranteed staff of experts and a high enough public profile to preclude shoddy workmanship.
Further down the hierarchy of want, I have known a reputable charity – that has a serious art collection – to do very interesting value-added art fundraising. Not the same old, same old auctions or art raffles for them. No, they take patrons on an all day art tour, of artists’ studios and galleries. The fundraiser is art educationally based and a great deal more valid because of this.
Getting back to auctions and raffles, as a rule of thumb, in order to treat artists fairly and their work with respect, I propose that, to balance an artist’s giving of their creativity and kudos, on the sale or auction of an artwork artists should be paid fifty percent of the agreed market value of the artwork. After that percentage is achieved, the charity could claim the remainder as theirs. No ifs, no buts. Under this formula, the artists would give up a significant percentage of the artwork’s value as a donation – but no more. Should the charity industry not enjoy the equality of this stance, then I would welcome them moving on to bloodsuck some other, hopefully better resourced, section of the community.