“Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces.” Matthew 7:6
A good artist friend forwarded me a Huffington Post article called The Career Benefits of Boycotting Charity Auctions. Since Huffington Post is where I go for all my serious social commentary and Celebrity Side-Boob slideshows and I work for a charity which has helped tens of thousands of animals and people with the proceeds from our charity art auction, I read it, twice, with interest.
I decided the more appropriate title given the tone of the article is the one above.
Many of the points made by Mat Gleason, art critic- And, hello? When did artists start listening to critics?- are absolutely valid and utterly true. Many charity auctions do not provide a good Return On Investment (ROI) for artists. In fact, they don’t give a good ROI for the charities in most cases. That’s why most auctions are losers for everyone and why most charities don’t do much better when it comes to fundraising generally and getting the most out of every charitable donation. This is, by the way, where I note that HSBC has earned a Five Star Rating, the highest, from Charity Navigator for the 5th year in a row.
But Gleason does not find fault with bad auctions and poorly run charities, he finds fault with the entire process of charity. He rather fatuously lays the struggling artistic community’s woes at the feet of charity auctions. Yes, before charity auctions artists couldn’t keep paintings on their gallery walls as they all were snapped up by a discerning public for asking price and then some. Since he lives in this fantasy, he might as well cast artists as ungenerous arty robber barons who should view merely giving away their art for something as vulgar as helping their fellow man- or animal- as foolishness. Give a man a painting and he has a painting today; teach a man to paint and he has paintings to hang in his cardboard box on the steam vent for a lifetime.
Gleason demeans artists, and by extension all who give to charities, by reducing the donation to a mere transaction. The reality is if you are an artist who gives to the Art for Arf’s Sake Art Auction
to benefit the animals and programs of Humane Society of Berks County and you are seeking personal Return On Investment, it’s a really bad bet, and we know that. And I venture to say so do our artists and other donors, but that’s not why we give. We aren’t an investment portfolio. We aren’t a newspaper or website one hopes is a good advertising platform. We are a charity and we have ways in which people can come together to make a greater impact by pooling their resources, whatever those resources may be.
For an artist a painting may be the resource she has to give. For a law firm, it may be a check. For a volunteer, it may be the hours and hours spent working on the event. For many, it may be all three, since we have artists who give artwork, become cash sponsors, and volunteer for the event. All together, these efforts to combine to raise over $100,000 a year, nearly one million over the last decade, in support of our programs; something we couldn’t do without this collaborative charitable effort. And cash is king when you need to feed a dog or keep the heat on or provide care in emergency ice shelters.
Gleason raises some good points, points which we have scrutinized hard over the years and the reason we have one of the most successful art auctions in the region, even though we are an animal organization. We don’t treat artists like second class citizens. We not only invite them to the auction, we invite the live auction artists to the preview reception so they can be thanked right alongside the big cash donors. Their art is every bit as valuable to us as a check but a check deserves a little credit, too. We give pricing guidance to artists so they have a “sweet spot” and don’t donate a piece which is beyond the likely bids for our audience. We give write off suggestions if that’s important to the artist. For example, if he’s so concerned about only being able to write off supplies while the auction purchaser can donate back for market value, why doesn’t he suggest artists gift each other their art, then donate to the auction? Oh, right, he’s an art critic, not a charitable professional who should know these things.
Do some pieces sell low? Yes, and that sucks. Does that drive down the market? Maybe, but I doubt it. But some pieces sell insanely high. We have on artist who sells unframed silk screen prints at our Art Deska Gallery and Adoption Center for $5. Last year a framed print sold for $1,500 at the auction. Did that drive up the market? Sometimes people in the room just don’t pay what we think something is worth, whether it’s art or a golf package.
But it’s not about the sale price of one piece of art any more than a humane community is about how one person treats one animal. It’s about the aggregate. How does the entire effort come together to create something bigger and better? That’s what a good auction does. That’s what a humane community does. That, Mr. Gleason, is what society is about. If you want to reduce the art community and artists to mere purveyors of product in an Ayn Randian market society, feel free. I will suffer the fault of hoping for the charity and kindness of artists who support our mission and our cause, who give because they choose to and want to and can, not for ROI.
Yes, our job is to make sure we are good stewards of their generosity. Yes, some charities don’t live up to that ideal and, hell, even ours has stumbled on occasion and worked to ensure we are great partners to all our donors. You say charity auctions demeans the art world while you demean artists and charities alike with your characterization of each as greedy. A few pigs doesn’t make the entire world swine.