Charity Auctions: To Give or Not to Give

This is the time of year when Disjecta comes asking for work to sell in their November auction. This used to be a decent auction. They did a good job of selecting work and were respectful of the artists who submitted. They didn’t check every box on the following list, but they did enough that if you believed in the organization, it was good enough. There was a bit too much work, the collectors weren’t stellar, and introductions were few and far between, but if you had affection for the organization, they did try to minimize the downside. Last year that changed. Artists walked in to find their pieces listed as low as 1/4 of retail, and while the auction had traditionally offered artists the possibility of taking a percentage of the hammer price, that too evaporated. (They then reported record profits.) Disjecta no longer seems to check many, if any, of the boxes that make charity auctions a worthwhile partnership. Here is a list of things you should insist upon before giving your work to any charity auction.

1) It’s curated with an understanding of what the organization’s base will absorb. If a museum curator or gallerist is listed on a call for entries, they will likely be looking at hundreds of submissions in a single afternoon–it’s doubtful they will even remember what they chose, let alone your name. They most certainly don’t know the particulars of the people whose money supports the institution. Before donating, you should ask yourself whether the organization is only taking in work that they are confident about, or is it a scattershot approach? Ask what they like about your work, and see what comes back.

2) There should be a pool of good collectors looking at the work. If you think you are getting exposure from your donation, giving a piece of art is a high price to advertise to people who have no intention of coming back to support you later on. Lots of people will buy a trinket to support a cause, but are they collectors who will return for more?

3) The institution actively makes introductions between artists and collectors. This is vital. If they are not working for you, you should not work for them! When you arrive at the auction, do they introduce you to their board and supporters, or does the auction feel more segregated with artists on one side of the room and collectors on the other? Do they believe in promoting the artists who support them, or do they view artists as potential gaffs?

4) They must have a high rate of sales. Nothing should flounder in the live section, and the silent section should come very close to selling out. And yes, you can ask them what percentage of work sells from their auction. If there is hesitation or pushback, they aren’t thinking of this as a partnership; you’re just a supplier of a no-cost product to sell. There’s nothing worse than seeing your work hanging on the wall after everything around it is being packed up for new homes. It takes a lot of skill but good auctions try to minimize this.

5) They protect the artist’s price. This is a big one. Bidding should start no lower than wholesale, 50% of the retail price. If people see your $1,000 artwork sell for $250, they will come to think that your work is only worth $250. Artists often give to auctions for exposure, but there’s also the very real risk of bad exposure. The auction should ALWAYS allow you to set a minimum price or reserve. 

6) The artist should have the option to claim a percentage of the sale price. This acknowledges that while everybody else wins–the collector gets discounted artwork, the organization gets money to pay its staff–the artist can only write off the cost of materials. Giving the artist a percentage helps cover framing and supplies, and maybe there’s enough left over to help the artist live to create another day. 

7) Do you believe in the organization? Do you really believe? If they asked you to write a check of equal value to your work, would you? Do you think you’ll ever show there? Do you think your friends will ever show there? If you walk up to a board or staff member, do they know your name? Can you walk up to a board or staff member and have your concerns taken seriously? Do you go to all of their openings? Some? Do you only come out when you are giving? Unless it’s an organization you truly believe is amazing, and go to most everything they do, it is probably best to save that work for the people who support you.