Opinion: Exploited artists

Nonprofit auctions sometimes take advantage of artists, but there are better alternatives.

I’ve spent a good amount of time working in the nonprofit industry, so naturally, I’ve worked on a number of fundraisers. They are a vitally important part of donor relations and keeping nonprofits fiscally sound. But the part I always dreaded was the auction, which often left me rife with guilt and anxiety.

The reason? Auctions at fundraisers may sometimes prey upon artists, though without malice. The organizations take advantage of personal connections and put creative workers in the uncomfortable position of potentially refuting a worthwhile organization or a patron.

Any artist can tell you how often they’ve been hit up with charitable asks. Yet it’s often artists who can’t afford to donate. Add to that the steady increases in the cost of living and art materials, and asking the stereotypical-but-often-true starving artist to give, give, give is impractical, if not insulting.

The artist can only write off the cost of supplies. The hours, days or weeks of time? Not so much. And while some artists can bust out a work on canvas in a single afternoon, others’ works may require painstaking detail or costly materials, meaning the auction had better deliver the right audience.

In addition, if a piece sells under value in such a public forum, it can be both embarrassing to the artist and devalue their overall work and reputation.

Of course, the artist also has the opportunity to gain. They can get their work in front of the eyes of hundreds of new patrons and potentially jump-start a burgeoning career. A number of local artists have seen the asking prices of their work explode at the right auctions.

So what can the philanthropic community do?

Nonprofits might consider commissioning or donating a set percentage to the artist. If the piece does well, then the artist can earn more than having sold it in a gallery.

Saint John’s Program for Real Change, for example, commissioned a joint original piece from local artists Maren Conrad and David Garibaldi. The nonprofit publicized the piece through numerous channels. Before the auction, a mini-documentary was shown about the inspiration for and development of the work. The result was a piece that sold for $10,000. (In fact, one smitten audience member commissioned another piece to be made for an additional donation of $10,000.)

In larger cities, patrons often purchase a piece directly from the artist, retain it for a set amount of time and then donate it to the nonprofit to auction off. In this scenario, everyone wins. However, this method raises the question: Are there are enough willing patrons in a medium-sized city like Sacramento?

In the end, it comes down to open communication. What are the goals of both the organization and the artist, and how can they be mutually met? Dialogue is key to ensure that all parties gain.