Saturday, July 27, 2013

Art auctions can be a humiliating experience for donating artists.

There are many blog posts already written about the many reasons for artists to stop donating to benefit art auctions.  I recommend this one:

But, there is another aspect of the art auction experience that is harder to explain.  I will try.  Something about attending an art auction to which I have donated my artwork is a little bit humiliating.  I think if I were an established artist it would be different, as attendees and organizers may treat those artists with some level of respect.  But as an emerging artist, it can be very uncomfortable.

I've donated to small and large organizations, and each event has a completely different character, but the dynamic of predominately struggling artists donating items of a very personal nature to be bid on by people with discretionary income is the same every time.  Understand first that art is very personal to the artist.  It's like taking your dreams and putting them up for everyone to see and bid on.

Sometimes we are not even invited to the event.  We are not present to meet potential bidders, discuss our process and techniques, or connect with the collector in any way.  The first time I donated to a benefit, that was the case.  I donated a $100 gift certificate toward a commission to support a children's museum, even though I couldn't afford a membership for my own child.  The winning bidder sent me an anonymous email requesting a piece of work at the $100 value.  They did not want me to know their name and requested that I drop off the completed work at the museum so that we wouldn't have to meet in person.  That was rather unsettling.

For several years, I donated to the foundation for my alma mater, and I did get to attend the event.  They never included background information about the artists, so one year, I approached the high bidder of my artwork to introduce myself.  She looked at me like I had just asked what kind of sexual position she prefers and excused herself.  I still wonder why she bought the art?  And who was she?  Artists like to connect with the new owners of their art.

Last year, I donated work of a higher value to a local arts organization.  The required opening bid was for the actual retail value of the piece.  I still have it.  It is disheartening that artists making below minimum wage will donate to a cause, but supporters with solid incomes will usually not match the value.  And it feels really crummy to donate your work for charity, and have it not sell.  I was at the home of a collector one time who showed me a piece of mine he had acquired at one of these benefits for a fraction of the value.  He was very proud, and had no idea that the experience was degrading for me.  "Look!  I bought this $800 artwork of yours for only $200!  Isn't that great?"

And finally, at the higher-end art auctions, such as an art museum, there is a very obvious divide between the haves and have-nots in attendance.  I've given my artwork (through a juried process, by the way) to a museum each year for its fundraiser, which is a swanky party with great food and an open bar.  Guests wear formal attire and it is common to overhear, "What are you wearing?" in reference to the designer.  The donating artists, who can't afford to bring a date, slowly identify each other by the lesser quality of their clothing.  Artists and bidders are seated together at tables, but conversation is awkward.  "You must be an artist!", someone will say, looking me up and down. Last year, a woman commented, "You are so brave to wear that outfit here,"  (referring to my secondhand dress and boots).  Trying to be funny, I said, "You wait.  Next year everyone will be dressed like this."  "No," she said.  "They won't."

So, I had a nice meal and free booze, and watched my $800 piece sell for $140 and drove home thinking I probably wouldn't donate to any more auctions.  The fact is, I can't afford memberships to these organizations or tickets to their events.  When I tried to have my jewelry displayed at the museum, I was rejected outright.  During the first few years of donating to auctions, I felt altruistic, but increasingly, I just feel taken advantage of.

I do still donate small items to small, local organizations.  They are not targeting artists, exclusively, to provide donations.  They generally don't invite me to their events, but their budgets are very low, so I don't expect it.  I can give something small and feel ok about it, and I know it helps a little bit.

The blog post I linked to at the beginning does offer some suggestions for changing the yucky relationship between artists and fundraising auctions, and I hope some of the organizers start paying attention.  If I can split the take with the organization, I am more likely to donate something of higher value and feel like I at least received something for my effort.  If they put some effort into promoting me and my work by giving bidders a lot of good information and posting a link to my website online, it shows respect, adds some benefit for me, and is more likely to generate higher bids, which is a win/win.  Making sure the artists have name tags so that bidders can ask questions makes a huge difference.  And treating the artists as if their contribution is at least as valuable as the money being raised is vital.  Welcome us and talk to us, introduce us to potential bidders, and for Pete's sake, give us a glass of wine if it's a cash bar and we can't afford it.  It's no fun being a socially awkward artist attending an event alone, standing in a corner without a drink and not knowing anyone in the room, waiting for someone, anyone to please bid on your artwork.  A little extra effort might make it a less painful experience.


  1. I know it's not really the point - but I hope you know whatever that woman at the benefit's problem was, it was not your attire. After working for years in higher end fashion at Nordstrom, I know the type. And they are miserable. You just had the misfortune of crossing her path. Can you imagine going through life lacking any humor or kindness? It's pathetic.

    Also, I've been one of those people placing the minimum bid (because, frankly, that's all I could afford). But when I've been proud of the purchase after the fact it's really been because I felt I recognized the value even if the others didn't. I would never have wanted the artist to feel diminished. On the other hand, I would never tell the artist directly that I had gotten it at bargain prices! LOL!

    Anyway, I like your post and hope the institutions treat the contributing artists better in the future. Best wishes for your continued success!

  2. This is a great post. I will be sharing it with other people who organize non-profit auctions.

    Along the lines of changing the dynamic, I recently pitched an idea to an environmental non-profit for which I'm a board member. My idea is creating a focused show on their topic (local watersheds) in an alternative public space which does not charge a commission like a gallery would, so that a nice share could go to the non-profit but most will go the artist. My thought is that the "cause" is a hook to get folks who are not immediately drawn by the art to come and buy, in order to support the cause... and in the process the artist makes their normal share plus gaining a new audience of potential collectors. Would be interested to hear what you think of this idea.

  3. Jennifer, all of the experiences you have just mentioned (except the fashion one) have happened to me in addition to others that were just as rude or embarrassing. The crazy thing is, it took a handful of poor or bad experiences for me to Finally stop donating or doing a minimum bid. Since the minimum bid was not met, now I don't donate At All. Let folks think I'm a bitch or whatever. If they want my work they can pay for it.

  4. Thanks for the comments. The responses I've received from artists are overwhelmingly in agreement. We start contributing to art auctions feeling optimistic, altruistic, and honored to be able to help with fundraising. But when it is clear that the organizers have no interest in us, as artists, but shower the bidders with attention, it becomes clear that we are only there as bait. The one time a bidder approached me to commission another artwork like the one that sold at an auction, she wanted it quickly because she was moving, so I put another commission on hold and got the piece to her right away. When I invoiced her, she sent me a check for the opening bid price of the original, donated work with a note saying that should be the actual price, and I never heard from her again.

  5. P.S. I want to mention that I always contribute to Lin Schorr's "Beyond Borders" mosaic auction to benefit Doctors Without Borders because she asks for a small mosaic that won't take me weeks to complete, does a great job of promoting the contributing artists, and because she's not schmoozing rich donors who are trying to get cheap art. In fact, I suspect most of the bidders are fellow mosaic artists hoping for a chance to buy the artwork of someone they admire while helping out a good cause. Here's the link: ttps://édecins-sa/624064544306636