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Ask a Gallery Owner: Should I Donate My Art to Charity Events?

by Jason Horejs on 07/26/2012 · 12 comments

As an artist you could easily give away ten lifetime’s worth of work to all of the charitable causes that would love to have one of your works in their silent auction. The question is, should you do donate, and if so what should you keep in mind when making a donation? I recently received an email from an artist with some of these questions. Below is our conversation thread on the subject.

Original Email

Hi Jason,
What’s your opinion about donating pieces to charity auctions, and what should be the reserve or minimum value versus the commercial gallery price? Thanks.

My Response

Donations can be a great way to give back to the community and to get some exposure. Make sure the piece you donate is a good representation of your work and not an orphan piece. A reserve is a good idea, but the reserve can be lower than the gallery price.

Artist’s Response

Thanks, Jason. Good advice, but should the reserve value be 30%, 50%, 75%, from a gallery’s point of view.?

My Response

I’ve never really had too much of a concern with my artist’s donating work. I would be fine with the number being 30-50% of retail value. If you have a gallery in the local area it wouldn’t hurt to have a conversation with them about what they would be comfortable with. I have sold artwork to clients who missed out on bidding on an auction piece, so it was good exposure for us as well as the artist.

Some additional points to keep in mind:

  1. When making a donation, give only your best work. I know it’s tempting to go digging in the back corner of the attic to give away an orphaned piece of artwork, but remember that the attendees and a charitable event are likely your target customers. You want to show them your best work.
  2. Request that the charity give you the address information of anyone who bids on the work. While I would certainly understand that the charity might be reluctant to do this, I knew an artist who asked for this information once and was provided with addresses. Perhaps some junior charity worker didn’t know any better or perhaps it was the charity’s policy to provide this info. The artist sent out a low-key marketing piece saying something to the effect of “I understand you bid on my artwork at a recent auction and didn’t win it – I just wanted to let you know my studio is in the area and I would be happy to show you additional works that are currently available. Should you find one that you fall in love with, I will donate a portion of the proceeds to the charity.” He sold a painting as a result of this effort, and even though it was only a small one, he felt he built a great relationship with the buyer.
  3. Pick 2-3 charities or causes that you believe in and become a consistent supporter. This has two benefits: First, the more you participate the more likely you are to have the opportunity to serve on boards or committees where you can network with other volunteers, some of whom may be great community contacts for you. Second, once you’ve picked your causes you now have a great way to decline other invitations to donate – “I already support the American Diabetes association and Breast Cancer Awareness – while your cause is noble and important I’m afraid I can’t commit to any more causes.”
  4. Give out of the goodness of your heart. I realize all of the points made above talk about how you can optimize contributions to try and get a marketing advantage. I’m sure that most charities would be happy to see their contributors benefit from their participation, after all, you’re far likelier to donate again in the future, but this shouldn’t be your ultimate goal. While you should take advantage of any benefits available through your contribution, even if you don’t get any immediate advantage, you will have the satisfaction of knowing you have helped the community.

What do you think – do you donate to charities and community causes? How have you benefited from your participation? What advice would you give to an artist who has been asked to donate art to a cause? Leave your thoughts and advice in the comments below.

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About 

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of ARTsala. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Jean Holzenthaler July 26, 2012 at 8:15 am

In El Paso there are several charity events where artists are asked to paint on wooden shapes (hearts, houses, crosses, stars, suns) that are about 12 x 12 inches or so. Each charity has their particular shape and the silent auctions take place at different times of the year. The public and the artists enjoy seeing all the art works done on the same shape and the great variety of the interpretations. It is a good way for local artists to share their talents but not give away an artwork that might sell in another way. I believe that an artist can deduct only the cost of the paint and canvas and frame when donating to a charity. To make a larger monetary and deductible donation, an artist could sell an artwork and then donate the money to the 501c3 charity and get the income tax deduction.

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Brian Billings July 26, 2012 at 9:05 am

I donate each year to the Free Arts of Arizona charity auction at the Herberger Theater. This is a fantastic charity and put on a great event for the artists & the bidders. This past year they even had some local galleries get involved. I definitely have benefited from this event by meeting other artists and collectors. This event is always an event I look forward to each year.
Thanks Jason, your points were spot on!

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James Aschbacher July 26, 2012 at 9:13 am

Hi Jason,
I’ve been donating to charity auctions and fundraisers for about 15 years now. I select 2 or 3 every year to which I donate an original painting. For all the others – and there are many – I always say “Yes, I’d be delighted to donate a signed art print and a $100 gift certificate.” My art prints are unframed but they are mounted on mat board and cost me about $1 to produce. Everyone can afford to donate a dollar, right?! But to sweeten the deal, not only for the auction but for me, is to include a gift certificate worth $100 toward the purchase of an original from my studio. I insist that both items be auctioned together as one item and I suggest that the opening bid is $20. About 75% of the winning bidders are happy to get a print of mine and never use the gift certificate. BUT the other 25% eventually come over to my studio and use their certificate on an original or commission a piece. I’ve donated to 160 auctions over those 15 years, so this calculates to about 40 originals being sold via this inexpensive auction donation plan. It’s a win-win situation for everyone and it has brought me many collectors that I would ordinarily wouldn’t have reached. And the beauty is that I’m always able to say, “Yes!”

Cheers!
James Aschbacher

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Nolan Haan July 26, 2012 at 9:50 am

When donating to a not-for-profit 501-c-3 organization, an artist can only deduct the cost of supplies, not the market value of the donated work, at tax time. This rule also applies to members of the immediate family.

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Robin Lee Makowski July 26, 2012 at 11:08 am

I have written about this issue in my blog – it’s a sticky wicket. I completely agree with items 3 & 4: and the best reason to give is to give. BUT most organizations will solicit an artist by touting that giving is “good exposure.” In 30 years of donating, I have never found this to be true. Not once has giving ever resulted in a sale, and in fact, event patrons will approach me before an event to see what I’m donating “so I can get it for half or less of what you usually charge!” They don’t mean to be rude or ignorant, but they are – and they’ve never bought anything from me. Artists need to ask the right questions about the organization, where the money’s going, etc., when approached for a donation. I now insist on getting half of whatever the piece is sold for, and it it doesn’t sell, I want it back. Most are happy to comply. Also, it’s just plain dumb to set a reserve for less than it cost the artist out-of-pocket to put the piece together. Often the framing alone cost the artist hundreds! If that donated piece sells for $75, the artist would have been better off writing a check to the organization for $100 instead of giving up his work! Also, make sure the organization and the artwork meld: a marine painting at a Native Plant Society fund raiser will not be seen by its target market.
Not long ago, I put a $2200 painting into an auction event organized by and hosted by a bank. The money they raised was divided among four charities. Think about this: they’re a BANK. They want artists to “donate” their work, auction the work, deduct their expenses, and donate the rest to charity, thereby reaping the tax benefits. What does the artist get? A party? He can’t even write off his materials! It’s a BANK! A “donation” to a bank is a GIFT, not a donation! My painting sold for $800. I received $400. If I was going to sell my painting for less than half-price, I could have taken the $800, thrown a nice party, made a donation directly that I could have written off, and still had money in my pocket! Make sure you’re donating to a 501(c)(3) and not to any Tom, Dick, or Harry who decides to hold a fund raiser and tap the artists “for exposure.” Most of those people have never bought anything from me or any other artist, ever! As Jason said: pick your causes – two or three will get you to Heaven; you don’t have to give your studio away! Make sure they’re organizations that mesh with your life in some way and support them regularly. A polite “no” will suffice to the rest.
Option B would be to go to your well-heeled patron who can always use a tax write-off, ask her to buy the painting from you and donate it. It’s a win-win-win for everyone involved. She can write off the entire amount, you got paid for your work, and the charity gets a nice piece to auction.

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Jul July 27, 2012 at 4:07 am

I donate a couple of paintings per year to charity auctions. I usually ask if a stack of my business cards or small flyers can be put next to the painting at the auction, so that people who find my work interesting (but aren’t necessarily the winning bidder) will have an easy way to find me and my website.

If I ever find myself in the situation of being asked for more donations than I can afford to make with original paintings, I like James’s idea of donating a print and a gift certificate. This would also be a good solution for auctions where the average value of the donated items is significantly below the price of an original painting.

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Sandy Keller July 27, 2012 at 7:48 am

Wow, Robin says it like it is….after donating many pieces of art, I am trying to limit now. I want to copy Robin’s statement and post it as a reminder to me!

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Alison Philpotts August 6, 2012 at 6:07 pm

I am always asked to donate, and I love all the charities, so I found the best way for me is two options:

-ask the charity to buy the piece at half price, then do what they want, either in auction or sales , or
-give me half the final auction price, no matter what it is

That way, the charity makes money and I make enough to continue making more paintings

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Phoebe Pollinger August 7, 2012 at 5:40 pm

All artists deserve to receive value for their work.

Many people think that the definition of giving support to the arts community is offering a wall to hang artwork or a stage on which to perform. Pay the artist?? Definitely not. “We gave you the wall/stage. Why should we pay you?” Would you even consider not paying your doctor because your tax dollars built the hospital? or not paying your plumber because you gave him your basement pipes on which to ply his craft?? Of course not.

I’ve represented artists and I’ve headed up arts organizations. Sometimes the hardest part of my job advocating for artists is the artists themselves. If I’m refusing to ask artists to donate work without them receiving at least an appropriate gallery-size commission and working to convince others, then why are artists working against their own interests by fully donating their work and making arts advocacy even harder?

I very much agree with earlier comments that donations only very occasionally result in further commissions or sales. Potential buyers are very definitely looking to score a discount price on a favorite artist at the local charity auction – this happened to an artist friend of mine who then stopped donating her work.

My plea to all artists: Start valuing your work as arts advocates and arts’ supporters do – stop working against your own interests. If you don’t value your work, then no one else will. Demand a gallery-appropriate commission; require that your market price be respected and maintained; work with and not against other advocates for the arts.

As a dear artist friend of mine said, “I’m so tired of being every charity’s cash cow.” Aren’t you?

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Andree leBlanc August 14, 2012 at 1:13 am

In regards to donating work, I have found great interest in my pieces, but it brought me nothing but more solicitations from other organizations to donate. Unfortunately, in this economy, this I cannot afford.

My plea to all artists: Start valuing your work as arts advocates and arts’ supporters do – stop working against your own interests. If you don’t value your work, then no one else will. Demand a gallery-appropriate commission; require that your market price be respected and maintained; work with and not against other advocates for the arts.
(I completely agree with the above. Most galleries want 40 to 50% of your selling price. This isn’t sustainable., what with the cost of materials and labor)

What about having the gallery buy your piece and then they can sell it for what they think their market will bear? AML

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Parson Allens October 25, 2012 at 10:21 pm

Donate your earning, not your art, and don’t brag about it, just do it. Find a person in Haiti and send them a check, they can all use it. You don’t need some charity group for that.

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Diane Salamon November 8, 2013 at 6:50 pm

It is the charity donation season again. Sept. – Jan. seem to be the biggest art donation months. There are a few charities that I want to support, and most of the time my work sells for a reasonable price. I just finished donating to a charity that suggested we price our work at what our galleries charge, and the charity was willing to pay 50% commission. We had the option to donate the entire work. I was willing to donate the entire amount to the charity, but my work did not sell. I noticed at the charity event that most of the people attending were the exhibiting artists. I think the idea of artists donating work is overused and doesn’t seem to draw the crowds anymore. Plus, the economy might still be causing anxiety with potential buyers. Another problem in this event was the admission price was high, which impacts the art sales. I am definitely going to rethink this situation. It does not help anyone’s career to have their work not sell or go for a very reduced price. In this case, the list of artists needing to pick up their work was very long.

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