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

As an artist you could easily give away ten lifetimes’ 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 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 the Author: Jason Horejs

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 the Art Business Academy. 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.

28 Comments

  1. Even though a new artist – I have already been asked to donate a painting to a local charity event. I talked to other artists about it. They reminded me that I should be careful with how the IRS views such donations. The artist can only write off on his own taxes, the cost of material – not his time or the value of what the painting sold for at auction or would have sold for in a gallery.

  2. I used to donate good pieces to any organization that asked. After many years of this, I realized that the people & organizations fawning over my work [when they are trying to get it free] never made it to any shows or openings or art events. They never bought or visited or sent buyers [I ask buyers where they saw / heard of my work] so I made a change: If an organization wants my work and they are not already patrons / buyers of my work, they can buy at below wholesale price from me directly. Then THEY can donate it and receive any tax benefit…. let them chase down the always elusive receipt required for tax filing and encourage them to get the bidding up.

    1. Paul, this has been my experience also. Now I offer my work at a discount when someone asks for a donation. The exception is any of my books, calendars or note cards, because those can be easily reproduced. People just don’t understand that artists cannot write off the value of the piece, only the cost of materials. In a small town like mine, if I donate, people come to expect freebies and wait for them rather than actually spend money.

  3. I donate to 2-3 local charities annually and it does keep us visible to the local clientele. What I did find
    out from my new ‘tax person’, is that the donation can only be taken as a tax write-off in the amount of
    materials only, not the retail or wholesale value of the work. I did not know this and have been deducting the full price for years. I am in the process of trying to find out what the law permits.
    Anyone else have any feedback?
    thanx

  4. I donated one of my Favorite paintings to a Chiropractor where I was a patient, she said it was for a charity. I never ever again heard anything about my painting to whom it was donated to or anything. I basically forgot about it, in hind sight I don’t think it was ever donated, she probably just wanted a free painting. My present policy is I don’t donate anymore.

  5. I think I will stick to donating money or small items to causes I want to support. After donating pieces to fundraisers a few times I’ve had people contact me about available work only to find they were looking for the same cheap prices they saw at the auction. We both wind up feeling disappointed.

  6. I have been donating artwork to my favorite wildlife and horse rescues for years. Usually the works are appropriate to the charity be it horses, bobcats or birds of all kinds. Sometimes it’s originals and sometimes framed or gallery wrapped giclée’s. I have sold a few pieces as a result and no one asked for a discount.

    Recently I made arrangements between one of the local horse organizations and my co-op gallery to create a brand new batik piece using their horses. It will be a social media/on line auction, 100% to the 501-C3 organization, but if people want to see it in person, they can come to the gallery where it will be on display till the auction is over. This will bring in new people to the gallery and it supports a very well known org. We are all excited about this partnership. We will exchange info on both of us and it will be on line.

  7. I have a policy NOT to donate my paintings for silent auctions because of the following reasons:
    (1) It cheapens the marketability of my work to be lumped into a gloried garage sale along with toasters and unwanted household decorative items. At least this is the type of silent auctions that are common in our area. People will only think as highly of my work as I do myself.
    (2) Most of my paintings are large and sell for not an insignificant amount of money. I want to be in control of the price of my work and most people who are orchestrating these silent auctions have no clue on how to handle it. If a third party is going to be marketing my work, I want to be sure they are a professional gallerist or equivalent instead of someone who has volunteered for the local dog show.
    (3) it gives all participants the impression, even if they don’t bid, that my work is not precious and unique and this is detrimental to marketing my work in general. It is not good exposure or advertising for my work which is one of the ploys that is used to get people to donate.
    (4) My paintings are an extension of my brand. My paintings also include a lot of symbolism and story. It is my opinion that my market is “seeking a piece” of a larger whole and in addition to the actual paint on canvas, my buyers are buying the “story” and the intrinsic value of the painting in context to my brand and in relationship to my body of work. All of those things become disconnected from my painting when it goes into a silent auction. People are left with just paint on canvas and it levels the playing field too much between my painting and the one sitting on the table next to it that doesn’t have those things I have described.
    (5) Because the tax laws allow me to only deduct the value of my cost of materials and not the true retail value of the work, the tax benefit that most uninformed silent auction workers tout as a major benefit of donating is irrelevant.

    That said, there are some very important causes that I support and consider worthy. These choices are personal and important to me, and we all benefit from being a part of something bigger than ourselves. For those, I donate money. It is better for all parties in my opinion. For the multitude of other requests I get….I donate a toaster (Just kidding!)

  8. My experience with donations has been similar to Paul’s. I now donate to just a couple of my favorite causes. one thing I do not like is when organizations as for a donation with the promise that they will publicly give credit to all donors through a newspaper article or “ad” and then don’t follow through with that promise. One nonprofit sends a thank you card which I then display in my studio so visitors can see that I contribute to the community.

  9. Jason, your strategy is a good one. I will consider using it from now on.
    Many years ago I donated to causes that I believed in with the caveate that they provide me with the successful bidder’s name. Never, ever, was I able to get them to follow up. I felt used and abused. So, I quit donating.
    Since I have become more active with showing lately I plan on considering how and where to donate again. I appreciate hearing from the other artists in this thread. Thank you.

  10. Yes, I am happy to say I do donate work to charitable causes. I donated three paintings last year.
    It would have been difficult to donate in cash what my paintings brought in a spirited auction. One of my paintings sold for quite a bit more than the gallery price, mostly because of a lively bid off by two wealthy buyers. What do I get out of it? A whole lot of name recognition, I made a very good sale directly from an auction event, a bit of a tax help and a big dose of, I did something good feeling. I admit to a small pinch of selfish regret when I give away a painting, but the giving has never disappointed me. I sometimes get carried away with the thought that my art is a precious commodity. and donating my work also helps me to remember that it is not all about money. I make no demands of the charitable organizations, they are not always as organized as I would prefer and I have experienced the downside and do understand the hesitation. My act of giving is nothing I should be proud of really, I feel like it is something I should be doing anyway. My donations really, really helped. It works for me.

    1. I think your experience is the exception when it comes to charitable auctions. I have seen more spirited bidding over someone’s wife’s cake than the artwork that was donated to the same cause. (I guess that says we need to be careful about the event we donated to!)

  11. A lot of good things to think about, Jason. Thank you. What if the piece doesn’t sell — is there an expectation that the artist would get it back or would the organization keep it?

  12. I donate my art for causes I support and I do not worry if they go bellow my normal prices (although sometimes they go for higher prices!)because the whole point or me is to leverage my art and to be able to indirectly donate more $ than I would normally because of my yearly donation budget. S

    For instance if I have $500 dollars in my budget to donate to charity purposes I may just donate to 1 organization. However if I have 3 pieces of art market valued at $500 dollars each, which cost me lets say $100 each to paint for $300 dollars I can give $500 dollars to 3 organizations, which makes me feel a better human being.

    I get a tax receipt which is always handy, but I find with the new laws in Canada and US protecting identity nobody wants to give the winner’s email or address. That is for me the main drawback.

  13. Thank you, Jason, the is wise advice. You are spot on when you say that the senior consideration is: to sincerely desire to help. We benefited from some donations to gallery fundraisers for a cause in which we believed: name recognition, additional collectors, and future acquisitions.

  14. I love donating art to local non-profit organizations. My art has raised funds for hospice programs, student art scholarships, missionaries, food bank, meals on wheels, local historic venues, wildlife rescue among others. In most cases it is 100% donation of art, in others there is a percent given back to the artist. Typically I choose to match the sale of the art, and request name of collector, if I didn’t attend event. It is rare that I don’t get feedback from someone wanting to know more about my work, or buy another piece. Making a difference through my art is part of my purpose in life. Expect miracles~

  15. I donate to one non-profit who values the work of artists. Their silent auctions are held at a beautiful venue along fine whiskeys, hors d’oeurves and live music. All final winning bids are split 50/50%. It is the only non – profit I give to now. I used to give to more organizations but I got not feel I got much back including a thank you.

  16. I’ve donated to a school where I was given a residency. Each year my work has sold and each year the “sold” price has increased. This past year, I was surprised to discover it was triple the reserve! As I work in several disciplines I also have donated to local non-profits. What this has done is provided local exposure and has established a sort of a base-line price for my work too.

  17. My experience with donations is that is never ending. the need is never satisfied and the results are minimal in terms of connections or sales. Over 45 years as an artist i have donated several millions $ in artworks but always to very specific causes or organisations who show clear goals and competency in their field. My normal budget is 50,000 per year out of which i expect 0 in return monetarily. the tax write offs are not worth the effort so does not enter the discussion. Research the organisation or cause you wish to donate to and do it without expectation of return.
    At times very good collectors and projects have turned up but it may be years or never.
    donate because you value the groups work and do not ever devalue your work by giving it away without consideration.

  18. I have mixed feelings about donating to charities. I’ve donated 2-3 times a year, to different charities. When I was in a gallery, the owner definitely would not give me the name of the person who successfully purchased my art. Now being independent, I’ve found that the charities won’t release the name so I can even send a thank you note. Regardless of their reluctance to provide the name of the buyer (or a thank you), the charities have no problem, coming back and asking me for art work, 4-5 times a year. I find this leaves me with a bad taste.

    I have now dwindled donations down to two charities I support once a year for each, getting a painting. Even though they still don’t provide a name and address, they seem more appreciative. I do this because I actually support what the charity does, because I have never received any additional business out of doing this, nor a thank you from the charity. Go with your heart and do it because you want to, not with the expectation of getting anything in return. Then you have truly uplifted your donation for a higher purpose.

  19. This is an article by Mat Gleason back in 2011 and accurately reflects my own experiences with charity art auctions:
    There is a tradition of auctioning original works of art donated by artists to raise money for charitable causes. There are many good causes that hold such events. No matter how good the causes, though, I have come to the conclusion that artists must stop donating to every single one of them.

    Don’t ever donate your art to a charity auction again. Half a century of charity art auctions have changed the way collectors buy art. These fundraisers have depressed prices of art across the board and kept artists in a subordinate position that has no career upside or benefits.

    Instead of tossing away another great artwork to a good cause, join the good cause of boycotting charity art auctions. When you join this cause …

    •You stop taking revenue out of the art world

    •You stop shifting art collector dollars to the bottomless pits of recurring annual Beg-A-Thons

    •You don’t contextualize your art as being a synonym of pretentious panhandling

    •You don’t announce that your art is worth low bids

    •You don’t risk that your work will be publicly seen getting no bids

    •You don’t empower strangers to devalue your artwork

    •Most importantly, you stop publicly proclaiming that you give your art away

    The argument against me is simple: Donations of art to charity auctions raise money for good causes and raise the profile of artists who put their art in the public eye. It is a good argument. It has worked well. This seductive sales pitch has pulled in countless millions of dollars over the past few decades.

    Problem is, this argument has not lived up to its bargain. Sad news: Your profile got humiliated because the collector got such a bargain on your art. If your art was one of dozens of trinkets on a wall with a hundred other artists, your profile actually disappeared there in the crowd anyway.

    I would love to hear the story of the artist whose career rocketed to success because he or she donated a work to a charity auction and this act alone tipped the first domino toward an avalanche of success coming his or her way. This narrative is always implied. I’ve never seen it happen.

    Charity art auctions are the emptiest of promises to artists: you give us your work, you get nothing in return except a party invite to an event where you are a second class citizen. Watch as the price of what you really will let your work go for is nakedly advertised to the select group of people to whom your work is meant to be seen as rare and desirable.

    Suppose you want to at least deduct a donation of your art to the charity, guess what? The law only allows an artist to deduct the cost of materials. Meanwhile a collector can buy your work for the minimum bid, have it appraised at its full retail value and donate it to some other good cause for that top dollar amount.

    As for the merits of the infinite number of good causes out there, what is the value in giving up a painting that would sell for a thousand dollars retail in order to see it raise 50 Bucks for that cause? Pick one charity, donate generously and keep the collectors assuming that the price you ask at the gallery is the best and only price they are going to get.

    Someone has to be the bad guy here, so you can blame me for inspiring you to donate cash to a good cause and to keep your art career safe from the bargain bin. Print this out and send it with your regrets to anyone asking you to devalue your work in the name of glamorizing their efforts on behalf of yet another worthy cause in a world of infinite and endless good causes. Tell them the art stops here.

  20. I donate to causes that I feel strongly about, and that I would participate in as well. I have donated an art piece, as well as a family photo shoot, and it has led to new business for me.

  21. Yes I donate my artwork to charities but I contact the charities myself.some charities I have found will provide more of your information than others so I have found one in particular that I really like. I also donate money to them when I sell some artwork

  22. I have donated artwork to various charities but no longer do so—–
    I quickly realized that by donating to a charity, other charities came knocking on my door!
    Not worth the trouble….
    David J. Skolsky
    Smyrna, GA 30082

  23. I agree totally with your recommendations, I donate to at least three events and find great personal satisfaction, not to mention that it has helped me in putting my name out there, mostly however I am pleased to support these very important community organizations

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