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

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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34 Comments

  1. Your articles are always helpful and this is no exception. I agree that it is important to donate a piece of art that rreflect your best work. I have found this does lead to interest inmy paintings. I do donate to one charity in particu;ar and usually do not take on others. Maybe if something I thought was very worthwhile I would consider donating to them.
    Thanks again for all your information over the years.

  2. I was at a show opening recently where the artist auctioned a piece off and donated the proceeds to a charity. I thought that was brilliant in that her art opening advertisements went out to that charity’s mailing list and the opening was quite well attended. (That besides also doing a good thing, lol).

    1. Thanks for this very appropriate article!
      I quite agree with it, yet I continue to donate, because all of my other great artist friends do so. I’ll bring the article up for discussion in my neck of the woods and I just put it on FB.

    2. Thanks for posting this article! I agree—I stopped donating my art some time ago. I simply donate 10% of all my art sales to my preferred environmental group…..

    3. This article is spot on!
      I no longer donate my artwork to charity auctions for all of the reasons the author elucidated.

      Instead I decide on 1 or 2 charities each year and give a percentage of the proceeds from my sales of specific items. I talk about the charity when advertising my offerings to my mailing list/social media following and the results have been fabulous for everyone!

  3. In Canada (and likely the USA as well) a donation of your art is taxed at full value, even though you did not receive any money. That is called a “deemed disposition”. So you have to claim the donation as a “sale” on your tax returns. The Tax department watches out of this. Same rule applies to personal gifts of your art to family and friends!!

    1. I have never heard of this in Canada. I get a tax receipt most of the time, usually for a portion of the actual worth, but I can then use that in calculating my income taxes.
      I have donated over the years and currently the one place I support is the public gallery where I am a volunteer. They have a gala event with an art sale as a part of it. It is a 50/50 event where artists get 50% of the set price of the piece (all are set at $150.00, so the artist can choose what piece to put in the show, knowing what the sale price will be if it sells.) That way it is not a total donation giveaway. We all love this idea! Any unsold work is picked up by the contributing artist at a set time, after the event.

  4. I have donated various pieces of art to different charitable events and have asked to find out who purchased the pieces later. I doubt they would have given me the names of the bidders because they would not even give me the buyer’s information. Some event coordinators have told me they cannot release the names of the buyers due to confidentiality rules. So I’ve never been able to use any information for marketing purposes. In one case I found out my painting was not sold and was unable to find out what happened to it later. I guess one of the organizers took it. I have decided that it is not worth donating art, better to donate money instead, especially since you can only donate the cost of the materials anyway.

  5. I recently made donations to two different charities. When I asked a worker with the first charity how things went with my paintings she said two of them sold but she kept one because she liked it. I was horrified! Needless to say, I won’t ever donate to that charity again.

    The second charity was having an art auction, both silent and live. All the pieces that didn’t receive bids in the silent auction were bundled (3-4 pieces per bundle) and auctioned after the live auction. I saw these bundles of beautiful art sell for $40 to $85 – $10 to $20 per piece. I felt badly for the artists whose works were not valued enough, in my personal opinion. I don’t know if I will donate to this charity next year.

    What I learned is, artists should ask questions about what will happen with their art. I specifically said I wanted my unsold pieces back of my reserve was not met. Only one piece didn’t sell. Because I donate great pieces instead of orphan pieces, I feel it’s perfectly appropriate to ask for my pieces to be returned. The unsold pieces donated to the second charity were packed up to be kept in a storage unit until next year – something I didn’t want to chance.

  6. After reading the responses, I guess I’ve been a bit relaxed about my donating.

    I donate art to one cause only. At this point they know they can hit me up for a donation anytime, and they do, about three times a year. I give them a painting, no strings attached, as an unconditional gift, and just let it go at that. It’s a great charity which does great work for a targeted population, so whatever happens with the art after it leaves my hands I have no doubts or concerns.

    By this time they know they’ll get a piece from me, and in this smallish community, that notoriety and word of mouth alone is worth it without my doggedly pursuing further information. Plus, I enjoy putting out good karma.

    Missing out on opportunities to promote myself and my art? Perhaps, but I’d feel weird trying to milk it for financial gain. That discomfort would spoil the whole concept of donating for me.

  7. I have 4 local charities with auctions that I support by donating paintings, so if anyone asks I can say I have already chosen my charities. All of them specifically say to deliver the donated piece by a certain date and pick up any unsold items at a certain time (typically following the close of the auction). It never would have occurred to me that someone would keep the unsold painting and give it to a staffer or volunteer.

    As with most things it is up to the artist to be clear about the expectations, preferably in a written agreement. Are you donating your art for the charity to do with as they please, or are you donating it to the fundraising event, and taking it back if it doesn’t sell?

    As for names, sometimes I am able to get the name of the purchaser and can send them a nice thank-you card. But, as an occasional bidder on artwork as well, I would really be upset if the charity shared my contact information merely because I raised my hand.

  8. I don’t believe an artist should ever donate a piece of art to a good cause and let me tell you why. Every good cause usually has either a director and/or a staff that is paid to run the good cause and a fund raiser is a source of income for the good cause. In most cases the paid individuals put together the fund raising event, they pay for a venue, they pay for food and drink, they pay for printing invitations, but they seek donations from businesses and artists to auction off at their event. In most cases they neglect to either set a minimum starting bid for the auction items and there is absolutely no effort made accommodate the donor. Most of the time the artist is not even given a ticket to the party and there is never any followup on the winning bidder or those who bid.

    I think artists should support good causes, but I don’t think they should degrade the value of their work to do it. I’ve seen too many people brag about the piece of art they “stole” for a ridiculously low price at a silent auction, and not only did the “steal it”, the set a new low value for the work, they got a tax write off for their charitable contribution, and the cause got a smaller donation than they should have, and the artist gets nothing.

    I would suggest an artist offer some of their time or a cash donation if the believe in the cause. I also tell artists if they are approached for a donation that they should suggest that the cause usually has angel donors that have plenty of money and one of those donors should buy their art and donate it to the auction and then the donor could get a tax write-off, the buyer could get a piece of art and a tax write-off, and the artist could get the full value of their work and the satisfaction of helping the cause.

    There his no reason why the artist should be the sacrificial lamb in the good cause donation process.

    1. I couldn’t agree with you more.Being a glass sculptor and a cast encaustic painter i’ve been asked many many times over the past 30 plus years.I agree it does put the artist in a vulnerable and sometimes disrespectful position.I also have heard the buyers of the work telling everyone what a steal they got.Just that alone is cringe worthy.It’s typically the wealthiest clients as well who do this.Sometimes these individuals even wait for an auction instead of buying your work from the gallery.I specifically had that happen to me at Sofa Chicago a few years ago.The collector knew I was going to participate in a special glass show.I have also heard this from my glass artist friends as well who no longer participate because they are tired of being had.Best to pick your own charities you like and personally give to them-much more respectful.

    2. Well stated. As artists, we can only deduct the cost of materials on our taxes not the true worth of our work. Too many charities seek free “prizes” or entertainment for their participants.

  9. I donate to fundraisers for art organizations almost exclusively now, because after 20 years of art donations, that is where I have decided to place most of my support. One advantage of this is that art organizations tend to understand the needs of artists, usually supplying at least the buyer’s contact information and treating your donation with care. I have had all kinds of negative experiences, including getting my unsold artwork returned with a damaged frame, getting no feedback whatsoever, and not even receiving an invitation to a gala to which I had donated many thousands of dollars worth of art (that of course I would only realize in tax deductions as a few hundred for frames and supports). On the positive side, I have found lasting and devoted new clients,both from buyers and bidders, have attended some fantastic soirees, and have had the satisfaction of supporting non-profits whose missions I believe in.

  10. Good article. Great points. Have never been able to get follow-up contact information.
    Your article and the previous few got me thinking.
    How about a letter from you to the buyer in an envelope attached which is addressed to the “new owner”. It can be a kind of remote control thank you. There’s a connection, and at least two points in common- the support of the charity and the piece of art work. If the note was conversational it seems you would have a very food possibility of contact for getting the kind of feedback that works.

    I haven’t done charity donations in quite some time so that last comment is really a conjecture.

  11. I’ve found that it’s most important for that charity to be near and dear to my heart because the results can be unproductive and disappointing. My one exception is getting work into an auction put on by an art museum. Attendees are already into art so the odds are in favor of a win-win situation.

  12. I appreciate this article and the comments which have expanded my thinking on this subject. I too have donated many pieces over the years and never had a charity be willing to share the buyer’s or the bidders’ contact info with me. Since my work mostly consists of bronze sculptures now, I’ve come to feel that these are just too costly for me to donate outright. I’ve started suggesting to charities that they can put my piece in their auction with a minimum bid which will be paid to me, and that they can keep any profits above that bid. I think that this is an equitable win-win for all parties, and conveys that art is a professional endeavor worthy of at least SOME financial compensation.

  13. I donate only to charities (local) that I know and trust. Frequently I have a positive personal connection to these organizations and I have had no negative experiences doing this. I admit that sometimes it has not been my best work, and probably should think about that more, but people have seemed delighted with what they purchased and I know these paintings did some good. I feel like it has been a win-win for me!

  14. I used to donate originals to charity auctions, but then I found out how little they actually fetched at the auction, and then I felt very sad that my piece that was worth a pretty penny was scored for a fraction of the value. (And I never got any information on bidders or the buyer) So now I donate prints. People seem happy to bid on them for the same amounts as they bid on my originals and I have no emotional investment in how much they earn for the charity.

  15. After some donations of art years ago with a thank you note received 18 months after the events, no invite to the events, a painting missing in action.. I no longer donate my art to charities that knock on the door. But I have two non profits that I help. One is a Pug rescue. Since I am a dog lover and I volunteer for this non profit I try to support it. My most recent idea is a certificate for a dog portrait done against a famous background..ie Van Gogh’s Starry Night etc. I suggested a minimum bid and made up 3 certificates. Since these will only be 10×10 and no frames, it should be fun for me and hopefully the new owners will love them. All proceeds go to the rescue and I donate all materials and postage within the USA. The other is a week long Plein air competition that benefits a non profit in the area where we paint which is in a National Park and surrounding county. This one can be costly to the artists. We get there, stay there, eat there, and donate 50% of the sale of up to 3 works at their silent auction. The only real problem I have found is that some of the buyers want you to reduce the minimum bid right after the auction if your work does not sell, resulting in the non profit which benefits them and the artist coming away with less. I prefer to take my work home if it doesn’t sell at my already low minimum.
    I agree you need to donate good art. I think non profits should specify minimum bid price to go to the artists or as suggested have a moneyed donor buy the art and donate it to the charity. I get no monies from the dog rescue but I have adopted dogs from them and made lifetime friends. The other non profit treats us like royalty during our week. They do try to get paintings sold with a lot of beneficial advertising. Plus we get to meet our buyers and have pics done etc.

  16. I’ve been donating art pieces to ArtWorx LA (formerly the HeART Project) for years. I’ve never gotten extra sales from doing this, but the monies generated help at-risk students stay in school via art programs. That to me is the whole benefit.

  17. I think that donating your art to be lowballed is a humiliating experience especially if you happen to be attending the event. It isn’t beneficial to your career! Last auction I offered Jewelry lessons instead of sculpture or jewelry and it actually brought more money than a piece from the previous year.Perhaps it is it is the area that I’m living in but most people attend these functions to get a deal. Another factor is that a lot of older established people already have a lot and are looking more for experiences.

  18. A few years ago I held an art auction to raise funds for animals and people directly impacted by the raging wild fires in British Columbia. This was a massive rescue operation providing transportation and feed across the province. I was amazed at the generosity of the artists who donated their work and time. Many also volunteered. Everything was donated.

    What was so incredibly heartbreaking was how little people who came to the event were willing to pay for some very beautiful works of art from local artists – their community! All the artists were given the choice to donate 100% or 50% of the sale and to place a reserve if they wanted. Most artists gave 100%. Some of the works with reserve pricing did not even get bids. There were lots of comments about “good deals” and “steals”. With the auctioneer we did establish a bottom line for any piece. One artist was so very upset and insulted that she walked up to the auctioneer’s stand and took her piece and left.

    I would never host an art auction again.

    As some others here have stated, I have also donated in the past only to have no idea where my work ended up – sold or not. And the buyer’s contact is a big secret. Now, I donate a portion of sales to something important to me and manage my giving.

  19. I do donate artwork to charities that I feel will benefit from my art and only a couple per year. I recommend small printed items for silent auctions and the larger items or good originals for live auctions and where there are a variety of high items and the art may stand out. This can be good exposure and bring connections that you may have not thought of. Though there may not be many contacts from the business cards I leave on the tables, or advertisements from the charitable events, some of the auctions have brought in some of the highest prices for my work. Success in for fundraising auctions often depends on the crowd and who runs the auction – ie having professional organizers and auctioneers seems to make a difference. I am selective about which charities and keep it only to a couple each year. I have found it rewarding.

  20. I donate every year to a silent auction at the local Harvest Festival. It has always been a positive experience, and they have a decent minimum bid. The last time the buyer of the paining invited me to their house concert as a thank you. That was a great experience. So I plan to keep on doing this, and I actually make a special painting for this auction.

  21. I do a continuing series of ASU football paintings. I have donated a number of my limited edition prints to ASU Athletics for their banquets, and events. It has been a great way for me to get my work in front of my target audience. I have asked them if I can have a table at the event, and they have obliged every time, I set up a few pieces and info on the table, and meet buyers directly. This has led to numerous sales. Because my pieces have been pretty popular at the events, ASU recently commissioned and original painting from me. I also donate regularly to the Pat Tillman Foundation, and support some of their events as well.

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