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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38 Comments

  1. This was always a big definite when I was watercolor painting and lived in Connecticut. I entered shows that charged admissions as fundraisers for charities, also. I netted quite a following in the medical community in the area and got some commissions and made many sales of larger watercolor pieces. And always show your very best work and the very best archival framing. (I was lucky enough to work as a salesperson and fitter in a frame shop, then…lol)

  2. Last year the local arts organization paid me to paint something associated with Theodore Roosevelt during their reception at the Buffalo Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Museum (a small National Park). I researched and painted “Theodore’s Lunch” based on historical research quoting his mother saying his favorite food was fried chicken and white gravy and showing the Roosevelt Presidential china, flatware and decor from the White House renovation during his administration. I have donated the painting to the museum for their fundraiser in part because I thought they would have a better likelihood of finding a buyer with an interest in Theodore Roosevelt and to contribute to this small but quite interesting National Park, the only National Park in Western NY where I live. I hope they find a buyer as they could use the money! But generally, I minimize donations of paintings for fundraisers — because I need the funds myself!!

  3. My daughter was president of the Sonora Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation for ten years. One year painted and donated a painting of two turkeys. I just gave it to her without any expectation. My work at that time was selling for $200 to $300 dollars. I gave it in a beautiful frame and ready to hang, it was a work in oil paints. I could not attend but I was told the bidding was fierce and it went for $1200. My son-in-law won the painting from a couple of lawyers who were bidding fiercely. It is one of his most prized pieces. My ego got a great big hug from all that it is still a print that sells regularly.

  4. Jason, one thing artists need to be aware of in donating work for charitable causes is that we are not allowed to write off the purchase price of the painting..we can only write off what the supplies cost!! This may vary from state to state, I’m not sure about that…but ,if that’s a concern, it might make a difference…apparently, however, you can have a signed contract/agreement with the charitable cause that says they are “bartering” with you…your painting in exchange for their advertising your work. In that case, you can write off the whole amount.. One of the charitable causes I donate my work to is the Annual Southeastern Rose Show and they do just that..advertise my work with a large poster and in their program and newsletter…In any case, it’s worked wonderfully. Thanks for all your great articles.

  5. I always ask the charity several questions (about what I want out of the deal) which usually weeds a lot of them out. Will my name be in any advertising? Will I get the name/address of the buyer? Etc. This should be a mutual win-win.

    This year I am on the committee for a museum fund raising event and we are making sure the artists get 30% of the sale, name of buyer, event tickets and museum membership for 1 year.

  6. I used to freely give my fine art to charities that asked for a painting or two as a donation but no longer. I have had too many sour experiences. Situations like minimum bids being ignored by the auctioneer, original paintings being offered as “prints”, painting being damaged due to poor handling, misrepresentation, the staff taking paintings for themselves and extremely low bids have changed the way that I view giving my work for charities. Not getting a “Thank you”when my work raised lots of cash for a charity was discouraging and made me not want to donate again the following year. I gave one charity twenty five small 9 x 12 inch detailed oil studies and never got a thank you. I must add that I have also had many very positive experiences with certain charities such as my paintings selling at auction for three times that published retail value and I have met some wonderful people but in the last 15 years or so the negative has far outweighed the positive. I now turn down requests for my work.

  7. I have started asking charities for 50% of the sale price. I also insist on a minimum starting bid that I set and that the painting is returned to me if the minimum bid is not met. I feel that this makes it a win-win. I get the same price that I would get if it sold through a gallery since they would take a 50% commission. So far the charities that have asked me for a donation have agreed to this arrangement.

  8. I used to donate often to charitable events, however here in Utah the artist can only deduct the cost of art supplies on their tax forms. That means the organization gets the money, the buyer gets the painting and the artist gets nothing for their time and effort.

    Now, I take the money used to paint a work plus a generous amount more and donate CASH to the organization or purchase one of the silent auction items. Then my time is used for painting and I can still show support for the charities of my choice.

    1. Thank you for this idea, Susan.
      It is the same in Maryland; the artist can only deduct the cost of materials, which is not fair. I still donate one small piece every year to the membership gallery which has been very helpful at the beginning of my career.
      I have actually thought of selling one of my paintings to a close friend who can afford to donate. (Actually, he needs to find donations). I am paid the price minus the gallery commission (50%) and he can deduct the total retail price. At first he objected, saying that I would not be able to get anything for write-off, but it was clear that I would not get anything anyway! Since he owns several of my paintings, I can do it as a thank-you to him (50% less) and he can claim the donation value.
      This is privately done, no gallery is involved.

  9. My approach goes like this:
    I am voluntarily giving away a piece of art that I have created. Once it is delivered, it is no longer mine and is now in the hands of a charitable cause that I like and trust. I want them to benefit in any way that they can. Whatever happens to the piece is up to them. My hope is that my art piece will go out into the world and be enjoyed by someone. The only personal gain that I expect is to feel good about giving and to feel good about my art being in the hands of someone who is glad to have it. That’s it. Whatever else may come of my contribution in the way of personal gain is up to powers beyond my control. Simply put, I give because it feels good to do so. I am a prolific artist and my greatest joy and goal in relation to art is the time spent in my studio creating it. What happens to the art after that is secondary.

    The art donated to charities ranges in size from small to some being very large, and they are always good pieces, however, I do wait until they are at least one or two years old and at a point where many people have now seen them, before they are donated.

    I participate in Art Festivals, and many of them have raffles and/or auctions. I always donate several pieces to these. I donate to charitable events supported and organized by art associations that I belong to. I will also give away a smaller piece at an art festival when I encounter someone who exhibits particularly worthy characteristics, who loves a piece, but cannot afford it.

    I believe that giving art away is one of the joys of being an artist.

  10. I’ve donated in the past. Recently I discovered that my art group clinched a artist residency bid based upon a Board Member having obtained one of my charity pieces. The downside is I have no idea what piece he bid on. I used to only donate art I no longer wanted. Lesson learned for me, only donate work that represents current style. The upside, he must have liked it or he wouldn’t have bid on it. Yes….. Donation serves everyone.

  11. The boards and staff (often interchangeable) of many charities are making tons of money for themselves. They hire themselves for contract work and hire themselves for staff positions. The goal of the board and staff is to generate as much income as possible for the “non-profit” so they can make more money for themselves.

    I only donate (money, time, and art) to one charity — the Brown County Humane Society in Indiana with a 98% ‘out alive” rate, an aggressive spay/neuter program, a medical fund, and other innovative programs serving homeless animals. I know the board does not benefit financially at all and, in fact, some board members contribute tens of thousands of their own dollars every year to keep the shelter afloat.

    I have had personal experience with other “non-profits” where the board and staff made out like bandits while the non-profit suffered.

    Buyer beware when it comes to so-called “non-profits”.

  12. I have donated to various groups and have thought of it as a way to have my art work seen by some who would not otherwise know of my art. I did not think at ask for the name of the winning bidder. I have just included cards so that I might be contacted for future art purchases. I think I will see if I can use that approach in the future.

    1. The organization to which I donate (one piece, once a year) sends a letter with the contact information of the winner of my piece. It is expected that I send a thank you, which is a very good idea. It reflects well on me and well on the organization. It helps to bring people back again.

      1. I have donated many paintings over many years. Some of these events are well run but most of them leave a great deal to be desired. I find it disheartening that you Deborah, should be expected to write a thank you note! The “winner” is getting something for his/her money, and probably getting a deal as well. You, and all the other artists who donate, should be getting the thank you note. It is a matter of respect for your kindness and not being taken for granted.

        1. It is always a good thing to send a thank you, and as soon as possible, to a buyer. They could have bought another artis’s work instead of yours. I also get a hand written note from the organizer of the one charity I donated to recently. a A friend of mine’s artwork sells well and at the last one auction got several commissions as well.

  13. I did a painting of the civil war era gardens that had been restored at the Dayton Ohio VA hospital and medical center. I was passionately involved in the restoration. Limited edition prints were sold and/or given to large donors. The painting raised thousands of dollars for the restoration which became a garden for the veterans, their families, the VA staff and the community. I gave the original to be hung in the Fisher House, a temporary residence for veterans and their families who were being treated at the medical center. My take is that if you give a painting to a charity, really believe in the charity and make it a gift from the heart.

  14. For some reason in the area where I live, artists are the first ones asked to donate to charitable events. There was a year when I donated more than I sold, and it did not increase my sales. So I made a policy to not give away my work any more. I can break that policy and do at times, but I am much more discerning. I found that donating my work caused people to not buy but to say, “I’ll wait for the auction/event/fund raiser and see if I win it.”

    I have offered to sell work to charitable organizations at a substantial discount, because they can write off the expense and then sell at a profit. (Artists can only write off the materials, not the value of the completed piece). So far, only 1 or 2 have taken me up on the offer.

  15. Our co-op gallery has a silent auction once a year to raise money for a scholarship for a high school student to attend a post secondary art school. It is always very well attended, and we usually raise quite a bit. And yikes! It is coming up fast! All art pieces are on 8×8 cradled board, unless it’s sculpture, jewelry, or fabric art . I have participated in other charity events , and it is a joy to see a person who is thrilled to have your work .

  16. I have donated yearly to a local High School for their art scholarship program. My business cards and brochures are available at the event for people to take. I have never had anyone get in touch with me through these events. I give because all the money will go towards a scholarship for a high school senior who will be attending an art school after graduation.
    I have also donated to local art groups to raise money for their scholarship programs. I do want to encourage and support young people who are pursuing an art career.

  17. I’ve donated paintings I’ve made for the occasion for three years to a rural church auction. The biggest thing I have learned and would like to pass along is that the artist must retain her/his copyright ownership and to let it be obviously known that this is happening (in case the rural folks don’t know about copyright). I found out I needed to do this specific protection of all reproduction rights when the purchaser had reproductions made at a local photo shop and gave them away to many in the congregation. I’ve since then made my copyright retention explicit, have explained it to the purchaser and reached an agreement with the photo shop that they would not reproduce it.

  18. Just depends, no right or wrong. It gets your name out there.

    My policy is I only donate sleeved prints, no framing. Most of my work is not family friendly, so they generally don’t want it anyway. I’ve donated to a few charity events but mostly to museums and curated collections that are not as particular to controversial subject matter.

  19. I have participated in several art shows where you are required to donate a piece of artwork. I notice that a lot of the people attending the show spend quite a bit of money buying their tickets to place in the bags in front of the artwork, hoping to win the piece. I find that I do not sell a lot of artwork at these shows. I think it is almost a conflict of interest, and the artist isn’t the winner here. Also, I have had work that was auctioned off at such a low amount that I almost started attending the auctions myself to pick up some cheap artwork. I don’t donate to them anymore. I have never received any info on the buyers or bidders in any of these situations, and I find that shows that are main fundraisers for an organization won’t give you the buyers info or even allow you to put your bio or contact info on the artwork. I have decided to just donate cash to charities that I am interested in and write it off my own taxes!

  20. I have had a few charitable donations of my art. Never heard back on whether or not the pieces actually sold. Just a letter nearly a year later thanking me for my donation. But to be fair I donated “orphans”. And I did not have some of these great suggestions to establish before the donation that I have just read here. I do participate in an Arts in the Park event every year that the watercolor society I am a member collaborates with Capitol Reef NM and a non profit from that area that supports the arts in those small communities. It is great fun and a well attended silent auction. 50% of the sales,( and as participants we must offer at least one painting done that week to the auction) goes to the non profit…and the rest to the artist. The beef I have with the auction is the buyers/ bidders come there to support the non profit but then try to knock the artists down on their minimum bid. It seems to me that the non profit then does not reach it’s goals and of course the artist gets even less. I did change my minimum bid one year and sold 2. I waited until the actual auction ended. Yes my art got new homes but I had a sour taste in my mouth. And I never got any more interest from the buyers, although they may buy again another year. I have a friend who attends also and she is of the mind that cheap sells and she would rather sell cheap there than bring home more art. So I was kind of following her lead. From here on out I will keep my minimum where I choose and risk not selling and then donate to the non profit personally. Thanks to all the comments for the great ideas.

  21. The best way to donate artwork to a charity event is online. That way, you have complete control over the amount of the opening bid. You have complete control over what percentage of the sale price goes to the charity. And if the artwork doesn’t sell, you can still keep it. I’ve sold several paintings this way. After the buyer paid me, I donated that to the charity. I then shipped the artwork to the buyer, along with a thank you or some sort of confirmation from the charity that the donation had been made. It’s a win/win all around.

  22. I have donated art to local worthy causes. My pet peeve is lack of feedback following the auction. I don’t need to know who bought it, but I would like an acknowledgement as to whether it sold or not.

  23. I’ve donated the past few years to a local community event. After the first time someone contacted me, came to my studio, and bought several pieces. Today another painting was auctioned at this yearly event. The person who got it emailed me to say thank you, and sent a picture of it hanging on her wall. Loved it! I guess you never know. I am selective in who I donate art to. I’m a bit torn about the local art organization asking for donations of art. They work for the artists, but at the same time I feel this devalues the art to have it go cheap.

  24. I’ve had mixed experiences with donating my work to silent auctions, however, many times I still do it if I can afford to do so. While I am a bit more discriminating, I still think, for the most part, it builds some good will and gets my work out in front of people that I might not otherwise reach. However, I agree with many things mentioned in this feed and have been very annoyed to learn that my minimum bid was disregarded at times. I’ve also learned to limit what I give to just a couple organizations a year. Since I primarily paint watercolors that need to be under glass, it’s the framing cost (even though deductible) that I just can’t afford to give up too many times a year. However, as someone mentioned above, it can be a good experience… once I had donated a painting of an angel to an organization called Casa Angelica, and produced a bidding war between two women, and eventually sold for $900, which was far more than I’d ever sold something for at that point of time. Did help give me more belief in myself and my ability to sell my work at higher prices, so for that I am grateful.

    Do love the idea of asking for names and addresses in return and will have to try this in the future, at least with some groups. I’m less keen on asking for some of the money back (though have been involved in some events that believed in doing this anyway). Really great to read the discussion here, and I will also read the article posted in the discussion above. Thanks to you Jason for starting the discussion and everyone else who has contributed!

  25. I support my local Animal Shelter. I host a big art show/sale at my home with several other artists annually. The artists who participate normally are represented in galleries in various places. We bring out work that has not sold (in other words our galleries have had a shot at selling) and so we put them on sale. Normally, our galleries take commissions from 25 to 50%, so we discount somewhere around 25%. Then, at the end of the evening (we always finish out with a big bonfire with smores and a fire dancing demonstration). Some of us even bring out “failed” art that we then toss into the bonfire (it’s very dramatic and our patrons sometimes enter into an impromptu bidding war to “save the art”.) In any case, at the end of the evening, each artist presents a donation of 10% of their sales for the day to the Animal Shelter representative who has attended and is working the crowd himself. The shelter gets support, our patrons score a deal, and we still get paid a fair amount for our art. We also get to deduct from our taxes that financial donation in full rather than just the materials cost. Because I provide the food and beverages for the event, I also deduct the cost of providing the food and entertainment for the event as a business expense.

    1. I think this sounds like a very interesting concept. A great way to get Artists together for a Show and Sale and for a good cause. Not sure about the bonfire idea, but it is definitely worth thinking about. Thanks for sharing your ideas.

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