By Katie Wilde

In a recent conversation, one of our members was describing the experience of “donor fatigue” a phenomenon that can occur when artists are repeatedly asked to donate to art auctions.

Artists are some of the most socially conscious and generous people in our community. They are also some of the lowest income earners, by a wide margin. This artist told me she could no longer afford to continue giving her professional work away for free, but had had recent success switching to a 50/50 split. She told me if somebody asks her to just donate, it has to be a “no”. If they’re willing to do a 50/50, it moves to the top of her priority list. She’s not the only one talking about this.

Clearly, it’s time to rethink how we as artists, arts organizations, and non-arts charities approach arts-based fundraisers, so that they can develop into something that is more sustainable for fundraisers and fair to artists.

On December 3, 2014, CARFAC, the national arts advocacy organization, hosted a Charitable Fundraiser Panel discussion on the subject, which was held at CUBE Gallery in Ottawa. I highly recommend reading the full transcript. Led by passionate, intelligent, and level-headed arts professionals, it’s a fascinating and important read. Please take a moment to read it or download the pdf to look at later. CARFAC is developing a set of overarching best practices for charitable fundraisers taking donations of art, which will be published and easily accessible for reference online. In the meantime, we’ve borrowed from their panel transcript to compile a summary of the issue, including ten strategies for improvement.

Artists earn an average yearly wage of $22,700. For visual artists, this number drops to $13,976. Compare this to the average of $36,300 for all Canadian workers. This is a significant gap, and puts artists at or below the low income point depending on their field. “In any other context, repeated donation requests from individuals identified in this position would be unconscionable and outrageous,” said one of the panelists, professional artist Barbara Gamble. She goes on to say, however, that she continues to support charities, private and public galleries and artist run centres, but sets reasonable limits to protect the value of her work and the strength of her relationships with clients and galleries, all of whom have a vested interest in the “consistent, stable value of [her] artwork.”

It’s important to remember that art auctions are often a major fundraising piece on which charities, galleries and artist run centres rely to keep their doors open and their programs serving the community and the arts. Gamble cites the Ottawa Art Gallery’s auction model as one worth emulation. Many of their approaches as well as two other excellent non-profit arts centres in Ottawa, SAW Gallery and Gallery 101, are explained in more detail in the list below.

Here are ten ways to make charity art auctions both successful fundraisers and sustainable practices that are fairer to artists. These ideas can be explored in various combinations to find what works for you and the artists in your community.

1. Split the funds

“…Fundraisers can either keep the amount that is paid above the reserve price or set an agreed upon percentage. This reduces the loss of income to the artist to a more manageable level.” – Barbara Gamble (B.G), Panelist and Professional Artist

2. Boost the valuable exposure to the artist

You might wonder, isn’t any exposure good exposure? Well, not if the art is being sold for so little that it undermines the market value of the artists’ overall practice, weakening their business and that of galleries where there work is sold. Gamble related during the panel, “I’ve had the frequent experience of someone saying to me,’ I love your work, I really want to get one someday’…. and then they’ve acquired my work at auction for below the stated commercial value of the piece. I get it – I appreciate a bargain too. Sadly though, to my knowledge, only one of those many people has come back and bought another artwork of mine at a gallery. A number of them have however, purchased a second and even a third work of mine at other auctions.”

In cases like this, auction ‘exposure’ does more harm than good by turning someone who could have been a loyal client into an auction-deals-only type of purchaser, resulting in little to none of the funds from these sales ever reaching the artist.

So what counts as valuable exposure? To suggest a few:

  • displaying the artwork to the general public before or after the auction online
  • including professional artists on the jury
  • giving artists free entry to the event as respected guests/donors/professionals


3. Rotate the artists who are invited to participate annually

“I think one of the strongest things I remember, and that I experience, is that it’s always the same people at [and contributing to] these events.” – Laura Margita, Panelist and Director/Curator at Gallery 101 (G101), Ottawa.

“One Newfoundland Labrador CARFAC member reported having received no less than 9 donation requests in 66 days. That amount would have represented close to one half of his annual artistic production.” – B.G.

4. Let the artist set reserve bids 

Returning the art to the artist if it doesn’t sell for a minimum amount “ensures that making a donation to a fundraiser doesn’t devalue an artist’s work or compete unfairly with the local market.” – B.G.

5. Prominently post the retail value

This helps bidders understand the difference between the market value and what they’re paying (whether it’s above or below retail), and helps prevent false deflation of the retail value of the artwork.

6. Facilitate personal connections between buyers and the artist when possible

Striving to make the auction a legitimate opportunity for an artist to grow their client base and professional network will help offset the financial hit of donating work that would otherwise pay the bills. In Ottawa Art Gallery’s auction model, it seems artists are as much a part of the show as the work., “I am able to get the name of the purchaser of my work… Professional artists are always included on their jury, artists are given free entry to the event and treated with great respect. The Gallery often displays the artwork to the general public before or after the auction… All these things bring promotion to the artists involved… The OAG has listened to artists and at the same time raises excellent proceeds to sustain our municipal gallery. Their event is a model worth looking at.” – B.G.

“We also put an image of the artists themselves so there was a familiarity with the patrons. We have a VIP event before the auction starts that allows for a collector group to meet artists.” – Alexandra Badzak (A.B), Panelist and Director and CEO of Ottawa Art Gallery (OAG).

7. Encourage donations of small, less costly, or experimental work

Again, charity auctions can be more attractive to artists when they aren’t being asked to sell the major work that is their bread and butter. This model can be especially useful to fundraisers as an alternative to reserve bids, particularly for risk taking (and often risqué) artist-run centres/galleries such as SAW Gallery and Gallery 101, whose audiences are not necessarily made up of wealthy art collectors.

8. Try a Timeraiser

The only arts charity auction model that pays artists 100% of the value of their work. The organizers buy the artwork outright and sell it for volunteer hours. Find out more about Timeraiser here.

9. Ticketed Event with Small/Inexpensive Artworks

Small works valued at roughly the price of the ticket (perhaps $100-$200) are donated by artists, who are then guests of the event. Attendees draw numbers to see who gets first pick from the artworks, all of which are roughly equal in value and were not too expensive to donate.

10. “Buy it Now” – A Shortcut to Securing a Must-Have Artwork

At the Ottawa Art Gallery, “One community member… came up with the concept of ‘buy it now’, which allowed auction goers to pay market value right away. You didn’t have to wait for the closing of the gallery, which is the typical silent auction strategy; you could get it if you were willing to pay the market value and that’s been extremely successful.” – Alexandra Badzak, Director and CEO of Ottawa Art Gallery

Thank you to the panelists and hosts of the discussion that made for such an interesting read. We really look forward to seeing the fruits of this research borne in an overarching set of best practices for charity art auctions. In the meantime, here are the takeaways I learned:

Artists: Remember to value your work and those who believe in and rely on the value of art. By standing up for the value of your work you help spread awareness, avoid donor fatigue, and maintain the health of your arts business. Your charitable efforts will have a much more positive effect all-round.

Arts groups/nonprofits/artist-run centres/galleries: Fundraising isn’t easy. No organization fundraises unless they have to, so keep up your efforts, and just remember to explore all the ways to be fair to those you ask to donate work. When you make it worthwhile to the artists, you may find you’re running a more successful fundraiser for everyone involved!

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