Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Dilemma of Donations

One thing most visual artists have in common is that we are often asked to donate our work or our time to worthy (or in some cases unworthy) causes. These “donations” are a Catch 22 for us. According to my simple understanding of tax law, we can only deduct the cost of materials used to make a piece, not the retail value of it. The organization which gets our work, gets all the profit free and clear and we get the lame response “it is good exposure!” to which I say bullshit. I have donated work for more than 25 years and only one group has ever made good on the benefits of “exposure”. By that I mean this organization has supported my career with opportunities, their members have purchased pieces and request pieces, and they have gotten to know me as person, not as a source to be tapped. Who are they? The Red Ribbon Connection in Canton, Ohio. They are one of only a handful of groups now that still get my work with a full heart and no strings attached. Some on the list still get work because of “obligations” both real and assumed, and some get work because it benefits children, but the days of passing out paintings like pamphlets is over.

I am not talking about the small prints or prop pieces which we can often hand out like candy. I am speaking of our signature work, ones that have taken time and thought and are originals, not copies. The economy has probably contributed to the fact that more groups are asking for more freebies in order to fill their coffers. Can’t blame them, times are tough and art is a “want” not a “need” so our coffers are somewhat shiny on the sides too. There is a solution to this dilemma but not one organization has ever offered to take it. The method advised in art business magazines (an oxymoron for sure) is to have the organization purchase our piece from us at a fair retail price so we make a few dollars. The person, who purchases it from us, then donates it to the group and takes the charitable deduction off of their own taxes at the purchase price. Seems logical to me, but so far the concept has not caught on. I was recently asked to donate a piece (rather late in the game which means that other donations were not coming in) and I turned this group down. In the past, I have been generous to them. My reasons for saying no will remain unknown to all of you.

Maybe I am getting old and snarky, (older and snarkier?) but at some point we have to turn inward and reevaluate why we do what we do. Who does my work benefit? Why am I making this stuff anyway? How much exposure is enough exposure and when do we become overexposed if there is such a thing? When do we cross over from “up and coming, young, -insert adjectives here- “ to “mid-career” to “established”? I find those categories in competition shows. I suppose it is a matter of perception as nobody is checking my DL when I submit. I don’t feel “established” although I have been called a legend which is why one group wanted my work. I don’t feel “fresh and new” which is why one group wanted my work. Most of the time I just feel used because once the work is donated, my name is misspelled in the booklet, my work is hung in the back of a room on an unlit wall, or it is never promoted and sold dirt cheap for which I get laughed at later.

I don’t mind the groups that ask me to “participate” in something unless it is an event that takes me a long time to prepare for, lasts only a few hours and for which I get nothing in return. What is “return”? That is another judgment call. “Return” could be a chance for people to watch me work, a chance for me to talk with those who could become patrons, or a chance for me to be productive with my time. Hanging out for the “exposure” is no longer worth it to me. So back to the whole donation dilemma. I will continue to support those who support me…Red Ribbon Connection at the top of the list! Those people or groups that make a lot of promises and never seem to remember them (you can bet that I do however!), well, I will have to think twice or more about just giving away a part of myself to fill a bare spot on your table.

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