Across the spectrum of artists, gallerists, curators, and arts administrators, there are few issues as divisive as that of art auctions for non-profits. It seems innocuous enough, right? Art auctions are a popular way to generate funds and public awareness for non-profit arts organizations. For many of those organizations, an auction may in fact be the primary driver for annual funding.
In addition to the non-profits, art auctions can be beneficial to multiple parties in a number of ways:
- Budding collectors benefit by building their young collections.
- Artists get exposure.
- Galleries representing participating artists have an opportunity for exposure.
But, Some Say There’s a Rub . . .
- Art auctions drive prices down, hurting both artists and galleries.
- Collectors get “inferior” work, because contributions may be of lesser value.
- Galleries suffer, because buyers may choose to do their buying at auctions.
Then, there’s the argument that prices paid at art auctions reflect the “real” market prices. I’m no economist. But, let’s think about this a moment: Getting any base of buyers together to bid on a pool of desired goods is one of the purest ways to determine the real value of those goods. Think eBay. Or, a stock market (without a Plunge Protection Team).
The biggest negative I see is when the highest bidders don’t properly pack their booty and, after a few pinots, cram it into the back of a smart car.
Lopping Off an Olive Branch
Donations to non-profits or charity have the most impact when they involve sacrifice of resources, whether time or money. For many of us, donations have come to be identified as the used items we pack up for Goodwill.
It all calls to mind the gently used underwear donations that were actually made famous by talk show hosts some years ago. True, some artists use art auctions as opportunities to get rid of works (and maybe underthings) that clutter the studio. But, any discerning buyer or collector should be able to spot this. Otherwise, if a budding collector likes the work, and it hasn’t sold after ample opportunity, so what?
Still, there’s a better solution – or several of them in fact – for all parties.
In the least criticized category, some organizations auction off experiences with artists, curators, and other community members. These often involve alcohol, some art, and they might happen in another city. If non-profits are seeing the “quality” of donated work decline, this might be the best option of all. Clearly, there are gains in promotion and visibility for all parties.
If works are specifically created for an art auction, such as a piece that will not be part of a larger series, nobody really gets hurt. The collector gets a unique piece. The artist and her gallerist both get exposure.
Or, the work might be speculative in nature, exploring new creative paths or mediums, such as a study for future work.
In the interests of both full disclosure and promotion, the works that I’ve donated in full for the ART PAPERS Art Auction have been completed around the time of donation, and they are in response to current trends. In these cases, the works have been an exploration of potential future directions I might take. I don’t have to necessarily consider them to be a critical component of a larger group or series. The opportunity to donate helps me work through an idea, or it becomes a good excuse to see an envisioned object come to life.
Some organizations may even dictate a requirement that donated works be event-specific or in some other way exclusive. For artists at any career stage as well as their gallerists, how does anyone get hurt?
Still, one final requirement I suggest that might be helpful – if physical artworks are involved – would be that bidders bring something other than a smart car to the auction.
That and maybe a little bubble wrap.
Updated February 25, 2016.