Mat Gleason Says Art Donations Are Pretentious Panhandling by Cara Ober

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According to Mat Gleason, founder of the Coagula Art Journal, “There is a tradition of auctioning original works of art donated by artists to raise money for charitable causes. There are many good causes that hold such events. No matter how good the causes, though, I have come to the conclusion that artists must stop donating to every single one of them.”

In a recent article on the Huff Post’s Arts and Culture page, Gleason blasts the tradition of charity artist donations, claiming that “Half a century of charity art auctions have changed the way collectors buy art. These fundraisers have depressed prices of art across the board and kept artists in a subordinate position that has no career upside or benefits.”

“Charity art auctions are the emptiest of promises to artists: you give us your work, you get nothing in return except a party invite to an event where you are a second class citizen. Watch as the price of what you really will let your work go for is nakedly advertised to the select group of people to whom your work is meant to be seen as rare and desirable.”

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On that note, I will say that I regularly donate my work to several local non-profit art centers, and have done so for years. And Gleason is correct – none of these experiences have made me rich or famous and some of them have been nail-bitingly stressful ego-shrinking exercises in watching my minimum bids go empty. Those parties are no fun, even I can admit that. Over the years I have grown more selective about art donations, but I continue to donate my work to certain causes and will continue to do so, and sometimes, I will even purchase it.

In this particular case, I am talking about non-profit art centers (MAP, School 33, Creative Alliance, Transformer, and WPA) which hold annual charity auctions in Baltimore and Washington. Why? Because non-profit art centers started my career and I believe they greatly benefit the overall health of the art community. I feel like I owe them and I am happy to help when I can.

According to René Treviño, Exhibitions Coordinator at the non-profit School 33 Art Center in Baltimore, “I do think that non-profits help careers. They are resume builders, they give artists opportunities.  If you have enough exhibits and experiences on your resume then, by all means, boycott.  If, on the other hand, you want to meet new people, expand your community and open yourself to possible opportunities, then you should participate if you can.  You can’t participate in everything, so pick and choose.  Make sure it is a cause and organization you believe in.”

Although Gleason cites no specific sources or dates, he claims that “countless millions” have been raised in art charity auctions to raise money for good causes over the past few decades. However, he says that the participating artists get the raw end of the deal. He suggests artists join him in boycotting all charity art auctions because this collective action will put ‘revenue’ back in the art world, force collectors to pay retail prices, and cease to expose artists to no and low bids in public places, a practice which he claims lowers your value and makes potential buyers take you less seriously.

“I would love to hear the story of the artist whose career rocketed to success because he or she donated a work to a charity auction and this act alone tipped the first domino toward an avalanche of success coming his or her way. This narrative is always implied. I’ve never seen it happen,” says Gleason.

The author is being cagey here. Let’s be honest. For young and emerging artists, non-profit art center auctions can be beneficial. At this stage of the game, artists need to get their work seen as much as possible. According to Treviño, “I have a number of examples of artists who have benefited from the exposure they receive at charity art auctions.  A lot of artists get exhibits, write-ups, potential press… not all of them, but those things are always viable possibilities.  You have better odds of something coming out of it than if you don’t participate at all.” For example, every year School 33 awards several solo exhibitions to the ‘Best in Show’ Winner of Lotta Art, their annual charity auction.

I do agree with Gleason that art deductions translate into taxes unfairly for art makers. The artist is allowed to deduct only the cost of their materials – not their retail value – although they are arguably giving up a much larger income by donating work. Under current tax laws, a collector can buy your work at an auction for less than your retail value, and then donate it to a different cause and deduct your full market price. Who wrote that law??  Not an artist. This obviously needs to be changed.

Gleason argues that if an artist wants to support a great charity, they should sell their artwork for full price in a gallery and then donate cash, instead of art, to the cause. “Someone has to be the bad guy here, so you can blame me for inspiring you to donate cash to a good cause and to keep your art career safe from the bargain bin,” says Gleason. “Print this out and send it with your regrets to anyone asking you to devalue your work in the name of glamorizing their efforts on behalf of yet another worthy cause in a world of infinite and endless good causes.”

On this point the author is living in an alternate universe. Or, at least, not in Baltimore, where most artists are not represented by a gallery. Many artists don’t have a league of collectors waiting to purchase their work. Most artists I know have a lot of unsold work in their studios, but are rather short on cash. It is for these people, precisely, that non-profit art centers exist. If these career starters, which constantly put out calls for entry and show works too experimental or too unknown for a bigger gallery, didn’t exist, most artists would have significantly less opportunities and professional experiences. Boycotting local non-profit art centers sounds like a bad plan to me.

I’m giving Treviño the last word here, because he is my friend and I agree with him. “You can’t tell me that your art is doing you more favors taking up space in your basement or studio,” he says. “I think charity art auctions are a far better place to have your art seen than a cafe, restaurant, or coffee house!  Artists need to show their work. Until the galleries are beating down your door, you might as well be supporting the organizations that build up artist communities!  And we do.”

More info on Donations to School 33’s Lotta Art Auction here. The deadline for artists is March 25.

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