Something artists often gripe about when they’re around fellow artists, is the constant call we always get to donate work to charity. It usually starts off small – when you’re starting out, you create this pile of art work no one really wants, and you’re happy to donate it to a few charities that you think are cool. But then it escalates and escalates; I don’t know if you wind up on a list of people likely to donate work or what, but there have been years where I literally would have to dedicate 100% of my studio time to making work to give away, if I granted every request for free art. And it’s one thing if it’s a charity you care about (maybe an issue you are deeply committed to, or a charity that has assisted you or a friend in a time of need), but most of the time, it isn’t. I just got a request a few weeks ago from a children’s science museum in a state I’ve never been to, from someone I’ve never met…. and they actually expect that I’m going to give them a $2,000 drawing, because, why? How does that make any sense? How is this supposed to strike a chord with me? I don’t have kids, I’m not involved in science, and I don’t live in the community in which the place is located. Do they actually think I’m going to look around my life and see absolutely no one else in need that I’d rather help more?
There’s the whole issue of artists being generally broke, just scraping by in their existence, and how donating a work can adversely affect sales of their work that they so desperately need. I’ll leave that alone for now. Instead, I thought I’d share my new strategy I’ll be using whenever I’m approached by a charity to donate work:
1. Determine if said charity even tangentially fits with my own moral/ethical/social/political/intellectual ideas. (If not, it’s just a flat no.)
2. If so, and if I’m unfamiliar with the charity, ask for a full accounting from that charity as it pertains to their expenses for salaries, benefits, real estate, etc. It should be information that they keep around anyway for tax purposes, and should be freely open to public scrutiny. And I’m not an unreasonable person: I know that Executive Directors have to be paid competitively, that benefits are expensive but should be offered to all employees, and comfortable, decent offices in easy-to-get to locations are important for the long term productivity of the charity. I GET IT. But I also get that if you’re going to hit me up for a donation, I deserve to see exactly where my money is going and what it’s being used for.
I really think all artists should do this. It shouldn’t be weird, or rude, or anything like that – it’s just a simple, non-invasive way of checking out where your donation is going. You’re not showing up at the charity with a clipboard, making notes; the charity is reporting their information to you. They could easily lie if they wanted, but you’re going to trust them enough to take their word for it.
But I think this could be a really good way of making charities not look at artists as this endless bank of free money. When they ask for this benign thing of a “gift of art,” what they’re really asking for is the gift of money – they’re going to turn around and auction or sell off the work anyway, and keep the money. So call it like it is, and be transparent. Because, after all, if I was going to give a major gift like $2,000 (which that is a very major gift for me) to a charity, I’d want to know where the money is going, and it would be understood by the charity that this is a fair question. So why should giving them a work of art be any different?
Some of my favorite charities include the Innocence Project, the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Clinic, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, and just about any and all charities that promote low cost medical services (including birth control and abortion) for women. Should any of these charities ever want art from me, EVER, they’ve got it, in a heartbeat. But that’s where my priorities are – not teaching kids about the wonders of electricity in a state-of-the-art museum blah blah blah whatever.)