Why Charity Art Auctions Are Harmful for Artists

I’ve written articles before on creative ways to raise money for charity. What I haven’t discussed, however, is how some of those ways are unethical.

Art museums, for example, will often solicit artists to donate work that can later be auctioned off for the museum’s benefit. In theory, it sounds like a good idea. But in practice, it’s exploitative and puts artists under enormous pressure to create work that will “sell” rather than something created from the heart.

This is particularly damaging to college students, who are young, impressionable, and susceptible to being taken advantage of. The beauty of higher ed institutions like Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA) is that they are incubators of creativity, where students are free from the pressure to sell their work and can instead focus on developing pieces that are imaginative and exploratory. And that’s the way it should be across the board.

But as it stands now, museums are encouraging artists to abandon their inner muse and instead develop works that have mainstream appeal. That goes against everything that art stands for: originality and authenticity.

And to make matters worse, artists who do decide to donate their work don’t even receive the proper acknowledgement. As sculptor Joel Shapiro points out, “The problem is that they recognize the individual who writes the check, not the individual who gives the work. You’re a go-between, a lure, a honey pot. You feel somewhat used.”

Talk about a slap in the face. And as if that’s not bad enough, philanthropic artists have to face yet another unfortunate reality: the only part of their donation that is tax deductible is the cost of the materials.

This problem reflects a much wider cultural phenomenon in which art as a whole is vastly undervalued. It’s regrettable that museum, of all places, are perpetuating this vicious cycle.

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