Should Artists Give Away their Work – Even for a Good Cause?

I was chatting with an artist friend the other day, who told me how frustrated he gets when he’s asked to donate his artwork to various causes. Apparently a number of arts organization have a similar fund-raising model. They persuade artists to donate their work, which they sell and then use the proceeds to support the work of the organization. My friend, by no means in the “Damien Hirst” category of rich well-known artists, tells me that he receives four to five such requests a year.

Now, this might not seem like such a big deal. Most of us are regularly solicited by various charities, whether through mailings, emails, telephone calls, appeals at work, even requests to pitch in to various good causes while paying for groceries. And my friend is no Scrooge – he supports the arts and wants to help the organizations that approach him. But consider this: He provides for himself and his family with a full-time job. The time he has to make art is therefore limited to evenings and weekends. Some of his artwork is already promised to galleries, etc. He simply doesn’t have much time to produce “extra” work that he can donate. In asking for his art, these organizations are asking for something that is in many ways more valuable than a straight-forward cash donation.

But there are other reasons, aside from the time constraints, that artists should think carefully before giving away their work. Reflecting on my friend’s situation got me thinking about philanthropy and volunteering more generally. (Volunteering one’s time and giving money are of course different, but they are structurally similar enough to discuss together here.) Economists and other social scientists have paid surprisingly little attention to the charitable sector, and to uncovering the reasons why people give and why they give what they do. Some people help others out of a sense of obligation. They simply feel that it is the right thing to do. Others give because they support the goals of a particular organization and want it to succeed. Much political volunteering is like this. Still others help because it makes them feel good – sometimes called the “warm glow” factor. There can be other, more tangible benefits to volunteering. It can be a way of gaining experience and knowledge that one could not otherwise get, and it can be a form of networking. Of course, these reasons are not mutually exclusive, and any one person might volunteer or donate from any number of motives.

There is another reason why people give. We sometimes give what we have too much of, or what we don’t ourselves value or no longer value. I think of this as the “zucchini paradigm.” If your neighbour has an overabundance of zucchini in her garden, she might give you some. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t value the zucchini as such, only that she currently has so much that the zucchini she gives away has little value. And her motives might be mixed. She may feel good when she gives away produce, and she might secretly hope that you will reciprocate with some tomatoes. Now think of volunteering. Have you noticed that all too often the same people end up giving their time again and again? Is it just that they can’t say no? I don’t think it is so simple. Unfortunately, when people generously give a lot of their time to help others, they risk sending the message that, “My time is not so valuable to me.” I was reminded of this the other day in the schoolyard, when I overheard a parent complain that the principal had asked her to drive the swim team to their next meet – this after she had helped out all day at the Terry Fox Run, and was also organizing the bake sale! Sadly, the principal seemed to have made the inference that it was OK to approach this woman with yet another request because her time was not so precious to her.

So to answer the question I posed in the title – should artists give away their work for a good cause? The answer is yes, but only after they have carefully reflected on its value in terms of materials, time and opportunity cost. If they do this, then I suspect that most artists will choose to donate their work fairly rarely. And arts organizations might also start to think about different ways of raising much-needed funds. Artists and arts organizations need to beware of the zucchini paradigm. When artists give away their work too freely, and when arts organizations ask artists for their work, they risk inadvertently sending the message that art in general – and their work in particular – is not something to be treasured. They risk undermining the very foundation that they are trying to construct.

Posted in Art.

3 Comments

  1. Jeanette, I agree with and have experienced most of what you raise , but as well as your point on artists thinking very carefully when asked to give their work to some charity or other. Society undervalues art generally. It is seen as a pleasant cop-out by many as a way of making a living and what is it to an artist to donate 3 days work, and after all, they receive good publicity from doing so.
    We live in an age when art has been focussed on as a “therapy for people to access their creative side”.. This is a good thing for the many who have used art as a tool to achieve that.
    I am responsible for setting up several art facilities in 3 states still operating after 34 years. Over time it has proven to be a good thing and possibly a not so good thing for the artists who would have become artists regardless of whether they had such encouragement and facilities available.
    Looking at the histories of many leading artists in this country, a high proportion are self-taught.
    “Self-directed learning” is key to gaining any real skills as an artist. One has to have a passion for the activity to dedicate a lot of time to it, (or anything else for that matter). It becomes an obsession from which skills are refined and honed to high levels of competence. On analysis, many artists we might presume to be creative people are not so creative at all. They might have established a business around producing some decorative patterns on a canvas or board which suit modern styles of interior design. They might make a good living from this activity and are deemed to be “artists”. Unfortunately, they are no closer to being artists than they would be by manufacturing products pleasing any one of our other tastes. Someone producing caramels or fudge
    might provide as memorable an experience to their ‘customers’.
    I think the core problem is language. Unlike the Eskimo with many words fro snow and ice, we have this one word, “art” being applied to a multitude of things. So many believe anything painted on a canvas is “art”. When the newly affluent were advised to invest in art back in the 1960’s, they rushed out and bought virtually anything painted on a canvas and put into a frame. Of course many had their fingers burned and many were deliberately targeted by unscrupulous operators . There was more creativity coming from these con-artists who devise such unethical methods of making a dollar from public.
    ignorance. These discussions have a similar problem regarding which art we are talking about. We don’t have such a word in the English language because there are so many meanings to so many different people we have to find a way to clarify this anomaly . It comes down to virtually saying which painting we are talking about, like discussing people. We can only discuss nationalities on an individual basis, not in broad general brush-strokes describing as group as this or that. Racism is born from that process. Art can only be fairly discussed when we take one piece of art and discuss it as an individual piece, whatever form it takes. We only get into strife when we speak in general terms about such unique, individual things which are supposed to be an an extension of the person who created it to qualify as “art” worthy of being described as art in my world. So… I am talking about serious art rather than decorative art. Either can be decorative, but only one is serious. Distinguishing one from the other can be problematic when “serious art” is copied and plagiarised to make saleable decorative images. Another issue is the the fact the subjectivity of individuals enables art to be whatever one decides it is.
    Again, this is peripheral to the art I am discussing. Money in disguise of art and art in disguise of money is the problem as I see it. Only those able to afford to can give their serious artwork away. It might be worth considering whether the art given away affects the artist trying to make a living from their art sales. )so long as what they are selling is not just decorative arrangements of colour on a surface. This doesn’t have much real value beyond any other piece of furniture in a home. So…which art are we discussing here?

  2. Hi Kevin,

    Thanks very much for your comment. You raise some deep and troubling issues. I think we have to be wary of conflating “art” with “good art”. A definition of art should cover both successful and unsuccessful works. A definition of art that is limited to “good” works is not adequate. We mustn’t limit “art” to “good art” as tastes change and art that was rejected a generation ago is celebrated now, and no doubt some of the art that our time celebrates will be forgotten in the near future.

  3. I agree, I was using the term as others tend to use it. I have been around long enough to be aware of what is considered good art and what is considered bad art. I spend a lot of time trying to convince state galleries to show what they consider (wrongly) “bad ” art such as street art they consider graffiti which should be removed from public spaces. Some of the most daring and innovative art is being created with aerosol spray cans and being scoffed at, just like the old days of the early modernists. This period will be looked at in the future and people will be in disbelief about how this new art movement was viewed by the so-called informed.

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