Art Donations: The exposure you get is that you are willing to work for free

“The exposure you often receive is the exposure that you are willing to work for free.” Andrew Lentini

The above quote is something a friend of mine said in response to a facebook conversation that I somehow missed when it first made the rounds back in early March. My friend Ron Philbeck started the conversation by sharing a photo and relating an experience that I’m sure most working artists will be familiar with:

I am an artist

Image courtesy of Art & Design
Posted by GC Gabriela Cimpoaie

“Last year I was asked to demonstrate at a prestigious pottery event here in NC. I did it with the hopes that I’d get invited to sell my work in the show this year. I did not get invited to show. When an organizer called me and asked if I would demo again this year I mentioned that I would like to be paid for demo’ing. She was very surprised that I asked and could not understand why I ‘d want to be paid. I explained it but sadly she didn’t understand. Of course I’m not doing it. I feel that many potters think that the ‘exposure’ they get from demo’ing or having work in an exhibition will bring them something in the future. And it well may. It has for me. But honestly too many of us are giving our time and talent away for nothing. If you value what you do then I think it’s fine to ask to be compensated.” Ron Philbeck

If you spend any amount of time as a professional artist you will undoubtedly eventually be asked to give your work away for some absolutely worthy cause. Occasionally it will be services for an event, like Ron’s adventure above in demo’ing for free. And there is nothing wrong with donating our talents and gifts to worthy causes. Except when it becomes a way of life. Except when it becomes expected of us, and gets taken for granted. Except when the practice becomes institutionalized and the culture of giving is no longer optional and based on generosity but is now the only way of accessing certain opportunities….

Ron suggests that he has had at least minimal turn around benefit from his ‘volunteer’ exposure. I can say that I have not had a single dime come back to me…. I have donated at least a few thousand $$$ in retail value outright and not a single new customer can be attributed to any of it…. I have had work sent off with the promise of some percentage in the received money returned to me, and yet never saw the work again or got a penny back…. I have placed work in galleries and never gotten paid for some of the work, and when they have gone out of business or changed ownership that’s the last I hear of my pots…. I have offered barely break even cost on sizable commissions for worthy organizations and gotten no publicity, no thanks, and no new customers as a result…..

There’s plenty more I could tell, but we all probably have our own stories, and at this point there is very little that might surprise any of us. Its a fact of our culture these days. And we agree to it because there is a faint mythical promise of restitution, that our sacrifices will pay off down the line. We are informed that we are just lucky to be involved in the first place. That we should count our blessings that we are invited to participate at all…. But I’d like to think that being told to sit at the back of the bus is something we have a say in. I’d like to think that ‘might’ doesn’t make ‘right’, or that just because this is the way things are that this is the way they are supposed to be……

The art critic Matt Gleason had an essay in the Huffingtonpost blog on Arts & Culture that criticizes the endemic culture of charity art auctions. These are some of his points against the practice of artists donating work:

•You don’t contextualize your art as being a synonym of pretentious panhandling
•You don’t announce that your art is worth low bids
•You don’t risk that your work will be publicly seen getting no bids
•You don’t empower strangers to devalue your artwork
•Most importantly, you stop publicly proclaiming that you give your art away

Charity art auctions, donations, free services volunteered, inequitable gallery situations, articles contributed to journals essentially for free, ‘entry fees’ for juried exhibits that often only pick the usual suspects of already ‘established’ artists, consignment practices, unauthorized, unattributed, and unrecompensed use of artistic work….. The list goes on and on.

I’d like to think that artists are part of an ecology, and the organizations and institutions that value our work also value the artists behind the work. That its a case of mutual benefit and working toward common cause. And in some cases that is absolutely true. There are institutions that go out of their way to actively encourage and sustain working members of the community. There are organizations that don’t simply take what they can get but conscientiously give back when they are able, even when it makes no immediate ‘business sense’. There are places of business that don’t simply promote their own self interests but go out of their way to support artists’ efforts that are not measured by their own ‘bottom line’. There are community situations where the management is actively engaged in looking out for the interests of its community members and not simply their own bank statements and business agendas……

But because so often we are dealing with a situation where respect and generosity is not mutual, or trickles more heavily in one direction than the other, our ecology ends up looking more like that of giant parasites draining a multitude of already impoverished and underprivileged hosts. They are ‘seizing the day’ on the backs of artists’ sweat, creativity, and generosity (What other than “generous” would you call a skilled and educated work force where most professionals labor for substantially less than poverty wages in any other field?).

You’d think that an industry that is based on and depends on the hard work and genius of its creative members would honor that unique gift and nurture it. The goose that laid the golden egg. Instead of appreciating the goose as an important member of this ecology the goose is routinely put to the knife for the secret behind its creative generosity. The action of pirates rather than caring ecologists…. We are more like Cinderella innocently toiling, not even aware of the fairy godmother who might rescue us from the exploitation of our selfish step sisters……

Part of being in a community with common cause is that its an ecology where everyone sets aside part of their own self interest for the mutual advantages that can be achieved by working together. That a collective interest is more persuasive than a fractured cacophony of individual agendas….. I’m not saying that artists need to unionize (some already do in places like the movie industry), but we at least must get ourselves on the same page, and with the unity of our mutual interests have an honest conversation with the other members of our environment. We need to affirm that the flow of benefits is a two way street rather than a tributary of streams feeding an ocean….

At present many organizations seem to be banking on the historical fact that they can use up one artist and find ready replacements. Like cheap labor in a college town. And because this seems to be the way things are done we are often willing to do their dirty work, ‘volunteer’ our services, donate our art, and be exploited and wrung dry in the process. Its a cycle that has to end somewhere.

The matrix version of how human potential is harnessed to external ideals....

The matrix version of how human potential is harnessed to external ideals….

Or not. We can allow the situation to go on festering, while individual artists are ground down in isolation, or get together on facebook for a brief but ultimately irrelevant communal moan…… And we wake up the next morning having vented some of the back pressure of our situation but nothing else in the world has changed.

Which is why we maybe need to care a bit more than we seemingly do. That we need to take the ‘red pill’. That we need to put our money where our pouting mouths are. That we need to become advocates.

I’ve written about these issues plenty, trying to encourage others to at least think deeper about the situations. Thinking and discussing are obviously part of the solution. But what else? Its not my job to figure out everything on my own. I’m certainly not getting paid for it. And my personal efforts have only limited reach. But I do my part. I do what I can. I try to think these things through, but I’m just one person. Who else out there has ideas? Who else cares? Who else out there is motivated to join the conversation and perhaps go even deeper than that?

What do you all think?

Peace all!

Make beauty real!

And get paid for it when you deserve to…..


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Creative industry, Imagination, metacognition. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Art Donations: The exposure you get is that you are willing to work for free

  1. LInda Starr says:

    I’ve been contacted by too many folks on separate occasions asking to purchase pieces of my pottery; when I send them a detailed email back I never hear from them. I often wonder are they other artists cruising to see what I sell my work for? are they galleries thinking I sell to expensive or too inexpensive, where is the dialog when I take the time to write to them back.

    there are others who ask if I can make a certain something for them, I make them without a deposit because I sell them routinely when I email them that photos are posted on my blog for them to choose, I never get an email back. I have since sold all of those pieces which I was sure I would, so no worry, but still what can they be thinking or doing.

    I entered a local juried show and they asked my prices, I told them and they saod “you can’t be expected to get paid for your time”. I subsequently entered less expensive items in the show, all of which sold.

    In the back of my mind I wonder why humanity is so ignorant or rude to those who design and hand make items hoping the artists are just sitting around to hear from them. Many folks spend so much money at wally world on mass produced items or at art fairs on cotton candy and hot dogs and yet think a handmade item should cost less than they can get it at the big box store. I actually had someone say to me when I told them a very reasonable price for a mug, “well this isn’t a a store”. When I told them they could go to the store and get that item, they said, “I can’t get this item at that store”, implying that mine was one of a kind and hand made, and still they didn’t get it. Sometimes I am so flabbergasted, I am speechless.

    • I think your observation is crucial to the problem: Folks who have no understanding of the creative process have no means for giving it its due respect. Not to say the gulf is unbridgeable, but that the less contact a person has with what it takes to imagine a product, the less they know about the skills required to make it, the less they know about the long hours and long years it took to gain the experience necessary to be able to do it this way, the less they understand the process itself (including such often labor intensive things as cutting and hauling wood for a wood kiln), the less they understand the difference between all these things and products that are machine made, the fewer points of contact there will be with things they can already fit in their understanding of the world.

      Lets face it, an artist’s process is alien to folks who are not themselves creatively active. Part of our mission should be to help educate these folks. What is surprising is that the industry which is based on our artistic efforts so easily takes what we do for granted. Part of our conversation seemingly needs to include a reminder of what actual individual artists go through to get these items to market……

  2. Brandon Phillips says:

    I’ll relate a little story from last year: I decided to make 100 bowls for our local empty bowls event, mostly to get my students amped up to do it. I made them with school clay during my classes, fired in the school kiln, so I wasn’t really out any time or money. I haven’t donated my work to it for years but have helped coordinate various efforts. I made the bowls and they all sold for $10 apiece. I noticed a few of my local customers who posted photos on facebook of the bowls they had purchased. This was in late March, when my homesale came up in May all of those customers didn’t attend citing that they had purchased a number of my bowls at the empty bowls event. So not only did I give my work to charity I lost sales because of it. When the organizers asked me to participate this year I told them exactly what happened and that I won’t ever be participating again, it’s certainly not their fault but it doesn’t make economic sense for me. That being said there are two charity auctions that I give to every year, one is local and one is in Kansas that my brother coordinates. They are both causes that I feel very strong about and I donate work in lieu of a financial contribution because it enables me to give more than I could were it coming out of my wallet. I give to both of these without any expectation of a return. Those are the only exceptions I make to my “no charities” philosophy. I also have never seen a dime via the charity route. I just remembered this: I think I stipulated that the profits from all my yunomi at the AKAR show are going to studio potter, but again that is a cause I support, not seeking a payback.

    I posted this link on Ron’s page when we discussed it on FB, Tony Clennell’s take on the situation:

    • Hey Brandon!

      That was such a generous contribution you made, and it is criminal that the folks who normally ‘support’ you would take advantage of the cheaper pricing of your donated work and support your paid efforts less…… Dang it all!!!!!

      There are so many worthy causes that we could be contributing if it were not actually so demonstrably against our own self interest in making a living for ourselves. I like your idea of donating to causes outside your local marketplace, to ones with personal connections, and Tony’s idea of contributing to the causes that “wear your shoes” (That was a great thread! Thanks for linking to it here!).

      One of the ways I reconciled myself to events like the empty bowls was to make pots that were very UNLIKE the ones I normally make. The more different I made them the less they would be seen to compete with my normal production in the way that you experienced. And besides, it gave me a great excuse to just play around with different ideas for shape and surface. The freedom to explore in the name of a worthy cause turned out to be even more liberating than my usual experimenting (or at least no worse off). And on a few occasions I learned new ways of doing things that I then incorporated in my personal work. Win-win, if you admit that anything you donate has little or no return in actual customer increase……

  3. Ashley says:

    I absolutely agree! I am also guilty. I used to donate a LOT of work, mostly to help various causes, but also in the belief that there might be some future karmic payback of some kind. I don’t do it very much any more for various reasons, but mostly the lack of recognition/appreciation for the donation (do I sound greedy?). I began to get rather disillusioned after donating to a few silent auction fund raising events. The one I am thinking of specifically (I won’t name names) was held by some rather rich people who invited other rich people. I soon realized that these rich people are rich because they are CHEAP. I donated approximately 3 large items that would usually fetch over $150 each. These cheapskates were starting the bid at $30 and I think when the dust settled, these items only raised in the area of $120 total. It is my belief that a fund raising auction should not be about how cheaply you can acquire an item, but about supporting a worthy cause. I was even told once by a non profit group that ordered a batch of mugs that I should be willing to cut my price in half because I would get the exposure and “surely there would be future sales” down the road from the recipients of these items (it should also be noted that they wanted these mugs personalized and delivered in less than 4 weeks) My answer to that now is that I can not pay my mortgage with promises, so I can’t accept promises as payment either. Yes, I do have a full time job that actually pays my mortgage, not my pottery sales, but this should in no way reduce my prices or make the buying public think that because I don’t need to sell pottery to earn a living that I shouldn’t ask for a fair price. In fact, if I were to lower my prices, it could potentially hurt other potters by undercutting them. Not that I have people beating down my door for my pots (I wish)
    It is very hard to get this across to the people asking for the donation or discount. They try to make you feel like a mercenary for asking for proper compensation for your work or for not donating when in fact it is the other way around.
    I will probably still donate occasionally, but only to those causes I can get on board with and to those I know appreciate the time and effort.

    • The story of those wealthy ‘patrons’ is so sad, but unfortunately also extremely typical I think…. We have morphed into a culture not based on mutual respect or understanding, but of ‘get yours while the getting’s good’. The rampant greed of unbridled capitalism has a perverse downside that it turns folks who might otherwise have noble and generous ideals into pirates who think nothing of pillaging and plundering ‘for the cause’…..

      I think one of the keys is to patiently educate folks like that about the real consequences of the ‘seizing’ attitude. And when you can build the case that it takes actual effort to grow and nurture all the things that are plundered, and that disrespecting that creative commitment is only a short term strategy, perhaps they will understand things from the generative perspective a bit better….

      The difficulty with extreme wealth in our culture seems to be that it only accrues in such vast amounts by having some disparity in benefits to those on whose backs it was gained. Not always, of course, but it seems that a bigger slice of the pie almost always means that the distribution is not based on equity…. A real problem in our culture these days…..

  4. Brandon Phillips says:

    Ha, speaking of rich people being cheap…years ago when I was a chinese food delivery driver I delivered food to a man who was clearly very well off, he didn’t tip me and noticing the look of disgust on my face he told me that he built his wealth by not parting with money he didn’t have to.

  5. Melissa Rohrer says:

    As I’m getting ready to fire for an Empty Bowls event… I can’t say I have any deep insight on this, though I’ve given some thought to the subject. Like others, I’ve donated pots with some hope that the person who ends up with one would eventually visit for an actual purchase. (Rare.) The only benefit I’ve noticed from donating items occurs when the organizers promote the artist before the event. And, basically, that may mean just getting on the map prestige-wise- people coming by to tell me they saw the write-up, etc., but not buying. Perhaps if they are already a customer the publicity reinforces the respect they have towards the artist, resulting in frequent repeat business. I have the sense that has happened with some of my customers, but it’s not something I can document.

    • My strategy for donating to the ’empty bowls’ cause has been to contribute bowls that are experimental rather than what folks could normally buy from me at my sales. That way there is no direct competition from the style of the bowls themselves.

      Of course, I have often wondered whether flooding the market with these lesser priced bowls also does us harm in that it saturates the market to some extent…… Of course we always hope that folks will ‘discover’ the beauty and value of handmade pots, and that they will be turned on to becoming new customers….. I just don’t get the sense of this happening from events like these. I think the culture has conditioned these particular charity do-gooders that the context of art is that you can get it cheap at the same time as you can soothe your conscience about real issues in the world. Its as if art has become this palliative for social ills, but that in the context of charities there is no intrinsic value to the art itself…..

      And THAT is the habit of thought we need to break….

  6. LInda Starr says:

    Got a bit off topic due to a recent event which stuck in my craw. I donated pieces to local events i.e. hospital benefit, hospice and animal shelter fund raisers. The only benefit I obtained from these donations came from attending and networking at the event. I obtained several contacts there who later became customers. I doubt I would have gotten any new customers If I had not been at the fund raisers myself.

    • No, I think you were entirely on topic!

      I do think you are right that the best possibility of getting some turn around business is that you put a human face on the charity experience. Its no longer anonymous art, but something that a real person donated. Without the human face the art could as easily have been mass manufactured flat screen TVs or Microwave ovens…..

  7. A sobering look at the non-profit industry, philanthropy and charity institutions. Yet more reason why placing the burden of fund raising on the backs of artists is misguided and counterproductive….

    • LInda Starr says:

      This was a real eye opener for me, thanks.

      • Me too….. I had no idea how my perceptions and gut instincts were conditioned by the puritanical guilt he describes. And it is precisely that sort of guilt that plays into the hands of short thinking charity organizers who wish to limit their ‘overhead’ by milking donations from hardworking and barely scraping by artists like us……. We need a drastic reevaluation of what we are doing to better our society and why, and the sooner we get rid of the Puritan influences the better……

  8. Just saw this article by Julian Baggini in The Independent:

    “It also seems to be an unfortunate fact of human nature that when things come too easily, they are valued less. No one would ever buy an LP and not listen to it, or shoot a roll of film and not develop it. But a recent survey suggests four out of five songs in iTunes collections never get played, and I’m sure many pictures on digital cameras and phones don’t even make it to the computer, let alone get printed. In the Instant Society, we get more and we get it faster, but we make much less of it.”

  9. Liz Crain says:

    Oh mY….So much to learn here. The one last reason I had to donate for any cause for anything other than retail prices and a routine gallery split – “Because I want to” – has flown away in my new awareness of the greater damage done not only to me and my work but to all artists.
    That said, my experiences have all been positive: good exposure, commissions, fuzzy buzz, actual on-time payments. I have a funny feeling it was appropriate until JUST NOW.
    A sea-change is a sea-change
    I’m appreciating all the directions this discussion goes in and will re-read and re-click on a lot of it.

    • Thanks Liz!

      Its such a shame that the intentions of well meaning and generosity can be mishandled so badly. And as you point out, even when the individual artist comes away without loss, and perhaps a bit of return, it often sends the wrong message culturally…. Dang it all!

      I thought the TED talk video was the biggest mind blower. It puts into perspective why the charity industry is so willing to earn their fund raising on the backs of already starving artists…. If the mantra is to cut expenses everywhere they can, and lower overhead, then seeking donations from artists is a no-brainer from their standpoint.

      A student in one of my classes the other night suggested that the wealthy subsidisers of these charities purchase the art from the artist outright and then donate it for the auction. That way the artist at least gets their due. Not totally sure how it might solve the under bidding that is almost institutional in these settings, but it might still be a step in the right direction…..

  10. Julie Austin says:

    It looks like all kinds of artists are being asked to work for free, including actors, speakers, writers, etc. Also all TED speakers are asked to work for free, while the people at the top all get paid.

    • So true….. Its a system-wide abuse of creative people. Its so unfair. And starry eyed artists are so gullible, wanting to do things for the right reasons: Because causes ARE worth supporting. But the system takes advantage of those genuine intentions…… Sad, all too sad….

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