Most artists today are not selling as many works as they produce, and for many of us, the art is piling up in the studio. So, when we are asked to donate paintings to fundraisers, we can easily be tempted by the idea that it is good to be seen, important to gain exposure. And of course, if we believe in the cause, we would like to help.
While non artists are entitled to a Fair Market Tax Deduction for the artwork donated to charities or museums, artists can only claim a income tax reduction for the cost of their materials, not for their labour, or for the established recorded value of their work. There is no "write off value" to us.
Art auctions can be risky, as too often the artist's usual price for the work is not reached in the bidding. The artist has to accept that most often the charity art auction is a great place for a bargain hunter, and the only consolation for the artist is that we have helped a worthy cause. It is not uncommon for works of art to go for less than 20% of their established value. The best results come from auctions that have a trained auctioneer. Your local TV stations anchorman may not be able to get the bidding wars going. It's a good idea to ask in advance about the auctioneer.
Some art collectors will wait for auctions to get a bargain price for an artist they want. If they know that every year their favorite artist donates to the fundraiser, they have no reason to buy from the artist's gallery. It might be a good idea to stagger charities over time. Donate to a worthy cause this year, a different one next year.
Money is tight right now, and bidders have a smaller budget regardless of the desirability of the art, it may be better for you to give prints instead of originals if you are concerned that your prices will not hold up.
Some fundraisers ask for a total 100% donation, others will give the artist a percentage of the winning bid. If you feel you can only give 30% to the charity, it is perfectly OK to negotiate. Example, if a professional artist works on the donated painting for a week, it is a substantial gift to give 30% of your week's income.
I learned an important lesson this spring, painting to help raise money for an arts organization teamed up with a city project with a specific theme. Occasionally, I am inspired to paint a landscape, but I don't enjoy painting endless leaves. With this fundraiser, I believed in the cause, and I wanted to be included among the group of artists working for a new vision for our city. The problem was the subject. We were all asked to paint our local river. An even bigger problem, the river bed rarely has any water in it.
It was a struggle to find a part of the dry river that has any aesthetic value for me. In the end, after scrapping the first half-painted canvas, I stripped down my view of the river to the only part that I liked, the little bit of water there was, a 200 foot puddle of murky water. Sitting by the edge, at the right angle, the late afternoon sun sparkled like "Stars on the Water" (above). When I chose that view as my subject, I had a great deal of fun painting it, and I learned enormous amounts about light.
However, the painting did not sell, so the fundraiser did not benefit financially from my entry. I still own the painting and it does not fit in theme with any other painting of mine, so it will be harder to sell. The struggle to find the right subject matter, and the time it took away from my "real" work, left me with a deep dissatisfaction. The lesson for me is now clear. Inspiration is the heart of any painting. Artists owe it to themselves to be in love with their subject. I should have said "No, not this time."
At least, I have a painting ready to donate to another fundraiser.
A few questions to ask yourself before donating:
How many works am I willing to donate in one year?
Does this auction have too much art or too many items which will cause all donated items to go for very low prices?
Can I live with it going for a small fraction of it's value?