Past Commentaries

December Issue 2000
by Tom Starland

How NOT to get in a Gallery

Many artists ask me how they can get their work represented by a commercial gallery, and more specifically, how they can get into a certain gallery - in many cases, a top selling gallery or a prestigious gallery - both descriptions are not interchangeable. The answer to that question depends on each individual artist asking the question, where they want to go, and a million other factors, which we won't be going into during this commentary. But, what I can do is give artists some insights into how NOT to get represented by a gallery or how to make yourself unattractive to commercial galleries.

First, keep acting like you've been taking stupid pills and continue donating your artwork to every charity and fundraiser auction that exists on the planet. Look, I'm not against charitable donations to worthy causes, but by giving your art away you are undercutting your own art market and telling gallery owners - "don't take my work on, I like giving it away," "when you need to cut one of your gallery's artists, take me first," or better yet, "why don't you just close your gallery, you can't compete with all those charity auctions anyway".

Did any of you artists who so easily give your work to these events ever think of just selling your art in the traditional way and giving the money to the charity? Actually you would only have to give them half the selling price, as that is the price most work goes for at art auction. Oh yes, occasionally some art actually sells for more than its market value, but the majority sells for half and less than half. Some works at some of these auctions don't get any bids and no one seems to know what happens to that art. Art auctions may be good for the charities hosting them, the people who go to them to buy art at half the market value, and a few artists who seem to get all the attention while others get none, but they are killing the art markets in several areas around the Carolinas.

No where is this more true than in Columbia, SC - the capital of the art auction fundraiser and non-profits selling art in the name of helping so-called emerging artists sell their work or work by artists who have no access to commercial galleries. Commercial gallery owners in Columbia are having to compete with numerous charities, non-profit art organizations and even state agencies in selling art to the public. One gallery owner, Ginny Newell, owner of Morris Gallery on Devine Street in Columbia is throwing in the towel and closing her gallery space after ten years of providing artists and Columbia with a top notch commercial gallery. One reason for closing, if not the main reason, is that she is tired of competing with these art auctions and non-profits selling art.

Hopefully, Newell's closing of her gallery operation (her art conservation business will continue) will send a major shock wave through Columbia's visual art community giving artists a wakeup call that these art auctions and non-profit galleries have to stop. And, the best way to stop it is for the artists to - just say no to providing art to them.

If you feel compelled to support the charity or non-profit, give them a cash donation and take the full amount as a tax deduction - that's more than you'll get as an artist from the government by donating your artwork.

Some artists state that they would rather give finished artwork instead of cash. Well, what kind of message does that send the buying public and gallery owners - your art is worthless, worth very little, or is it like the old Dorito chip commercial - "Eat All You Want, We'll Make More!"

If you are currently represented by a gallery, you better think twice about what you're doing to your future at that gallery before you make a donation of art - for an art auction or a non-profit selling art as a fundraiser. If you're not represented by a gallery, but would like to be at some time in the future, you also better think twice about making a donation of art. If you don't think those gallery owners are aware of who is giving to these events - stop taking those stupid pills. We're all watching what is going on and who is giving to these events. And, we're all making decisions based on what we see.

The art buying public is watching and saying, "Why should I pay full price when I can just wait for the next auction and perhaps get the work at half price or less?" The gallery owners are thinking about who and why they are representing certain artists or worse yet, they're thinking about whether they should close their gallery. I know I'm keeping track of who the artists are who are feeding this frenzy of auctions and fundraising events.

Artists themselves complain about being hounded constantly by organizations requesting artwork for such events, yet they still keep giving. All it takes is for them to be approached by a friend or someone of power and influence waving that promise of publicity, popularity, and let's not forget - the money they'll be helping to raise for that good cause. Perhaps they'll be shown a list of artists who are already on board with a donation and peer pressure kicks in - after all, these charities and non-profits are very clever to start their requests with the phrase - "We're offering work by the top artists in the area." And, who wants to be left out of that group? Many artists have expressed a feeling of being pressured into donating art and in some cases almost a feeling of being blackmailed by the fear of being blackballed in the community for not giving art.

Is there no room for middle ground on this issue - of course there is, provided the parties involved are willing to look at the long-range picture. I have offered an alternative thought on this subject and every gallery owner and artists I have mentioned it to has embraced the suggestion with enthusiasm. The idea is based on the long standing tradition where the public buys art from a gallery - a gallery which represents artists over the long haul. That means that the gallery owner and the artists work in partnership - being loyal to each other. The result for the charity is the same, provided their goal is to raise funds instead of having lavish parties and gala bashes (just an excuse for women to buy a new dress and see their husbands in tuxedos).

Here's the idea. A charity approaches an artist about donating artwork. If the artist feels moved to support such charity, they go to their gallery and talk with the owner about adding this charity into the gallery's "Charitable Artworks Program". The Program consist of selected works which hang in the gallery which are specially marked as participating in a fundraising program. These are works where artist and gallery owner have agreed to donate an equal percentage of the sale of the work to the stated charity. That means that as people look at artworks displayed in a gallery they will see works that are specially marked as Charitable Artworks. This means that if they purchase this work they will be responsible for the stated charity receiving that percentage of the sale. As an extra incentive, the artist and gallery owner can defer the donation to the buyer (if that can legally be worked out with the IRS) - either way the charity receives a part of the fair market value of the artwork. If the public responds favorably to the idea of their purchase supporting a charity (drawing more people into galleries/generating more sales) gallery owners and artists will be happy to expand their offerings of Charitable Artworks. This program could generate funds all year long.

Under this plan, artists can contribute to worthy causes without undercutting the market value of their art, gallery owners will keep their artists, art, and buyers, in their galleries, and charities will receive funding. If the party is the thing! - people can still buy their art at opening receptions.

What about artists not represented by galleries? Special exhibitions can be arranged with galleries to showcase these artists under the same circumstances. This would also give gallery owners a look at new talent which might have a future in joining a gallery's stable of artists.

Now this is just one alternative to the current trend of art auctions and the trend is growing everyday. Recently, South Carolina Educational Television (SCETV), a state agency, joined in on the feeding frenzy. They have now created a state-wide live televised art auction as the newest form of taking advantage of selling art at less than market value for fundraising. Some would split hairs and argue that it's the ETV Endowment that is hosting the art auction, not SCETV. Well, the ETV Endowment (which is not a real endowment - it's just their name) exists entirely to provide funding to SCETV - it's a protected source of funding for SCETV that the SC General Assembly can't dip their fingers into. The Endowment claims they're so separate that they have to pay for the use of SCETV's studios and air time during fundraising, but as they exchange checks under the table to each other, the result is the same - SCETV gets all the money - whether it's payment for the costs of the fundraiser (which comes out of the money raised during the fundraiser) or the remaining money after costs - it all adds up to the same amount and it all goes to SCETV -again, less administrative costs.

Here again, I'd rather see artists pledge support to SCETV in the form of cash earned from selling their art, at market value, compared to the embarrassing scene I witnessed the night of their art auction before I couldn't watch anymore.

And, how about those folks who go to these art auctions to buy art at half price or less. Well, it's hard to ever complain about people buying art under any circumstances, but there was a time when people went to charity auctions expecting to bid higher than market value for items already "donated" - after all, the event was a charity fundraiser.

Now, a few words for the charities and non-profits hosting these fundraisers. Why is it always the visual arts? I'd like the public to be able to go to an art auction where they could bid a ridiculously low price to have the local symphony orchestra come perform at their next backyard picnic. How about letting people bid on the local ballet doing the Nutcracker at their child's next birthday party. Perhaps they could get one of the local theatre groups to donate a production of Shakespeare to bid on for some at home entertainment next Saturday night. The point is - why is it always the visual arts? Why are people using the arts at all for fundraising? It's like the poor donating to the poor.

How about getting creative and hitting up the fat cats for donations that would bring in some big bids. How about letting Clemson fans bid on an at home dinner with coach Lou Holtz. Bill it as an evening of Gamecock jokes with the top cock. I bet that would bring in more than $19,000. Go get the head of the Democratic party to sit in a dunk tank and charge Republicans $5 a shot. Of course you'll have to make sure he can stay a week or two. And, make sure you have change on hand for $1,000 bills. How about bidding on having the head of Bank of America balance your checkbook for the last six months.

There are lots of creative ways to do fundraising which won't call for someone giving any more than their time and expertise.

O.K. I think you've got the picture. I'm not against all fundraisers involving art, but too much of a good thing is just too much and the results could be more gallery owners throwing in the towel. I don't think all artists who are donating art to these auctions are taking stupid pills - some may still be my friends after this commentary.

So you artists out there, the next time someone ask you to participate in the next three or four fundraisers - ask yourself when's the last time you had a solo exhibition at a commercial gallery or if you'll ever have a solo exhibition at any commercial gallery. You see, they have to make a profit to stay open - unlike the non-profits and charities you like dealing with.

You charities and non-profits who like to use the visual artists out there to raise funds - try thinking about using alternatives - try being more creative. Try raising funds without someone else having to give up something. If your charity's and non-profit's mission is so good - people shouldn't need inducements to give money to them.

Carolina Arts has given to many organizations (on a monthly basis - in this issue $440.) and we don't ask for or use the tax deductions - we just think it's the right thing to do. I'm sure others will feel that way too - if you just give them the chance.

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