Give Up Your Artwork for Free - Are You Kidding Me?
by Victor Pytko
There comes a point in most artist's lives when they are asked to donate a piece of art...for charity or some other cause. When it first happened to me, I felt honored that my work might be worthy of an auction bid. But over the years (yes, I have donated at least 20 paintings) I have come to realize two things:
* I still feel a duty to make a contribution
* I now feel imposed upon
A conflict obviously. Only recently have I begun to see a resolution: donate only when the exposure -- not the sale -- provides a return on investment. In other words, when getting publicity for the donation positions you favorably with a buying public or when a profit can be made, if not now, then in the near term.
Generally, I now explain that despite popular notion, as an artist, I am not allowed to deduct the fair market value of the artwork; only the cost of the materials to make it! While bills have been introduced to change the ruling, nothing has been enacted. In most instances where I was asked, the value of the work had exceeded $300 -- about the price I could sell it --while bids never reached 20 percent of that. Everyone wants a bargain. Many times, I ended up bidding on my own work, in essence donating about $50, and took the painting back to sell elsewhere, leaving me a hole to get out of.
So now, I tell item collectors that while their cause is good, asking a starving artist to donate $300 (the market value of the work) is too much to ask, especially when a dozen similar requests are made each year. And I don't feel badly about it. It's not good business.
A groundswell of sentiment is erupting over on LinkedIn, in an artists' discussion group named Visual Artists and their Advocates. Artist Fran Richardson started the discussion Aug. 18, and so far (Aug. 29) there have nearly 90 comments, most agreeing that enough is enough when it comes to "working for free."
She wrote: "Today I received a second unsolicited email...offering me yet another chance to work for nothing. A small gallery...thinks that it is OK to spam professional artists with a ‘huge opportunity’ to design album covers and other promotional art work for a well-known indie band with no payment for the artist’s time and expertise. The gallery says that the ‘purpose of the competition is not to solicit work for free, but to provide a low cost medium for artists to promote themselves’."
If you follow Craigslist, you will see the "work for free for promotional value" is not uncommon among posts in the Gigs. There is reason for this, said LinkedIn commenter Dave Loewenstein:
"Is there anything more arbitrary and arcane than setting a value on art? So once this value is pulled out of thin air based on some mysterious formula the artist uses, the trick becomes trying to convince an 'art lover' that they should buy it. We're trapped by the value assigned into believing that one can actually place a value on something so inherently valueless. Think about it - how does one place a value on a painting or a photograph or a sculpture? Should it be based on an hourly wage of time spent in creating the piece? Should it be in the perceived value (there's that word again) of a piece? Art is so incredibly subjective, what may be priceless to one is worthless to another."
Michele Leivan provided this reference and astute observation::
"In a survey of attitudes toward artists in the U.S., a vast majority of Americans, 96%, said they were greatly inspired by various kinds of art and highly value art in their lives and communities. But the data suggests a strange paradox.
"While Americans value art, the end product, they do not value what artists do. Only 27% of respondents believe that artists contribute "a lot" to the good of society.
"Further interview data from the study reflects a strong sentiment in the cultural community that society does not value art making as legitimate work worthy of compensation. Many perceive the making of art as a frivolous or recreational pursuit.
"Other insights further illuminate the depth of the paradox:
* A majority of parents think that teaching the arts is as important as reading, math, science, history, and geography.
* 95% believe that the arts are important in preparing children for the future.
"But there you have it - it's a cultural thing.... and it doesn't settle well in my stomach. This is why without conscience a person will happily ask you to donate your work without compensation, but they would be quite offended if you asked them to work for you for free...That isn't even a barter, and bartering doesn't buy art materials!"
Now, don't you want to join the discussion?