The Spoleto Auction was the final straw. On Feb. 24, 2017, Erin and Justin Nathanson, owners of The Southern art gallery, posted a manifesto on their Facebook page. The message: no more 100 percent artwork donations for charity auctions or events.
“It was not coming from a place of wanting to shame anyone,” says Erin. “I think it’s just more or less mentioning Spoleto by name gets them to actually think.” After Spoleto had reached out to gallery owners requesting 100 percent donations from the visual artists they represent for the festival’s annual auction, saying it was tradition, that the international festival had always received donations in this way, the Nathansons had had enough.
In a 900 word manifesto the couple outlined what the relationship between local artists and charity organizations should look like and suffice it to say, it was nothing like what Spoleto was offering.
For Spoleto’s annual auction, the festival asks local galleries and independent artists to donate visual art. In return, the artist receives: online visibility with access to over 450,000 bidders, the potential to have work displayed at a preview party at Fritz Porter a week before the auction (only a selection of the submissions are showcased), and the potential for work to be put up for bid at the live auction the day of the event (the select pieces offered in the live auction are displayed visually and biographically in the brochure). In addition to these promises, on the tidy PDF one-sheet Spoleto sends to participating artists, there is a breakdown of the organization’s followers on social media, and the additional promise that “Donating items to be part of Spoleto’s online auction carries with it an opportunity for high visibility and brand awareness, national exposure to an affluent demographic, and your choice of image and hyper link on spoletoauction.com.” The PDF goes on to read that no, the organization will not appraise or authenticate a piece of work, but “will provide a letter describing the gifted artwork for tax purposes.”
The Nathansons called bullshit.
Unlike previous charity collection gripes, including Angel Postell’s recent City Paper column begrudging the tradition and its effect on the local restaurant industry, artists face an entirely different problem when a nonprofit comes asking for free artwork. As Erin wrote in her post, “For most, donating an auction item can be written off. Not for artists, who may only deduct the cost of materials, which they do anyway for their business of making and selling art.” Erin went on to write, “In our most recent solicitation for free art, Spoleto Festival USA expressed they would not even offer an auction event ticket to the artist … again, how is this a fair exchange?”
The Nathansons’ manifesto was immediately met with support. Garnering quite a bit of attention on social media, it brought to the fore a conversation that many in the arts community have been having for years. Artists, restaurants, and retail outlets have been dealing with the dilemma of “to donate or not to donate” for as long as nonprofits have laid out the red carpet for events. And in a city like Charleston with over 300 registered nonprofits, there is a lot of asking going on. In CCP‘s recent “No Free Lunch” guest op-ed column by Postell, the Home Team PR owner explained that, “most chefs and restaurateurs in this city love being charitable … However, those efforts often take a back seat as they are overwhelmed with dozens of requests a day asking for donations and free food.” While an ask is an ask, the difference for artists, says Erin, is that restaurants are guaranteed to make money every day, but there is no guarantee for a full-time artist.
Mark Sloan, director and chief curator for the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art for more than two decades, says that this is the first time the issue of art donations has been vocalized locally in the Charleston arts community.
Erin expresses her frustration and confusion with Spoleto, which focuses soley on performing arts: “We wanted to create synergy with Spoleto. It’s a performing arts festival, why wouldn’t they want to have a strong visual arts program that is also presenting groundbreaking work?”
After asking Spoleto to compromise, and receiving no concessions, The Southern declined to participate, citing that with no money for the artist, no event invite for the artist, and only a letter for taxes and the intangible promise of “exposure,” it would be in the best interest of the artists they represent to not take part in the annual auction.
We reached out to Spoleto for comment, and the director of development Julia Forster said, “Spoleto Festival USA is a not-for-profit institution and has had a long tradition of outright gifts to our auctions for the past 40 years in Charleston. Prior to that, the Festival’s former Italian counterpart, Festival of Two Worlds, would host fundraising auctions at Sotheby’s in New York. Of course, there is always room for improvement, and each year is different. We will continue to reevaluate how to frame our solicitations and manage our auction policies.”
You can’t eat exposure
The problem with nonprofits promising tax breaks and exposure is that these two things amount to nada for full-time, professional artists. If a work has never sold, it has no “established value” and therefore can’t be written-off. As far as exposure? Many artists take that promise with a grain of salt. Artist and gallery owner Tim Hussey calls the idea of exposure a joke: “I’m a 47-year-old artist, I don’t need ‘exposure.’ You know what, Instagram is exposure and it’s free and reaches more people.”
Gallery owner and artist Robert Lange of Robert Lange Studios agrees, saying that “the exposure side never works out. You never gain all this attention because of an event.” Lange equates 100 percent donations to asking anyone, with any job title, to work for 50 to 100 hours for free, receiving absolutely nothing in return. Hussey creates a similarly stinging analogy. “I tell them, OK organization, why don’t you go and do the art yourself? If you think we can just do this and whip it out.” Hussey says he once donated a piece worth between $4,800 and $6,000 to a nonprofit auction that failed to set a minimum. The piece sold for $300. Even with an agreement that credited Hussey with 50 percent of the selling price, he made a paltry $150 — that’s a trip to get groceries versus a couple of month’s of downtown rent.
Sloan says that “auctions wreak havoc on an artist’s pricing, and they’re terrible for galleries. It has been proven to be severely detrimental to an artist’s career to participate in auctions. Artists like Jonathan Green do well, but for the vast majority it’s a really bad deal.”
Local assemblage artist Hirona Matsuda is not opposed to donating work to nonprofits, and depending on a nonprofit that’s near and dear to an artist, even 100 percent donations have their place, she says. But people have to recognize the very different nature of donating artwork: “Art is not something that is reproduceable. Musicians can play songs over and over; other performance artists can do that, too. But with art, once it’s gone, it’s really gone.” Matsuda continues, “Art is not held in the same regard as other things in our culture. And yet we rely on art for so many things. It’s a bizarre balance. Imagine if artists just stopped giving art.”
The tax break myth
And tax breaks? Visual artists can only receive write-offs for the cost of the materials they use for a donated piece. For example, Lange donated $70,000 worth of artwork to charities a few years ago. He was able to write-off only $1,200 — the cost of his paint and canvases.
“I wholeheartedly donated,” says Lange, “Artists are liberal-minded creatives who desire to give back. But think about how that changed my year. It’s really sad … it’s punishing people for being philanthropic. Someone who has it [art] in their private collection can give it away and get a huge write off, penalizing the wrong class of people. Every artist I know would participate ten-fold if they were able to take it as a write-off.”
So how did we get here? You can blame the nascence of this biased treatment towards professional creatives on, of all people, Nixon. In 1969, the former president tried to write off over a million dollars for donating his own manuscripts to the National Archives. Congress responded by creating a law that states the creator of a piece of work can only deduct the cost of materials.
But the problem is bigger than that. As Erin says, “Artists have zero guarantees, especially visual artists.” For gallery shows and opening night exhibits, there’s a “free bar, plus music. Sales don’t come to fruition until work is done following those public experiences … We need to break away from that idea that visual art is free. It’s free to look at the majority of the time. Even if it’s in a museum the artist does not get the attendance fee. The only way a visual artist makes money is by selling a work that has an established price/minimum.” Erin continues, “We don’t want to put out this impression ‘don’t ask visual artists for anything!’ We just think there’s a certain way to do it.”
Finding common ground
So where does this leave nonprofits? Should they simply stop asking local artists for work, or, should artists simply say no? How does the city support local causes and local artists? Is it possible to reach an understanding, where nonprofits offer more, and artists, receiving more, produce and donate top-notch work?
The Nathansons put together some first steps in their manifesto to get there. For example, a charity should:
• Set an agreed upon minimum
• Give artists 30-50 percent of the selling price
• Offer the artist a complimentary ticket to the event
• (It seems obvious but) share the buyer’s information with the artist
• And acknowledge the generosity and creativity of the participating artist year-round
The Nathansons say they did not put out the manifesto to lambast nonprofits. They recognize that nonprofits and charitable organizations are not menacing, easy to hate villains. They’re the good guys, fighting for those who can’t fight for themselves. And there are certainly area nonprofits who know the current state of affairs is not ideal. When asked about their relationship with local artists, the Carolina Youth Development Center, which works to empower the Lowcountry’s more vulnerable children, provided a statement saying “When we host auctions, our volunteer committee members seek donations from those they already have relationships with, so it’s our hope that these donor relationships are mutually beneficial on multiple levels. We understand that many artists prefer to support causes they care about in a variety of ways. Whether an individual chooses to support CYDC in the form of time, treasure, talent, or a combination thereof, we appreciate their commitment to the safety and care of the children we serve.”
Louis Yuhasz of Louie’s Kids, a nonprofit that helps children overcome obesity, has decided to forgo auctions all together. Instead, for the organization’s largest fundraiser, Little Chef Big Chef — an event that pairs Louie’s Kids with top area chefs to create a four-course dinner — guests “get to actually meet the kids. You get to put a face to a cause,” says Yuhasz. He also says that they’ll place cards on the table explaining “if you donate X, that will go to Y.” “It’s all optional. The tickets to the dinner are expensive enough. The tickets — that right there is already money we didn’t have. You don’t want to nickel and dime anyone.”
Although Yuhasz has successfully avoided the bane of asking for donated auction items, plenty of nonprofits still rely heavily on this model. The asks will continue; Charleston is a city that thrives on black tie galas and silent auctions. But maybe the asking will change as the contemporary art scene grows. “Hopefully we start a new way of approaching this,” says Erin, “And buck the status quo. Charleston loves fundraisers and it’s hard on people even buying the tickets to go … Charleston is changing so much. The demographic is changing. People don’t have to be in fear to speak out.”
A new establishment
Neal Rice, the young CofC Beresford Studios gallery owner, says he’s ready to embrace the evolving scene. “People show up from out of town for the art now. Someone from Washington came into Beresford, I said, ‘How did you even hear about it?’ They wanted to see contemporary art. There’s an audience. It can grow and it can develop on its own but unless it has that place to present itself then it just stays in that development stage.”
Hussey, who is one of the few artists to own his own studio downtown, says “I know the city has tried. With the City Gallery and the Halsey, for a small town that’s pretty good. I think there would be more talent here … people get out of CofC and stick around for six months … for 15 years I’ve watched this happen. That’s what I did. I would love for them to stay, to give them that option.” Hussey says he has plans to buy his building on upper King, to turn it into half gallery, half studio: “My plan is to make this the next center of the contemporary scene. My dream is for people to be driving down on a road trip from New York and they say ‘Let’s go through Charleston.’ [The building] will be not just a gallery but a landing spot. Five percent of all sales will go back into the arts community.”
Lange believes that if the arts community could come together to fight the decades-old tax catastrophe, Charleston could emulate Providence, Rhode Island, a city with a booming arts scene partly made possible by tax incentives for artists, including income and sales tax breaks for those who live and work in designated arts districts, creating revenue for the city as tourists flood in to take in all the rich arts hub has to offer.
“We could be a mecca. We’re on the tip of the nation’s tongue as a cultural hot spot, why not show them we can become an emblem for how everyone can do it? And we’re small enough to implement it,” says Lange, “Everyone wants to give something to charities. At the end of the day, there should be a fairness to it. If you gave artists the write-off you’d see a tidal wave of good donations coming in. It seems like a no-brainer.”