Giving it Away

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works
Wednesday, September 7, 2005; 4:35 PM

You know you have achieved some measure of success as an artist when you are asked to contribute work to an auction by well-meaning friends or by local organizations.

You know you have achieved even more of a measure of success as an artist when you can tell these folks (politely, of course) to take a hike.

I admit: this is not a very charitable way to view what oftentimes are appeals by charitable organizations, many of whose goals are laudable and worthy of support.

But consider this complaint, from a well known artist in Maine (where we have just returned from our summer sojourn), who was voicing her own blunt opinion of being asked yet again to, in effect, give her work away:

"Art and auctions do not mix, in my opinion," she said. "They do not belong together...At an auction the participants want a 'bargain" -- that's the implication when one hears 'auction' -- getting a good (i.e.: low) price on something that's really worth more...."

"So here you have created a LOSE-LOSE situation. The artist, once again, gets nothing for doing work. The fundraiser raises much less than it had hoped, (after having spent) a couple of months chasing artists and guilt-tripping them into donating..."

I know the artist I am quoting only slightly, but I am very aware of her first-rate work: hand-colored wood and linoleum block cuts that are widely exhibited in New England and elsewhere and that are in a number of excellent galleries and collections, including that of the University of Maine at Machias.

How did I get wind of her comments? Through a letter she sent to a group I belong to, which (surprise, surprise) had organized an auction this summer to raise money for a worthy cause and which had spent long hours on the phone asking, cajoling -- hell, badgering -- artists to contribute work for nothing.

I agreed with almost every point this artist raised, yet I also was one of the people soliciting free contributions and who, in fact, had contributed free work himself.

Was I hypocritical in saying one thing yet doing another? And just plain dumb in (once again) giving my work away?

No on both counts, I think. And I will explain, but first the points my colleague makes are worthy of discussion.

"Why are artists continually asked to work for nothing?" my colleague's letter ended. Why indeed? I frankly think one reason this subject comes up so often is that people who toil in the 9-5 world view artists as free spirits who, following their own muse and inspiration, are having a big-time ball doing what they want, when they want. Asking these folks to "give back" some of that good time in the form of a charitable contribution is not merely reasonable, it's only fair, right?

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