Monday, August 30, 2010

give (back) and take (away)

this Summer I had the opportunity to join a committee in a local organization, Michigan AIDS Coalition (MAC), that sponsors a series of fundraising events to benefit AIDS-related causes in the region.

though I have been involved with AIDS walks organizations in both Illinois and Michigan (board member in the former and fundraiser in the latter) since 2003, this was the first time where I combined my engagement to this crisis with art. the event we organized is a yearly art auction and reception called Artworks for Life (A4L), which I have also participated since moving to the Detroit Metro area, as an artist-donor.

my intended role in the organizing committee was to bring in a new generation of artists into the mix. I contacted as many artists that fit the bill as I could (about fifty-five), and my estimate is that out of the 170 or so artists that showed at the event, about 35 or so confirmed their participation through their exchanges with me.

this post is not meant to be a pat on my own shoulder, as the A4L committee has worked so hard for fifteen years without me and built the reputation of this event. the fact that the majority of the artists already knew about A4L is a testament of their efforts. my goal here is to explore the complexities of issues that arise when art and charity intersect.

while many of the artists wanted to know the technicalities of the event (such as deadlines, how ready to hang the work had to be, how to estimate pricing, the level of junk email privacies, etc), some wanted to know if some of the kinks from previous years had been resolved. for what I could gather, there had been inconsistency with thank you letters and information disclosure on art purchases(some years names were released, some years they were not, some letters of acknowledgement arrived months after the fact if ever, etc), which is not surprising given that the committee is composed almost entirely of volunteers, and MAC's employees and volunteers involved with A4L were also organizing many other parallel events to take place on the same site over a period of three consecutive days.

another recurring issue revolved around the decisions made with the art work in the auction. there were two types of auction at A4L: the silent auction (where people wrote bids on papers next to each piece) and the live auction (the supposed highlight of the evening, with an actual auctioneer and fast-paced bidding). many of the artists involved wanted to know how the live auction pieces got chosen (usually 10% of the total), and who decided where/how all works were presented. the committee earlier on told me that the entire process was quite organic, with no binding rules, and that sometimes artists whose pieces brought in large sums of money one year in either auction were more likely to be included in the live one. of course a lot had to do with the overall appeal of the pieces and the name recognition of the artist. the actual display of the works was dependent upon the facilities (which have changed almost every year since I became involved), rather than curated - all silent auction pieces were displayed salon-style on walls or on tabletops. I relayed this information to everyone that asked me, in hopes to demystify any notions that a conspiracy was in place to benefit some and denigrate others. all of this proved to be true during the two day installation process, which I was heavily involved.

a few particular issues against participation were cited by most of the artists who declined my invitation:

1- the auction prices were way below the actual value of the pieces. this discouraged serious collectors from buying their works full price from their studio or galleries;
2- the benefits to artists (free ticket to event and discounted ticket price to guest, a value of $200 for $25), were below the benefits for collectors (who walked away with bargains), and the press exposure minimal;
3- the issues on how to cite the event in resume posed a problem, as a one day auction is not an exhibition per se, specially sans catalogue and official reception and installation documentations.

these reasons are more than valid, but there is always a counter argument to them. the third issue could be easily solved if the artist actually attended the event and documented their own pieces (I was asked by more than one artist in absentia if I could send them a documentation of their installed piece, as well as how much their piece went for - no to both was my answer given the sheer amount of donated works). as far as citation, one could create a "charity" section in their resume or completely leave the event out, both of which I have done at different times, for different reasons. the second reason could be countered with the fact that many of the collectors that come to the event actually collect art outside these events, so a broader trickling down of benefits to the whole region takes place - and maybe, just maybe, if your piece was very intriguing, you could actually get a sale to match the auction donation (I know of one particular collector that does that as much as possible to help out local artists).

all these points could be counter-argued by the umbrella concept of openheartedly giving. if one truly makes a commitment to give back to their community, with no conditions, the act of donating art to any event becomes quite easy, and enjoyable as well. I would also bet that there is virtually no artist in this world that doesn't have an older work of art stuck in their vault, that could be easily given away. pay it forward, to use a cliche. I even told so to an artist that suggested that the committee should purchase the artwork and give a cut of the event to the artist (but unfortunately we are not running a gallery). personally I am a firm believer in karmic equalization, that is, if one gives something away, one is given back somehow, and at times two- or three-fold. being an artist is already part sacrifice, so donating art work can be seen as another extension of that.

A4L was actually very different from previous years, and in many ways the event itself was much better - great (free) food, open bar, dance floor, a DJ two notches above Bar Mitzvah spinning, and even acrobats with skimpy outfits appropriately located next to the dessert tables. I am not certain of the amount raised in the auctions, if it was par, above, or below previous years. the live auction seemed to have raised a fair amount.

I was one of the assistants to the auctioneer and knew the estimated price for the pieces. while the more expensive ones (in five figures) went below 50%, some of the more affordable pieces went way above their estimate. the silent auction seemed to have gone under what was expected (my view). some pieces were sans bid, and many went for the minimum bid. in previous years I witnessed many bidding wars, but this time it was not the same.

as a member of the committee I placed initial bids on many pieces (including my own), in the hopes that sales would be stimulated. there were actually two or three pieces that I really would have liked to get. at the end of the evening I ended up spending three times as much as I had budgeted for myself, and left with seven beautiful pieces by six artists (my own piece went to a good friend of mine, for about 1/7 of the estimated time, after 4 bids). I left the event extremely tired but with my hands full of great art (including the ones I wanted badly, a first), and confident that together we had made a good go for this important cause.

well, my Pollyanna attitude changed somewhat as time went by. in retrospect, I ended up feeling like one of the collectors who went to an auction to get something I would have never been able to afford otherwise (one piece was acquired with a bid lower than 10% of the estimated value). I also kept recalling a very ugly exchange between two bidders that I witnessed towards the end of the event. one collector was standing guard to a piece (by a well-known local artist) that was going for a fraction of what it costs. another collector, who had not heard the closing of the silent auction (the sound system that announced its end was not appropriate to the high ceilings and large scale of the room), walked towards the piece with the intention of doubling the current (or so she claimed). when the guardian/collector saw that she jumped up and claimed her stake. it was a very awkward situation as I was standing right in between both (I almost thought an actual fight would take place). the late comer walked away and felt that the whole purpose of the event was to raise money, and not get pieces, so that, even if she was one minute late, if she had a few more hundred dollars to give, she should be able to do so. and this type of altercation happened in at least two other places that night (as told to me by other afterwards).

another damper into my positive spirit towards the event was an interaction I had with a staff member a few hours before the evening started, after the work was hung. I had politely asked them to please double-check that all donating artists were put in the guest list. I was afraid that some might arrive and be turned away, which would be humiliating to say the least. it would also damage my relationship to them (as many told me they were only donating because I had asked, since they had had bad experiences with the event in prior years). the response I got from the staffer was "too bad if their names are not on the list". that really infuriated me, because I felt that to be extremely disrespectful. that attitude supported the claims that this organization (and many others in the region, who constantly ask for art for charity) systematically take artists for granted. it is worth mentioning that many of the art works were bid and purchased by local artists, so again the old method of self supporting continued. I did not pay attention, but I would not be surprised if the said staffer was not bidding.

the questions that come to my mind are, what do we do about all of this? what will happen if artists stop donating their works? will that change in any way the value of their work (less exposure)? will that increase their studio/gallery sales (unlikely given the limited number of local galleries that regularly show and sell local art)? what will happen if artists stop being collector, stop giving their own money to get art from their peers?

and how is it possible to change a culture that takes art and artists for granted, even while having noble causes? what will happen to these organizations that rightfully need all the help they can get? I am not sure I have any answers to these and other important questions in regards to art and charity. but I believe that this blog environment might be a good place for a dialogue/discussion to ensue.

eventually I made my peace with the whole thing. that is what we have to do sometimes, the proverbial high road. I choose to believe that MAC and its staff had/has the best of intentions, and that misgivings and miscommunications are mostly due to stress and, well, being human. I also believe that the Artworks for Life committee did its best, with the best of the intentions to all involved (we were so careful to be good to the artists specially), as best as we could, and hope that our humanity and efforts compensate for any shortcomings.

at the end of the day we all need to put our egos aside and focus on the reasons why we decided to help: to give to a complex and important cause that sadly still merits much attention and care. with this in mind, giving back is what we take away from it. and that is more than enough.


PS: this entry about art is being purposely posted with no images, in order to recall DWA (Day Without Art), which for myself and many others might have been a first encounter with art and artists responding to the AIDS crisis.

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