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Need to raise funds for your cause? You may want to think twice before asking an artist to donate a work

It’s one of the biggest charitable art auctions of the city—the annual Arts Umbrella Splash event, where moneyed folk bid on works by some of the biggest names in the local art scene in support of the arts academy. This year’s October 19 event will feature such recognizable artists as painter Gordon Smith, photographer Dina Goldstein, and sculptor Marie Khouri, among a multitude of others.
 
It’s great exposure for the artists, and it’s a great fundraiser for a good cause. Pairing charities and art: a win-win on all sides, right? Not so fast. While the well-established Splash event has long been supported by the art community—artists and collectors alike—other groups looking to cash in on artists’ goodwill may find they have a little more convincing to do.
 
Case in point: the City of Vancouver, which earlier this month put out a call for donations to 2013 Out of the Rain, an art auction benefiting street homelessness to be held October 18, in partnership with Vancouver Community College and Streetohome Foundation. In return, artists would be “recognized” on the event’s website—but only if they responded before a deadline of September 20.
 
The request, benign as it sounds, left Julie McIntyre, the B.C. representative of Canadian Artists' Representation / Le Front des Artistes Canadiens, a non-profit representing Canadian visual artists, seething. Frustrated, she wrote an open letter to the City and its fellow organizers, detailing the relentless barrage of requests artists face from charities and non-profits for donations—and the economic toll this places upon them.
 
One CARFAC member, she wrote, “reported having received no less than nine donation requests in 66 days. For that artist, that amount of giving would have represented close to half of his artistic production for the marketplace for the year. That is, he was being asked to donate half of his annual income.”
 
Since McIntyre penned her missive, the B.C. chapter of CARFAC member has been inundated with similar tales from other frustrated artists. In an email, Vancouver artist Laura Zerebeski voiced particular regret about taking part in a prep school auction, in which her piece sold quickly and for a good price. Her reward? “They gave me a coffee cup with the name of the school on it as thanks.”
 
Gabriola- and Vancouver-based artist Alice Rich says she’s asked at least once a month to donate her work, and points out that while successful bidders often come away with a “deal”, the artist’s work can become devalued as a result of a poor showing.
 
“If you watch your $3,000 piece go for $750, it’s mortifying and it can crush your career rather than raise it,” she notes. And while the lucky bidder can then go on to donate a work to a gallery—receiving a tax receipt for the work’s full retail value, even if they paid a fraction of that price for it—the artist gets no such gains. In a bit of Catch-22 accounting, Canada Revenue requires the artist to claim the auction selling price as income, then claim the same amount as a charitable donation.
 
But what about all the promise of exposure? “It’s the carrot dangled in front of artists,” Rich retorts. “Really, I don’t know if you get any exposure at all.”
 
For McIntyre, what really rankled about the City’s request was “the lack of respect,” she explains. She urges all organizations to embrace CARFAC’s “Guidelines for Professional Standards in the Organization of Fundraising Events” when considering art auctions. Recommendations include having an organizer retain a percentage of the sale price, or retain any money received above a reserve price; the issuing of a tax receipt to the artist; and the protection of artist copyright.
 
The City of Vancouver did not respond to a request for comment before deadline. But safe to say, any other organizations thinking of approaching artists for a bit of charitable help might want to think a little harder about what, exactly, they’re asking artists to do. Because they might not get the enthusiastic reception they were banking on.