Artful Charities

Irish News Column Feb 2000
Irish News February 2000

This week I would like to appeal to all those public relations consultants and other kindly people who organize fund – raising ventures for charities. Please give the artist a rest.
Any artist will tell you that the most common letter he receives is the one, which asks him to submit or donate a painting to a charity auction. It usually starts by telling the artist how lucky he is to be invited to take part in this Prestigious event: Prestigious, that’s the key word, because only important artists are being asked to contribute work. Invariably the letter tells us that, “ most of Ulster’s leading artists” have been invited to participate. This is an interesting stratagem as it seems to employ a combination of moral blackmail and flattery to achieve its aim. Those artists who already see themselves as belonging to that elite group;- “Ulster’s Leading Artists” might feel compelled to donate work, lest its absence be noted and their names recorded forever in some black book of the arts. Aspirants, on the other hand, eager to be named with the great are flattered into submitting work.
Most of these requests presume the artist to be an idiot willing to defer to some PR consultant’s description of a jumble sale of paintings as; - a prestigious event.
The problem is, that the artist is not regarded as a professional. He is perceived as some kind of naïf savant who can “ rattle off” paintings at will, unaware of their value and unconcerned about their fate. His work is not really important. He’s not like a dentist or a barrister or an accountant, whose occupations, as we all know, are very important, which is why they earn more than a suspended MLA.
A barrister rang me up asking for a piece of work for a charity auction.
“ Tell me,” I asked, “ When are we going to hear of a barrister giving three or four weeks of his work to a charity auction?
Because that’s how long it takes me to produce a painting”. He muttered something and hung up the phone.
Most professional artists feel as I do. They are simply fed up with these requests.
One rugby club, regularly organises a charity, art auction. It brazenly states that the commission from the sales will be shared between a well known and deserving charity and the club’s own funds.
What unmitigated cheek.
Then, as though that were not enough, they compound the effrontery by asking the artist to pay a hanging fee for each painting while reminding him that insurance for the paintings is also his responsibility.
This must be an exception. I am sure that in other charity auctions all of the proceeds are ear-marked for the charity and not shared with some club’s bar committee. Aside from this obvious opportunism these auctions can be abused in a way which only affects the professional artist.
Let me explain. The professional artist lives by his art. He needs to sell his work, but, making money is not his prime intention. Painting isn’t simply about manufacturing a commodity to sell. If it was, we’d all be painting Markey look-alikes till the cows come home, and very funny looking cows they’d be.
No. Each painter is producing something uniquely his. He wants it to be seen not only by the public but by other artists, art critics and curators who might advance or enhance his professional reputation. To do this he must produce a large number of paintings, usually every two years, for exhibition in an established gallery. If he gives a painting monthly to art auctions he will deplete the very exhibitions which are central to his career.
It is fair to say that it is only the artist who is actually giving something to these events. For example, his work is usually seen or auctioned alongside a large number of amateur paintings. This usually means that if it does sell, it is likely to sell below his gallery price which is good for the purchaser but bad for the artist. If it doesn’t sell that’s worse, because it is seen to be very publicly rejected.
The person who buys the painting on the other hand, not only feels a warm glow of satisfaction because he has given to charity, but he also has bought a painting below its market price which he might, and frequently does, sell again for a profit.
The charity gains whatever percentage was agreed, the PR consultant is paid a fee and in the case of the rugby club, the members’ bar might get new bar stools.
What about the artist? Well he is left singing; “ What kind of fool am I ”?

© Joseph Mc Williams February 2000