I was chatting with an artist friend the other day, who told me how frustrated he gets when he’s asked to donate his artwork to various causes. Apparently a number of arts organization have a similar fund-raising model. They persuade artists to donate their work, which they sell and then use the proceeds to support the work of the organization. My friend, by no means in the “Damien Hirst” category of rich well-known artists, tells me that he receives four to five such requests a year.
Now, this might not seem like such a big deal. Most of us are regularly solicited by various charities, whether through mailings, emails, telephone calls, appeals at work, even requests to pitch in to various good causes while paying for groceries. And my friend is no Scrooge – he supports the arts and wants to help the organizations that approach him. But consider this: He provides for himself and his family with a full-time job. The time he has to make art is therefore limited to evenings and weekends. Some of his artwork is already promised to galleries, etc. He simply doesn’t have much time to produce “extra” work that he can donate. In asking for his art, these organizations are asking for something that is in many ways more valuable than a straight-forward cash donation.
But there are other reasons, aside from the time constraints, that artists should think carefully before giving away their work. Reflecting on my friend’s situation got me thinking about philanthropy and volunteering more generally. (Volunteering one’s time and giving money are of course different, but they are structurally similar enough to discuss together here.) Economists and other social scientists have paid surprisingly little attention to the charitable sector, and to uncovering the reasons why people give and why they give what they do. Some people help others out of a sense of obligation. They simply feel that it is the right thing to do. Others give because they support the goals of a particular organization and want it to succeed. Much political volunteering is like this. Still others help because it makes them feel good – sometimes called the “warm glow” factor. There can be other, more tangible benefits to volunteering. It can be a way of gaining experience and knowledge that one could not otherwise get, and it can be a form of networking. Of course, these reasons are not mutually exclusive, and any one person might volunteer or donate from any number of motives.
There is another reason why people give. We sometimes give what we have too much of, or what we don’t ourselves value or no longer value. I think of this as the “zucchini paradigm.” If your neighbour has an overabundance of zucchini in her garden, she might give you some. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t value the zucchini as such, only that she currently has so much that the zucchini she gives away has little value. And her motives might be mixed. She may feel good when she gives away produce, and she might secretly hope that you will reciprocate with some tomatoes. Now think of volunteering. Have you noticed that all too often the same people end up giving their time again and again? Is it just that they can’t say no? I don’t think it is so simple. Unfortunately, when people generously give a lot of their time to help others, they risk sending the message that, “My time is not so valuable to me.” I was reminded of this the other day in the schoolyard, when I overheard a parent complain that the principal had asked her to drive the swim team to their next meet – this after she had helped out all day at the Terry Fox Run, and was also organizing the bake sale! Sadly, the principal seemed to have made the inference that it was OK to approach this woman with yet another request because her time was not so precious to her.
So to answer the question I posed in the title – should artists give away their work for a good cause? The answer is yes, but only after they have carefully reflected on its value in terms of materials, time and opportunity cost. If they do this, then I suspect that most artists will choose to donate their work fairly rarely. And arts organizations might also start to think about different ways of raising much-needed funds. Artists and arts organizations need to beware of the zucchini paradigm. When artists give away their work too freely, and when arts organizations ask artists for their work, they risk inadvertently sending the message that art in general – and their work in particular – is not something to be treasured. They risk undermining the very foundation that they are trying to construct.