The Best Intentions: Inside the Wild World of Charity Auctions

Potential bidders at SculptureCenter's Lucky Draw benefit.COURTESY SCULPTURE-CENTER.ORG

Potential bidders at SculptureCenter’s Lucky Draw benefit.


Benefit auctions, popping up every spring like Park Avenue tulips, have become about as ubiquitous as art fairs and openings. Charity sales are the primary means by which artists can pack a philanthropic punch, but they can be an exasperating staple of New York’s art world calendar, burdening the artists who donate work with drawbacks and tax disadvantages. People have been questioning the model for years, but these conversations tend to stall in the absence of alternatives. As artist Laurie Simmons said, “If [artists] put on a talent show, could we get as many people to come and buy tickets? I don’t think so.”

New York’s benefit auctions support a spectrum of art spaces, ranging from nonprofit organizations run on a shoestring to major museums with multimillion-dollar endowments. For many smaller spaces, these sales are a vital source of income. White Columns, the downtown alternative space, depends on its annual auction to net around $250,000—roughly 20 percent of its annual operating budget.

“At White Columns, we simply don’t have the staff or the resources to organize an annual gala dinner where tables are sold for $20,000,” said director Matthew Higgs, referring to that other fundraising practice in New York. The benefit auction and exhibition is, he said, “much more artist-centered.”

There’s a certain poetic justice to the auction model, which often enables successful artists to give back to the gallery that gave them early exposure, Higgs continued. More than 100 artists, ranging from Tony Oursler, Wade Guyton, and Amanda Ross-Ho to emerging talent like Gerasimos Floratos, who just staged his first New York solo exhibition at White Columns, donated works to this year’s sale.

But it’s not just the little guys asking artists for donations, and at larger institutions, the necessity of benefit sales becomes hazy. The live auction at the New Museum’s glitzy April gala raised $370,000, a fraction of the $2 million generated through tickets and tables at that event, and only a footnote to the museum’s $13 million yearly operating budget.

The seismographic range of institutions, causes, and charities staging sales creates a constant barrage for artists. “It’s a side business keeping up with all the auctions,” said Simmons, who gave away 16 works last year. “It takes an amazing amount of, for lack of a better word, administrative time. It’s very hard to keep it all going.” Artist Marilyn Minter said she receives requests for donations every week. Rob Pruitt fields about 20 solicitations a year.

“I worked at Luhring Augustine for seven years, and to see the list of benefits that approached Christopher Wool was infinite,” said Kristen Becker, now a director at Marianne Boesky gallery, referring to Wool’s New York dealer. “People will just send letters with no connection.”

“[Nonprofits] really do need support, and that feels more like charity,” said Pruitt, who gave work to the recent White Columns auction. At lavish galas thrown by larger institutions, however, “you can see that they’ve spent quite a bit of money on the decorations and the entertainment and the food, and…that this $10,000 artwork you’ve contributed is just going to pay for these silly party expenses.”

At events like these, benefit auctions serve more or less as floorshows, with auctioneers cajoling bidders by name (a taboo at commercial sales) into cutting checks for an ostensibly good cause.

“In a benefit auction, you can openly mention the names of some of the bidders, you can play them off against each other, you can use much more humor,” said Simon de Pury, the charismatic Swiss auctioneer, who coaxed Aby Rosen into purchasing an Ed Ruscha print for $130,000 at the New Museum gala last year, playfully reminding the real-estate tycoon he had a new building to decorate. “You want to make it entertaining because people pay a lot of money to be at those dinners, so you don’t want to bore them. You want to make them have a good time.”

Good times and good intentions abound. It’s what happens after the auctions that becomes murky, when an artist’s charity can become a collector’s windfall.

“More often than not, anything that you have ever given to one of these benefit auctions ends up in one of the real auctions three to five to seven years later,” said Pruitt, who recently watched one of his own works flipped at a commercial sale.

Three years ago, Pruitt gave Boombox Panda (2013) to an auction supporting a local school attended by his friend’s child. The glitter and enamel piece sold for about $14,000. Last month, the panda resurfaced at the Phillips contemporary day sale, selling for $43,750 with buyer’s premium.

“There’s nothing you can do to prevent that,” said artist Agnieszka Kurant. “It actually happened to me very recently, that some collectors acquired my work [at a benefit auction] and then flipped it. It’s not a pleasant experience.” She shrugged. “This is like collateral damage. If once in a while someone’s going to flip the work, what can you do?”

Artist Tom Sachs is rumored to have scrawled “Not for resale you cheap motherfucker” on the back of a piece he donated to charity. (Reminded of this via text message, Sachs replied that he “do[es]n’t recall…” The ellipses makes one wonder…)

Birds fly, collectors flip, but the wanton opportunism of reselling works at a profit particularly stings with pieces purchased at benefit auctions for tax reasons. Artists cannot claim deductions on the artworks they donate, no matter the market value or hammer price commanded by their work. All they can write off is the cost of materials. Buyers, on the other hand, can claim a deduction when the work they purchase at a benefit sale hammers down for more than its fair market value. Let’s say an artist spends $100 on oil paint to produce a work worth $100,000, and donates the piece to a charity auction, where it sells for $150,000. The buyer can deduct $50,000 come tax season, while the artist can only deduct $100.

The unfavorable terms often lead to artists unloading lesser works they can afford to lose. One solution would be for artists to just write checks to the causes they want to support; not only would this spare them the angst of watching their work being resold, but they could claim deductions on their donations. But it’s not that simple. Most artists don’t have the same expendable income as their collectors.

“I can give $5,000, but it’s really hard for me to give $50,000 or $20,000,” said Minter, whose larger photographs often fetch those higher prices at auction. Last year, Minter organized Choice Works, an auction benefitting Planned Parenthood with Simmons and Cindy Sherman, where her work sold for $150,000.

“The fact remains that I can make a bigger contribution with art,” agreed Simmons, whose piece in that sale went for $58,000. “I could not even come close to being able to write checks in the amount of money that I’ve raised [through donating works].”

Collectors are an untapped resource in the benefit-auction industry. Historically, their role has been to buy works, but what if they began donating them to charity sales? Unlike artists, collectors can deduct up to 30 percent of their adjusted gross income through donated art.

“The problem is that collectors, most of the time, care about themselves…their DNA is toward accumulating rather than giving,” said Loic Gouzer, vice president of postwar and contemporary at Christie’s. “Collectors by nature, by spirit, are just really pretty greedy and not generous. Artists by nature are extremely generous.”

When Gouzer and Leonardo DiCaprio organized the “11th Hour” sale at Christie’s, a 2013 benefit auction that raised $38 million for wildlife conservation, they approached a number of collectors to supply lots. They didn’t have much luck. Gouzer and DiCaprio were only able to elicit two out of the 33 lots from private collectors (other than DiCaprio, who gifted an Andreas Gursky photograph to the sale). The rest came from artists.

“I wish I could have had [artist donations] matched by collectors, and we really didn’t succeed there,” said Gouzer.

SculptureCenter director Mary Ceruti said she has never approached collectors to donate works to her organization’s benefit. At smaller nonprofits that support emerging artists, however, it’s natural that the philanthropy would come from a community of artists aided by the organization.

“I feel infinitely indebted to the institution and Mary for supporting my work, so I will always support them,” said Kurant at SculptureCenter’s May benefit, to which she’d donated a piece. “They invested so much in my work, I feel perfectly comfortable doing this for free.”

SculptureCenter offers a twist on the auction format with its annual Lucky Draw benefit. After a few lots by prominent artists are auctioned off, the several hundred remaining works are claimed by ticket holders whose names are chosen sequentially at random. The raffle tends to net roughly $200,000, representing about 15 percent of SculptureCenter’s annual $1.6 million operating budget. While its structure prevents the majority of works from being bid up to astronomic heights, as they might at a live auction, the raffle model insulates the institution from market tremors. The model also shields artists from the humiliation of watching works flop—every piece finds a home—and the low price point—raffle tickets cost $750 this year—allows buyers to make decisions independent of the market. At this year’s event, works by emerging artists frequently went before those by established names. A piece by Ugo Rondinone was chosen 27th, after works by artists lacking New York gallery representation.

“I think it’s why artists like to donate to this event and I think that’s why we’ve had consistent support from that whole spectrum, because it’s not reinforcing what’s happening in the market or reflecting what’s happening in the market necessarily,” said Ceruti. “We try to operate as independent of the market as we can, and this event reflects that.”

The market is, of course, unreliable. Artists can be, too, but in donating their works to charity, they’re remarkably dependable—sometimes even when they don’t want to be.

“I’m trying to toughen up,” said Simmons, resolving to take “a gap year” from benefit sales. Then she paused. “Although, I’m already thinking about more projects for Planned Parenthood. I can’t help it.” Well, strictly donations for women’s reproductive rights then, she said. And for environmental causes. “Forget my gap year!” Simmons said. “The election’s coming up.”

UPDATE, 6/13/2016, 2:00 p.m.: An original version of this post misstated the amount of money raised at the New Museum’s benefit auction. It was $370,000, not $200,000.

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