The Controversy of ‘Artist as Philanthropist’: When giving art away is okay
Artwork IS work. That is the credo many artists inherit. Artists learn not to give away their art or services, and good art lovers should know not to ask. Yet all artists have been approached to donate to a charity auction or volunteer to photograph an event, usually with the promise of great exposure and a free meal. But even an emerging, hungry, do-gooder artist like me knows the “I give it away for free” brand of exposure can be a slippery slope. A few rounds of generosity could gain me the reputation as an “artist philanthropist” and the requests for handouts—and the fear of decreased artwork values—that follow.
Even among artists, there is an expectation that certain art should be free (or at least on certain nights of the week, for students, seniors, practicing artists, friends of arts administrators, or library card holders.) Free events often come under the auspices of increasing arts access, though unfortunately busy and broke people with limited access to art (and transportation) may not have “Free Nights” on their radar, may feel uncomfortable attending, or may not be able to get there. The arts aren’t happening where they are, so making art free may not change the equation.
So what happens when artists acknowledge that art access is a human right and start to fill the gaps themselves by giving away their art? “The opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth,” said physicist Niels Bohr. As much as artists should get paid for their work, they are also the catalyst for a necessary social change that acknowledges art belongs everywhere, to everyone.
I fell into my current job as program manager of The Art Connection serendipitously and gladly accepted the position after a lost night of sleep contemplating these profound truths. Since 2010, I have been facilitating the permanent donation of over 600 artworks to 25 local social service agencies a year. I have learned that giving away art is okay, even necessary. Boston-area artists, diverse in age, background, and career, contribute their work enthusiastically.
Artists donate work created specifically to give away and older pieces accumulating in storage. Artists donate work instead of dumpstering it before a big move, or as part of their estate planning to ensure their work lives on after they’re gone. Whatever the motivation to donate, artists know their work won’t ultimately hang over the credenza of a wealthy auction patron. Rather, it is seen by thousands annually in cinderblock hallways and formerly drab waiting rooms frequented by addicts, victims, refugees, the homeless, the jobless, and the food-insecure.
Our artists are part of a creative cohort ensuring that original artwork is colliding with, not pulling people away from, routine living. Art is selected by the clients and staff at Boston’s social service agencies. I work directly with givers and receivers of critical services as they select art that best reflects their cultures, circumstances, and missions. It is my goal that participants learn that the opportunity of living with art belongs to them no matter what messages they’ve received that say otherwise.
In The Art Connection’s 18 year history, more than 350 organizations have opened their doors to over 6,400 artworks, advancing our founding artists’ vision of weaving art into the everyday lives of everyday people while providing a service to artists creating too much work to store. The Art Connection also offers grants to organizations outside of Boston to start programs modeled after ours. Grants of up to $35,000 through The Fay Slover Fund at The Boston Foundation are available on a rolling deadline, and nine U.S. organizations from Maine to Virginia and one in Johannesburg, South Africa have received funding and have adapted our model to suit their communities’ needs.
The first week in April, 2014, leaders of Art Connection placement programs in The Capitol Region, Philadelphia, New York, and Hampton Roads, met at MICA in Baltimore to share best practices and discuss the future of this growing art placement model. This was the first convening hosted by one of our expansion sites, which helped us see the reach of our expansion and that we have a bigger story to tell… A story about how major cities around the world have creative cohorts who know the importance of universal contact with the arts.
There is artwork in hundreds of social service agencies up and down the east coast and in South Africa. They include a family service center in New York, a transitional housing unit in Philadelphia, and a clinic for ill, uninsured people in Providence. Healing, uplifting, and nurturing should happen in welcoming, vibrant spaces filled with art. The organizations doing this critical work do not have funding to fully serve their constituents and purchase artwork at market value, though their missions to help individuals can only be made more tangible by the presence of art.
Our vision is to continue seeding and inspiring others to bring art to life. We want to keep seeing art appear everywhere it isn’t but should be... Not on the backs of artists, at the insistence of artists who see giving a few pieces to high-need communities as a privilege, not a knock. We want artists and cultural leaders to want to be part of our movement of transforming institutional, widely frequented community service spaces into exhibition spaces for contemporary art until all people understand that art is for them.
The free art paradox introduces opposing, profound truths. Artwork IS work. If an artist doesn’t value their creative talent, how can they expect anyone else will? Yet, I can introduce you to nearly 400 artists in Boston and many more elsewhere who know that giving art away can bring tremendous joy, insisting that art belongs to everyone, and adding value to their artistic practice.