What Not to Do at Charity Art Auction Fundraisers

I go to all kinds of organizational and charity art auction fundraisers. They range in production, presentation and execution anywhere from superb to tragic. Occasionally I see one that's so poorly run and painful to watch, that I'm taking this opportunity to offer a few pointers on how NOT to run charity fundraiser art auctions.

First and foremost, use an experienced auctioneer who is familiar with art, knows how to sell it and most importantly, has a successful track record of conducting auction fundraisers. Do not use an artist, an employee of the organization that's raising funds, a local celebrity, or anyone else who thinks they can auction art, but who lacks the skills and expertise to do so. In other words, you want a professional, not an amateur, and one whose expertise is running fundraiser auctions, not auctions in general. Pros sometimes cost money, but they more than make up for it in their abilities to get bids that amateurs can't.

An auctioneer who doesn't know art will have trouble describing and selling it, and getting people to bid. They tend to use run-on sentences, make vague or unintelligible attempts to talk about the art and its artists, use the same words over and over again, and generally are unable to get bidders excited. The auctioneer should arrive at the sale early, get familiar with the art to be auctioned, and be provided with basic information about each work and the artist who created it. You can never spend too much time prepping the auctioneer.

Make sure the artist has time to review the art and information ahead of the sale. I recall an auctioneer at one particular sale who was not only inexperienced, but was also apparently seeing many of the artworks for the very first time as they came up for sale. They struggled to make sense of much of this art for themselves as well as for the audience as they fumbled for words to describe it.

To make matters worse, they talked about how beautiful everything was in pretty much the exact same way, occasionally throwing in a handful of art words which they used over and over again no matter what kinds of art they were describing. The results were disastrous for the organization because what usually happens when bidders don't get a sense of what they're bidding on is that they either bid low or not at all-- which is exactly what happened here.

For artists donating art, never overstate its value in order to make it seem like it's more significant than it actually is. Use values that are in line with the prices you normally sell comparable works of art for. Some of the art I see at fundraiser auctions is so ridiculously overvalued that the estimated dollar amounts as stated by the auctioneers are laughable to anyone who knows anything about art or follows the artists. You don't want your art to sell too low, of course, but what you really don't want is for it not to sell at all.

Don't give the organization too much information about yourself and your art, like a detailed career history, names of every show you've ever been in, lists of who owns your work, or every big sale you've ever made. Your life story has no place in a fast-paced art auction offering pieces by dozens and sometimes hundreds of artists. Three or four career highlights is all an auctioneer normally has time for, and all the buildup that those in attendance can take before they start getting bored. You want to make your art look really good, and you want to do it fast. Give the auction any more information than a handful of highlights and you force them to either ramble on about your art, or to edit things down to what they think sounds good rather than what you know sounds good.

Don't be vague about your accomplishments or overstate them when providing career information or your resume. Don't claim, for example, that you're a distinguished or accomplished artist unless you can back it up with facts like awards you've won, exhibitions you've had, and significant collections that own your work. For example, the statement "John Smith's paintings are in many important collections" means nothing unless John Smith can corroborate that claim with facts about collections his art is actually in.

Don't misrepresent yourself or play with words when describing your accomplishments. For example, if you participated in a group show of student work at the local art museum when you were in art school, don't make it sound like you exhibited at the museum in your current career as an artist, or even worse yet, make it sound like you had a solo show there.

Unless the people attending a fundraising auction are mainly knowledgeable dealers, collectors and other fine arts professionals, provide the organization you're donating to with basic information and statements about yourself and your art that anyone can understand. Avoid art jargon, complicated explanations, and confusing descriptions. Make your statement no longer than two to four sentences and keep it simple, like telling people what you make, why you make it, what inspires you, or what your art signifies.

Don't donate a piece of junk art that you're tired of looking at or that's been gathering dust in your studio for years. Knowledgeable bidders can often tell when a piece of art is something that the artist would rather get rid of than be proud of. Remember that donating your art to a charity fundraising auction is not only about you. It's about the cause that you're helping to raise money for. Also keep in mind that you don't want inferior examples of your art, or art that doesn't speak to your true abilities as an artist, to be representing you either at public events or in private collections.

For more information on how to conduct successful charity fundraiser art auctions, read Art Auction Fundraiser Tips for Everyone.

artist art

(art by Gustavo Ramos Rivera)

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