Blog / 2013 / Art Auctions and Artists Giving Back

May 13, 2013

Over the years, I have donated work to many art auctions benefiting a variety of nonprofits. Sometimes I was a supporter of the organization’s cause, and often I was giving because a friend had asked me to. Other times, I was more drawn to the future opportunities that I’d been told the auction would provide for me. Usually, I gave for a combination of these reasons.

But, no matter my motives, I’ve always found donating to art auctions disappointing in one way or another.

I think that has a lot to do with the sort of artist I am. I have made my living for ten years and been successful as an artist by focusing on connecting with my audience—both those who purchase my work and those who don’t—and, for me, art auctions are not conducive to that sort of connecting.

Some of that lack has to do with the sort of person I am. I don’t drink, so I’m not a fan of the cocktail aura of these kinds of events. I never feel like myself at art auctions because I don’t go to events like that when I’m being myself, and that means that I don’t enjoy myself at art auctions, or at least not enough to relate well to others.

Still, some of the disconnected feeling I get from auctions is in the nature of the beast too. Patrons at the event might be interested in the art, but they’re also very aware that they’re supporting a particular cause when they spend their money. In fact, that may even be more important than the work they happen to go home with.

What’s more, nonprofits who are putting together auctions are very focused on making sure that wealthy donors are enjoying themselves at the fundraisers. That the artists who give work are donors as well isn’t entirely overlooked, but it is often thought of as secondary. After all, when the event is over, the success isn’t measured in how much art was appreciated: it’s counted in dollars raised for the cause.

None of which is to say there’s anything wrong with art auctions to raise money for nonprofits. I understand that for a lot of people they are very rewarding experiences. It’s just not the way I prefer to give back to my community.

Gwenn Seemel visiting a high school and talking about art
photo by Maria Galati

Instead, I would much rather volunteer my time as a professional. I love going to schools to speak about making a living as an artist while also being living proof that it’s possible to do so, and I enjoy talking technique with kids too.

To me, this sort of contribution feels more real. The impact is immediate and direct, and that feeds me in a way that art auctions do not.

Everyone has to find their way, and I’ve found mine. Though for years now I have felt guilty for turning down the numerous auction requests I get, I refuse to feel ashamed that I don’t want to give in that way. It just doesn’t match with who I am and how I see my work in the world, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

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