Blog / 2019 / Why Artists Should Accept Charity (And Why We Should All Donate Money to Artists)

February 7, 2019

Lots of artists dislike accepting donations. They justify their aversion as the natural reaction of someone who is doing work and wants only to be compensated for it, but the truth is more complicated. Many artists feel disrespected and undervalued in general, and art-as-charity pokes at their sore spots. Their aversion is understandable, but I think it’s harming art.

Instead of mindlessly hating on the idea of people giving money to artists just for being artists, let’s examine why people donate.

  1. Donors don’t want more stuff.
  2. Do I even have to explain this in the era of Marie Kondo? People like supporting creativity and don’t always want an object in exchange for their money.

  3. Gifts create a tangible connection.
  4. Though the point of a donation is that there are no requirements placed on the recipient of the gift, artists tend to be curious about the people who give them money. Some people like the idea of getting a bit closer to the person who makes the art they love, and they use donations to do so.

  5. Donors are often art amateurs and their experience with art-making has helped them to understand how hard it is to be an artist.
  6. This goes back to my “7 Reasons to Try Being an Artist Even If You Don’t Think You’re a Real Artist” article from years ago. Non-professional artists and creative types of all kinds can be the best allies for full-time artists.

  7. Donors get that art must be free, and also that, for art to be free, it must be supported.
  8. The people who understand this are some of my very favorite people—and not just because they support my work on Patreon! But, unfortunately for them and for me, a lot of artists deny that art must be free and end up missing the second half of the statement completely.

    This is how it goes: anytime anyone puts the word “free” anywhere near the word ”art,” many artists lose the ability to think. They loudly denounce people who try to pay for art by promising “exposure,” smearing their complaints all over social media. And, while they’re busy collecting “likes” for their righteous rage, the truth about art eludes them.

    But I want to try something different. I want to back things up to the beginning. I want to talk about what art is, so that I can explain why it must be free.

    First, let’s define what art isn’t: it’s not like anything else on earth. It’s an object made of blood, sweat, tears, and human connection. The only other thing that has similar ingredients are human beings.

    When people buy art, they don’t actually buy the art, just the physical form it takes. They go home with the object, not the human connection that is the art.

    And people are okay with this because, on some level, they understand that human connection is constantly being created and recreated within and around the art by the artist and by anyone who comes into contact with it. They get that human connection is a nontransferable, delightfully infectious, and constantly renewed resource. They know that there is no way to put a price on it. They understand that art must be free.

    Of course, this leaves the second half of the bold statement above. Just because art will always be free doesn’t mean artists shouldn’t be paid. It doesn’t mean artists shouldn’t sell art objects or find other ways of making money with their work, including accepting donations.

    Art is a gift to the world. An artwork’s value is impossible to determine, because it depends entirely on the humans who are connecting with it. Money given to artists—either in a transaction for an art object or as a donation—will never compensate them, but it can nourish and encourage them, allowing them to continue creating.

painting of two male giraffes
Gwenn Seemel
Separated (Giraffe)
2012
acrylic on panel
10 x 10 inches
(Prints and pretty things with this image are on Redbubble.)

Last week, a friend showed up at my studio with a gift of a couple hundred dollars. The card that accompanied the check read:

Just to let you know that your work is appreciated. Hopefully this will keep your palette filled for a little while.

People donate to all kinds of causes for all kinds of reasons, and artists need to accept that. After all, if people support endangered wildlife because it is magnificent and because its loss would represent an unforgivable failure on the part of the human species, it only makes sense that they might also support art.

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