Sometime in your photography career/business, someone is going to ask you to donate your work - for free - to a charitable fundraiser. And they will try to entice with the magic words, “It will be good exposure for you.”
The Exposure Myth
In my experience, there are two categories of requests for free artwork using the “exposure” hook. The first is charitable organizations. The second is the “free interior decorating” group.
Charitable organizations usually are trying to raise funds. The organizations believe the small pool of attendees at the fundraiser will see your work. What that pool won’t do is pay the retail value of your artwork. Untold numbers of artists will attest they rarely, if ever, get any new clients/collectors from fundraiser attendees.
“Free interior decorators” want your art to decorate their work space/offices. These folks tell you their clients will see your work. Let’s put this idea to the empirical test.
When was the last time you were at your doctor’s office and said, “Hey Self, I really like that image on the wall. Let me contact that artist so I can buy something.”
I’m guessing the answer is never.
What is the commonality between the two categories? The belief that every artist is needy and exposure is the Holy Grail.
An opportunity to educate
Let’s be gracious.
Perhaps those folks asking for free artworks “lack knowledge” about the true costs of your artwork. Maybe they don’t know what your costs of doing business are. Maybe they don’t appreciate all the supplies, time, and taxes that are included in your cost of goods sold. Maybe they don't know the artwork they have requested is a month's work for you.
Maybe they don't understand they are asking you to forfeit a month's wages. Would they ask their dentist to forfeit a month's income in exchange for "exposure"? Their car dealer? Their grocer?
Maybe they believe “exposure” is valuable.
What we have here is an opportunity to educate. It is our job to educate these folks what exposure will/will not beget the artist. It is our job to educate the community that creating art involves "real costs". We must teach our collectors, our patrons, our communities how to honor us and pay for our work.
What the artist gets from “exposure”…
- loss of Income. Once you know your CODB and COGS you understand deep in your gut how significant a loss this can be.
- loss of control over the trajectory of your artistic business. You can not develop a sustainable business model by continually donating your artworks.
- more requests to “donate free artwork”.
- questionable quality. You have no control over the quality of other works that will be sold with yours. There is a tendency for every artist to be “lumped” into a single category of quality within the minds of the charity’s attendees. That's just the way the neuronal circuits of the brain work.
- the wrong clientele. Odds are pretty good the buyers at the charitable event are not the same people you target in your marketing.
- the value of your artworks is decreased. Think of the value of homes in your neighborhood. One home falls into prolonged foreclosure and all the other homes decrease in value. It’s difficult to get full value for your $250,000 home when the one next door just sold for $80,000.
- you lose the goodwill of your collectors/buyers. It is not fair to your previous collector/buyers who invested the full retail price when they bought your previous work.
- and of course, you get minimal tax benefit for the charitable deduction of your art.
(A fictional story taken from a real experience.)
“I felt as if I’d been punched in the gut. My heart felt sick. I left my groceries on the check out belt and went home.”
Marcella is an oil painter; a very good, award winning painter. She believed she was building her audience of buyers through “exposure” of her donated art to fundraising events.
On this day, while shopping for groceries, she was approached by a giddy “superfan”.
“I love you. I love your work. I collect your work. I can’t wait for the Annual MegaSuperDuperAuction so I can buy your paintings really cheap.”
Marcella never donated her artwork again.
Set the record straight
I believe in giving back as a measure of gratitude. I choose which organizations are in alignment with my vision, my beliefs, my goals. I give a percentage of my profits to certified elephant sanctuaries. I do occasional pro bono artwork for causes/people who resonate with my values.
So, in this letter I am NOT telling you to ignore charities.
I am telling you not to be suckered by the word “exposure”.
Let’s forge relationships that benefit everyone *
When I’m approached to donate free artwork, I send a letter to the person requesting my images. I thank them for contacting me and then state since I make my living with my art, I can not give anything away for free.
And then, I offer an alternative that benefits everyone. I suggest the following;
1. a member of their board purchase an artwork at full retail price.
2. the board member donates the artwork to the charity.
3. the charity sells the piece at auction.
I get paid the full value of the artwork. The board member accrues a significant income tax deduction for charity. And the organization raises funds with the sale of the artwork.
It’s a win-win-win for everyone concerned.
Does it work for you?
I am asked this question frequently. Other artists want to know if this letter "works" for me. Considering the outcomes of donating work (see "What the artist gets..."), a "yes" means I get paid full value. A "no" means I still control my art and my artistic career. The letter works quite well for me.
Let me know if you have questions about "exposure". I'll be happy to share my experiences with you. In the meantime...
Expect the best. Anything else is an adventure.
* Thank you to Eli Tynan Visual Arts for sharing the original letter with me.
P.S. You can get your downloadable copies of "Price your art" and the "Letter Template to organizations requesting free artwork" by clicking on the AWESOME VAULT button to the right. You will receive immediate access once you confirm your email.
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