I attended the Headlands Center for the Arts‘ annual benefit auction on Wednesday night, at the Herbst International Exhibition Hall in the Presidio. The event featured works by 86 artists, ranging from big names like Shepard Fairey and Clare Rojas, to emerging local talents like Leah Rosenberg and Michael Hall. The auction is Headlands’ big fundraiser for the year, so naturally it is a big focus of the organization’s attention and efforts. Benefit auction season is officially upon us, with Southern Exposure‘s just last week and Intersection for the Arts‘ happening tomorrow. All this has me wondering what the impact of so many auctions might be on these small and mid-sized arts organizations.
The benefit auction has taken on so much importance because the funding model for most smaller arts non-profits in the Bay Area is heavily dependent on philanthropic foundation gifts, which are scarce since endowments have taken a hit of 40% or more since the recession began. Government funding through the NEA amounts to less than 10% of most institutions’ budgets, while the California Arts Council, never recovered from the last statewide budget crisis, is bound to be cut again during the current stalemate. Organizations are desperate to make up their growing shortfalls with individual and corporate gifts, at a time when individuals are worried about either administering or receiving layoffs, and corporations face increased financial scrutiny. All these circumstances contribute to an overwhelming emphasis on auctions and other ticketed fundraising events that hope to compensate for the lack of broad-ranging community support for the arts in most American cities.
The problem with this model is that non-profit arts institutions are not auction houses. They are not particularly adept at organizing these kinds of events, nor is the auction format entirely compatible with most of these organizations’ mission statements. A place like the Headlands is built from a commitment to contemplation, research and experimentation, apart from the market’s driving influence. When half of the staff is dedicating between 30%-100% of their time to executing an auction each year, it’s dangerously easy for an organization to lose sight of its raison d’etre. Conversations about an artist’s suitability for a particular program start to develop a note of sales-consciousness that the artist-founders would have found antithetical to their intentions.
The drain on a small organization’s resources that an annual auction presents is enormous. Much of the cost is buried in “overhead,” operational or administrative costs that are assumed to be constant. However, the costs of an auction are only constant if the auction is assumed to be an essential aspect of programming. In reality, auctions have value to a program only in as much as they are profitable, and if the true cost of the event is not calculated, the real value of these events can be distorted. All this results in a diversion of resources into the development and events arenas, to the detriment of core programming.
The institutions themselves cannot be wholly faulted for the shift. They are trapped in a hand-to-mouth existence that necessitates some departures from idealism. Without consistent underwriting from the community, they are obligated to go to the very artists they support, begging bowls out. Artists are often happy to oblige, though many less-established artists have expressed to me a frustration that donated artworks are the only works they are able to sell locally. Galleries in the Bay Area are extraordinarily generous in supporting our non-profits, donating both artwork and contacts to help move the work. Collectors get the benefit, as they are able to imagine themselves philanthropists while acquiring art at often substantially discounted prices.
Real philanthropy means giving without immediate gratification, and I would hope it’s a model we can return to before before our experimental art venues all become mini-Sothebys.