New sales model could help artists and charities alike

MIDDLEBURY — The United Way of Addison County has teamed up with a Lincoln artist for a new kind of collaboration that will benefit both the charity and the local art scene.
Local artists said it’s a model that could help them and that other charities should adopt.
The project, said the county’s United Way Development and Marketing Director Nancy Luke, came from a desire to involve more local resources in fundraising drives.
In previous years, the nonprofit would sell cards from the United Way’s national office that used stock photos on the front. Luke said the Addison County branch staff decided to reach out to local artists to use their art on the front of the cards.
“We thought it would be really fun to have something that’s local that people in our community could relate to, and it just snowballed from there,” Luke said.
The United Way reached out to Reed Prescott, a painter who lives in Lincoln and owns the Verde Mountain gallery on Bristol’s Main Street. Prescott accepted, and he and the charity worked out a unique arrangement that would be mutually beneficial.
Luke explained that in years past, the United Way and other nonprofits would ask local artists to donate their work for charity auctions. But Luke said she worried that this type of arrangement wasn’t a great deal for artists.
“Nonprofits keep the money, which is great for nonprofits, and the theory is the artist will get all this visibility,” Luke said. “But we decided to do it a little different, and thought of what would be a fair and mutually beneficial model.”
So, Prescott and United Way agreed to split all profits evenly. Prescott said it’s an approach that works for artists, and one that he hopes other nonprofits approach.
“The United Way can add a revenue stream to their mix and the artist can be compensated,” he reasoned. “It’s a fair approach for everyone.”
Prescott said when nonprofits ask artists to give away their art for free, they are unintentionally doing more harm than good to artists’ livelihood.
“If I give a $4,000 painting to auction off, and they sell it for $1,000, they’re thrilled,” Prescott said. “But that’s a statement that my art is only worth $1,000.”
When multiple charities hold art auctions throughout the year, Prescott said they inadvertently flood the market with cheap art, making it difficult for artists to earn a living.
Instead, by splitting revenues, Prescott said charities create a viable model that encourages artists to collaborate with them. He said art galleries typically take 50 percent of the sale price of a painting, too, so under this arrangement artists aren’t sacrificing earnings.
Plus, Prescott said that contrary to popular belief, artists’ donations of work to charity are non tax-deductible.
Fran Bull, a painter and sculptor in Brandon, echoed many of the concerns that Prescott raised. She said that despite Vermont’s picturesque landscapes, it is a difficult place to make a living as an artist, and added that charity auctions make it even harder.
“It’s happens all the time,” Bull said of auctions selling art at bargain prices. “It may be a $5,000 painting that gets sold for $1,000 or even $500. That does not help the artist to market.”
Bull said it’s difficult to put a price tag on art, and charity auctions have the unintended effect of artificially depressing the market value of a work.
“Whatever you’re seeing in the art took a lifetime to develop,” Bull said.
She agreed with Prescott that many artists feel pressured to give away their work for free.
“The community is so small and you feel for whatever the cause is and want to be a part of it,” Bull said. “To make a work of art takes hours and hours and then to have it go as sort of a bargain item, you get this sort of sinking feeling. It’s happened to me many times.”
Bull endorsed any model that compensates both artists and charities as a way of helping both. She said that often both nonprofits and artists are struggling to make ends meet.
“You get a win-win and get publicity,” she said. “The charity gets associated as being an arts supporter, which is desperately needed in Vermont, so I think it’s a marvelous thing.”
Luke said this is the first year the United Way of Addison County is collaborating with an artist, and if all goes well, they’ll look to do it again in the future. She said her big-picture goal is to have people nominate local artists, then stage a juried exhibition and choose a “winner” to be featured on next year’s cards.
“We’re excited about having it and it helps us reach a new demographic of people; we need to expand our donor base,” Luke said. “It’s a win-win — it helps us out on a number of levels and is fair to artists.”
Reed said he hopes this model will be replicated by other charities. He said that artists, in general, aren’t great advocates for themselves, and feel obligated to give away their work for free. He said this is especially damaging to artists who derive their entire income from their work.
“What artists really need is an opportunity to bring in money,” Prescott said. “It makes for a healthy, creative economy.”
In addition to selling the cards, the United Way of Addison County has created a campaign on the Indiegogo website to get the fundraiser off the ground. With a goal of raising $5,000, the organization, with the help of Prescott, offers several levels of donation.
Ten bucks gets you three cards signed by Prescott, $75 gets you a 5-inch-by-7-inch canvas reproduction of a painting of Bristol titled “My Community,” and for $7,500 you can take the original home and hang it in your den. But wait, there’s more — for $1,250 you can spend a day with Prescott and help him finish a painting. He’ll even buy you lunch and dinner.
Prescott, who has been a professional artist for more than 25 years, said he is thrilled to be given the opportunity to help out a charity like the United Way. He said the artists and community members he’s spoken with said the new model makes a whole lot of sense, and hopes it will benefit other artists in the future.
“I don’t know where this is going to go, but all I can think of is trying to make this work, so there’s a role model for other people to look at,” he said. “I think it’s a step in the right direction.

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