Artists donate works to help pay for their Drawing Center shows

Non-profit gallery has turned to artists as "philanthropic community has become less supportive"


Artists are donating works to The Drawing Center, New York, to be sold in order to help fund their exhibitions. The non-profit organisation began selling art last year because “the philanthropic community has become less supportive of artists’ shows”, says Brett Littman, the centre’s director. Collectors today are more market driven than ever, he says, and this is having an impact on non-profit organisations.

The artist Louise Despont gave the centre three drawings to help fund her exhibition next January (Louise Despont: Energy Scaffolds and Information Architecture, 22 January-20 March  2016). She says the show is “by far the most ambitious project I have taken on” and so she “offered to donate several works to help with costs—this just felt natural”. The artist Gabriel de la Mora donated one drawing to help pay for his show, scheduled for next summer. “I like to help the people and institutions that trust my proposal as an artist, and made my project possible,” he says.

The Drawing Center would not ask artists to pay exhibition costs outright, Littman says. Income from a donated work should not exceed 20% to 30% of a show’s budget (which ranges from $1,000 for its basement gallery, The Lab, to $150,000 for the main room). The fee covers expenses such as shipping, public programming, paint for the walls, catalogues, photography and art handling.

Show of support

The drying up of patron support is “disheartening”, says Eleanor Cayre, a collector who has funded several exhibitions at Artists Space and The Kitchen, in New York. “The amount of money we’re talking about is often quite small compared with the prices of art these days,” she says.

There are other solutions, says Stefan Kalmár, the executive director of Artists Space, which compensates all exhibiting artists. He launched the 40 Years Artists Space Program Fund in 2011 to solicit donations from prominent artists, including Isa Genzken, Carol Bove and Wolfgang Tillmans, to support the emerging generation. “It’s artists who are well off helping other artists who are not so well off”, he says.

“I do believe that artists should not be asked to pay directly for their own exhibitions at any not for profit arts organisation, as this indeed would have more to do with how commercial galleries operate,” Kalmar says. Those businesses are often called upon to fill the funding gap. “Financially, I have no problem paying for something that’s going to advance one of my artists,” says Franklin Parrasch, of New York’s Franklin Parrasch Gallery, which funded the catalogue for Ken Price’s exhibition at The Drawing Center in 2014. “But I do have a moral issue with it. Museums are in a position of advancing culture and should be oblivious to commercial interests.”

Update: Littman says: “In October I gave an extensive interview to Rachel Corbett about the many different ways that The Drawing Center funds exhibitions and the current state of philanthropy. She chose to highlight one very small aspect of our fundraising discussion by focusing on something we have done only twice in the 85 shows we have produced in the last eight years under my leadership. In these cases, after The Drawing Center had exhausted all traditional fundraising avenues, two young contemporary artists, who had ambitious production-heavy shows, offered to donate specific works that if sold could help to support a small percentage of their overall production expenses. To date this initiative has raised $10,000 against our $2 million dollar budget and so represents less than 1% of our overall fundraising.  The mission of The Drawing Center is to help artists realize their best projects with us. We never stray from that as our core value.”

Correction: This article was updated on 17 November to correct a quote from Stefan Kalmár and add a comment from Brett Littman.