The donating game: How artists like Tracey Emin are driving philanthropy in the art world

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In 2008, U2’s Bono came up with the novel idea to stage a charity auction to raise money for (RED), the Aids charity he had established two years earlier. Enlisting the help, first, of Damien Hirst (who had the brainwave that all works of art in the sale should be red) and then Sotheby’s, the singer racked up a rousing $42m from the auction, setting 17 artist records along the way.

Today, charity auctions are ubiquitous and—as Bono realised all those years ago—securing top-notch works from artists is fundamental to their success.

Over her lifetime, the British artist Tracey Emin has donated art to a plethora of charities, raising millions for the likes of the Terrence Higgins Trust, the Elton John AIDS Foundation, Oasis women’s refuge, Centrepoint, Woodgreen Pets, the NSPCC and, since the death of her good friend Vivienne Westwood, the Vivienne Foundation. “I have the charities that I am really loyal to and then there are the odd ones that trickle in that I’ve helped a few times,” Emin tells The Art Newspaper.

Substantial sums

Last month, she created a small painting for Bonhams’ Cure3 exhibition in aid of Parkinson’s disease, which promptly sold for £80,000. As Emin points out, savvy collectors often snap up works via these initiatives; others can pick up a bargain, as was the case with the piece she made for Parkinson’s UK, of a painting on a brain, which sold for £7,500 at Christie’s in December.

The sums artists donate, relatively speaking, are substantial. “If you look at those lists of top givers and you look at what they earn compared with what they give, I bet you artists are far more generous,” Emin says.

Artists do indeed seem more forthcoming with their charitable giving, when it comes to art world beneficiaries at least. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen gave cash to various charities during his lifetime, notably in the fight against Ebola and in support for elephant sanctuaries, but none of his collection was donated to the Seattle or Portland art museums for the public to enjoy, unlike the art of older collectors from the so-called “Greatest Generation”, which was given to their local museums. Mystery still surrounds the charitable recipients of Allen’s $1.6bn Christie’s sale, meanwhile.

For artists, their art is their medium of exchange. “When you give a neon for £120,000, and you’ve got four people waiting for that neon, but instead you give one away, people are starting to understand that it’s the currency of the artwork that you’re giving, not just the artwork,” Emin says.

Emin’s And you Kissed me (2023) sold for £80,000 last month at Bonhams’ Cure3 exhibition in aid of Parkinson’s disease © Tracey Emin

Sadly, works acquired at charity auctions have a tendency to resurface quite quickly on the market, often at a decent profit. As Emin points out, it’s not just about donating a work at a fixed point in time. “I’m also giving away a future value,” she says.

Galleries, too, raise millions for good causes, though often in a bid to keep up with their artists. In some circumstances, dealers have paid large sums to artists’ charities in a bid to woo them from other galleries. In 2015, the year Mark Bradford signed for exclusive representation with Hauser & Wirth, the gallery gave $800,550 to the artist’s charity, Art + Practice, while White Cube (which then represented him) made a contribution of $1.4m. In 2016, after Bradford left White Cube, Hauser & Wirth upped its donation to $3.6m.

Emin thinks the owners of such galleries “have a conscience”—what is more, they are fully aware of the circles they move in. As she says: “They know their business is high-end luxury and their clients are hardly starving in the street. So it’s like payback time. It’s a matter of: ‘Where can we help?’”

Support for artists

Hugely wealthy herself, Emin is also paying back in a big way with the launch in March of her own art school, TKE Studios, which supports emerging and aspiring artists via the Tracey Emin Foundation. The new studios, in Emin’s hometown of Margate, will provide workspace for around ten international artists, as well as hosting lecture, film and exhibitions programmes, and life-drawing classes for anyone to enjoy.

According to Emin, most of it will be free: the studios, tuition, even some of the art materials. Students have to pay for their own accommodation, but even here Emin is working to convert a small block of flats to provide affordable housing.

“I have enough money to live on; I’ve done the red carpets, I’ve done everything I want. The only thing I need is more art,” Emin says. “And the best way to have more art is to have more artists making it.”

Another art faculty, The Margate School, is currently under threat of closure in the Kent town after recent funding bids failed to materialise. Emin says it is hoped Thanet District Council will step in, adding that her art school had planned to share its lecture programme with The Margate School. “Margate has three art schools, all different and all offering different things,” she says. “[The] Margate School is a major asset to the town. It would be tragic if it had to close.”

Rather than plugging the gaps left by a Tory government hell-bent on removing art and design from school curricula, Emin believes that opening her own school is “the biggest criticism the government could ever have”. She adds: “You can blame the Tories, or you can blame individuals. I’m going to blame the philistines who have no regard for the arts.”

Characteristically candid, Emin’s words serve as a judicious reminder that we could all perhaps do better. We can call on governments and billionaire business owners to give and care more—and they should. But charity—however small—really does begin at home.

Auction houses take a creative approach to philanthropy

Last year was a bumper one for the big international auction houses, led by Christie’s with record sales of $8.4bn. With millions now watching anonymous telephone buyers spend millions on trophy works at livestream marquee auctions, the major houses were keen to show that they cared about the wider world as much as some of the artists whose works they sell (as discussed above).

Sotheby’s, which turned over $6.8bn in 2022, says its auctions raised more than $430m for 240 charitable organisations. More than $3m was pledged in a gala for Instituto Terra, an NGO founded by the photographer Sebastião Salgado, focused on combating the devastation of Brazil’s rainforest. Christie’s auctioned Jeff Koons’s Balloon Monkey (Magenta) (2006-13) on behalf of Victor and Olena Pinchuk, raising $12.4m for Ukraine humanitarian aid. And Phillips partnered with London’s Whitechapel Gallery to auction works by contemporary artists to support the gallery’s education and community programmes.

Charitable initiatives have been numerous but the auction houses usually help vendors and partners raise money, rather than donating themselves. They give time and expertise—and often a slice of their buyer’s premium—though not vast sums of cash.

There have been times when these philanthropic efforts could be subjected to more scrutiny. We still do not know if the $1bn-plus proceeds of Christie’s Paul Allen sale benefited any charities other than those founded by Allen himself. Sotheby’s new Artist’s Choice format encourages artists to use its auctions as a platform to sell works, sweetened by a baked-in charitable donation of 15%, split between the artist and Sotheby’s. This seems a smart way to challenge gallerists’ long-held control of the so-called “primary” market for new art.

All being privately owned, Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips aren’t obliged to reveal their profits or losses. But their philanthropic activities clearly suggest that they are not making Goldman Sachs-style 20% revenues on their turnover. In 2022, the bank turned over $47.4bn, with net revenues of $11.3bn, while its “Gives” campaign directly donated $2bn to non-profits and causes.

However, the auction houses have corporate social responsibility (CSR) offices that provide a framework for philanthropic activity. Last year, Phillips donated £5.8m from an auction to the Ukrainian Red Cross (helping to alleviate criticism of its Russian ownership). Sotheby’s organised an auction and an “employee donation matching campaign” to support families affected by the war. Christie’s made donations to both the United Nations Refugee Agency and to The Red Cross. Christie’s says its donation was in “six figures” but would not be more precise. In comparison, Goldman Sachs’s website says that the bank has donated $8.8m towards relief efforts in Ukraine alone.

Sotheby’s new CSR programme, “Impact”, launched in 2022, is “the difference between solely writing a cheque versus partnering with an organisation to deeply understand their needs”, according to a spokesperson. “Hosting a benefit auction or lending our physical spaces can make all the difference.”

In other words, philanthropy for auction houses—unlike investment banks, or artists—is not so much about donating, but enabling.

Sammy Baloji’s Untitled; 41 copper shell casings (1914-1918 & 1939-1945). Installation view, Our World is Burning, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, 2020 Photo: Marc Domage

Edinburgh show explores the ‘new colonialism’: debt

“We want to work with artists who deal with issues that impact on our lives today,” says James Clegg, the curator of The Accursed Share, an exhibition about debt, at Edinburgh University’s Talbot Rice Gallery.

Featuring works by nine international artists, the show, which opens on 17 March, explores how debt has become “a new form of colonialism”, Clegg says. “Through its programmes of debt relief, the International Monetary Fund has forced countries to have a different relationship with their land,” he adds.

The colonial and post-colonial violence done to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and its people will be evoked by the DRC artist Sammy Baloji, whose market is slowly growing. He will install 50 copper gun shells potted with IKEA-stocked plants (pictured) from the Katanga region of his country, where copper was mined using forced labour. Turner-prize winner Lubaina Himid, who had no consistent commercial representation until 2013, is also among the selected artists. Her installation, Naming the Money (2004), uses life-size cut-out figures to bring back to life enslaved Africans shown in historic paintings of European royalty.

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