Dollars and Sense

Annual Arts Center auction should benefit collectors <em>and</em> artists

Are you prepared to make a gift?

It's a malleable question. Say it through clenched teeth, and it's a threat. Add some pep, and you sound like a perky telemarketer. One thing about this opener to the artists' page of the Lawrence Arts Center's 28th Annual Art Auction is clear: Artists, check your ego at the door.

The bracing question was carved by the LAC Gallery Committee in response to controversy about its annual art auction. The concept-artists donate original artwork, wine flows, and guests bid on the art to raise funds for whatever cause-is so solid in its success that even non-arts organizations utilize it. In this area alone, there are art auctions to raise money for youth programs, pet shelters, public health advocacy, medical care for the uninsured, etc.

The annual Arts Center auction, however, is king: burgeoning on 300 artworks and 750 bidders, many consider it the Event of the Year. With the funds and good times, however, comes a downside: bargain-hunting, market bloating, and taking advantage of artists' generosity.

Some artists lament seeing their work go for as little as $25. Dealers worry that patrons are saving their money for the auction, where they can get more bang for the buck. With the LAC as the undeniable big fish in a little pond, the tension between artists and the LAC feels more palpable than ever.

"From year to year, artists really never know what their work will sell for," said painter Louis Copt. "I think that anxiety is what has sparked much of the debate about the auction."

Recurring event

Preview exhibit: Lawrence Art Auction 2008

  • Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St., Lawrence
  • All ages / Free


Bargains Galore?

As is, the annual Arts Center auction undermines market values.

It's a commonly heard concern. Rather than buy from an artist directly or purchase from a dealer, many suspect that collectors wait for the LAC auction, where they can stretch their art dollars a wee bit further. With the majority of works selling for 85% of market value (which is set by the donating artist), and some sales at 40%, there are certainly deals to be found.

Yet artists willing to go on the record stopped short from saying the LAC promoted such behavior.

"There does seem to be a faction of art buyers who attend the auction with the intent of buying discounted art," said artist Molly Murphy. "But this seems to be a recent growing trend in galleries as well. Collectors are becoming more comfortable 'haggling' with a gallery director for discounts on desired pieces. The fault may lie more in the lack of education for these buyers."


Illustration by J. Alex Stamos

Painter and long time auction participant Paul Hotvedt takes it in stride: "The real loser in that scenario is the buyer who hunts for deals and deals only," he said. "If a person buys under value, tells me, and expects some special consideration, I am not flattered and they lose a relationship with me. That has happened."

Rick Mitchell, Arts Center exhibition director, takes exception to the notion that the auction undermines market value. "Some works go for less than the value the artist sets," he acknowledges. "However, it is also often true-last year 40% of the time-that an item fetches more than the advertised market value. That's not something that would occur in a commercial gallery."

In other words, the "market value" of artwork in Lawrence, as it is everywhere else, is fluid. "I myself have sold work for over twice the market value and also for about three-quarters of the value. It just depends on who is in the market at the time," said Mitchell.

Past Event

Public reception: Lawrence Art Auction 2008

  • Friday, April 4, 2008, 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
  • Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St., Lawrence
  • All ages / Free


It must be noted, also, that determining the market value of art in Lawrence can be more maddening than in other cultural areas. Without a single gallery representing artists in a traditional manner-solo exhibitions, small stables of artists, full-throttle promotion-determination of "market value" may be impossible without the context of the LAC auction.

Past Event

Lawrence Art Auction 2008

  • Saturday, April 12, 2008, 6 p.m. to 11:59 p.m.
  • Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St., Lawrence
  • All ages / $25 - $30


You Scratch My Back, And I:

Money aside, there is a weariness setting in.

Printmaker Karen Matheis is a member of the LAC's John Talleur Print Studio and former art auction participant. "Although I support the Arts Center in many ways, the LAC gallery has not offered an opportunity to show my work or collective work from the print shop except for the auction," she said. "It seemed a waste to donate pieces to a gallery that does not show our work when other galleries are willing."

Matheis redirected her charitable energies toward Kansas City, donating instead to the Kansas City Artists Alliance fundraiser. "It seems more geared to helping artists," she said.

Likewise, sculptor John Hachmeister thinks institutions like the LAC should pay back the generosity on the political front: Notably, current tax codes. Whereas the institution gets the funds and the patrons get a full tax deduction, artists are only able to deduct the cost of materials.

"When artists contribute, they agree to a much depreciated value of their artistic production," Hachmeister said. "I think institutions who gain from art auctions should be at the forefront of an effort to change tax laws to put the artist on equal footing with the art buyer."


Lawrence Arts Commission Community Arts Grants

Award amounts vary but will be limited, for each project, to a maximum of $1,000. Grants may be awarded to the same individual or organization each year if the proposal is for a new project. Grant application deadline is Monday, March 24, at 4:30 p.m. Applications must be delivered or mailed to the City Manager's office, City Hall PO Box 708 Lawrence, KS 66044. Applications are available online at

KU Natural History Museum Needs Art for New Gallery Space

Artist submissions for a new rotating art exhibit are welcomed by KU's Natural History Museum Student Advisory Board until April 15. The exhibit will display artwork that focuses on artistic interpretations of scientific topics. The theme of the exhibit is entitled "biodiversity is:" Most media types will be accepted but artwork will be required to fit in frames that are either 24x36, 18x26 or 6x6. Artwork will be showcased for six months with an opening on Aug. 18. Contact:

Thomas Hardy, Student Advisory Board President: (785) 864-4450 or

Katie Oberthaler, Student Advisory Board Vice-President: (785) 864-4450 or

Tristan Smith, Director of Visitor Services and Advisory Board Advisor: (785) 864-2380 or

Patrons: Step Up

For their part, the LAC has stepped up a campaign to encourage patrons to bid at the listed market value. Although organizers have stopped short of requiring minimum bids, artworks can be "bought out" before the auction during the silent bidding, if the patron spends 150% of the market price. Bidders are also being reminded of the tax and community benefits higher bids bring.

Ultimately, charity likely drives most artists' donations.

"My reasons for doing so have changed over the years," Copt said. "At first, I was like many artists trying to get my name out and reputation established. The art auction was a perfect vehicle to get my work in front of a large group of enthusiastic art supporters and collectors." Now serving on the LAC board of directors, Copt uses his donation as a way to meet the monetary requirements of those who serve on a nonprofit board.

In conversations with artists, a unifying motivator emerged: they thought the LAC exhibition program was worth supporting. "I believe in the role of the Arts Center as a place where very worthwhile things happen," said Hotvedt. "I think it is going to be very interesting to see how engaging the place becomes in the years to come."

Ultimately, it's the patrons who will determine whether the charity ultimately comes on their shoulders, or just the artists'.

"I hope bidders go in knowing that it is both necessary to bid a fair price for the sake of this community-based center and to encourage great artwork to be donated next year as well," said Murphy. "If a piece brings in a lot for LAC, the artist who created it won't walk away feeling insulted or disappointed, and will most likely be happy to donate again."


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