The Library Lovers’ Art Auction: A Community-Driven Public Library Benefit Event
In these days of diminished government funding of public libraries, alternate sources of income like benefit events represent a path to be considered. This is particularly true of Pennsylvania’s public libraries where government funding, largely discretionary as opposed to mandated, has been drastically cut over the last ten years. Recognizing the Lancaster (Pa.) Public Library’s (LPL) need, the city of Lancaster and Lancaster County’s art communities came forth in 2011 to provide a wide range of fine art to be auctioned to art lovers for the benefit of the library. The artists’ community spirit prompted additional grassroots community support from a church, a restaurant chain, two breweries, a university, an art school, and several businesses for what became known as the Library Lovers’ Art Auction. Coordinated by the library staff and Friends group, the auction was held in October 2011 and yielded more than $29,000 in new income with net proceeds of more than $18,000, an unprecedented amount for a first-time benefit event at our library.
Genesis of the Event
LPL, founded in 1759, serves a population of more than 206,000 residents in fourteen municipalities in Lancaster County. As with many free public libraries in Pennsylvania, the library is a 501(c)(3) and only partially supported by government funding. Due to major cuts in state and municipal funding, the library now must generate more than 60 percent of its operating income itself. We do this by soliciting donations from the community, hosting benefit events, and employing miscellaneous techniques such as passport application processing. Ever seeking novel ways of fundraising, in late 2010 we experimented with email as a means of soliciting donations from our library’s cardholders. We targeted a new class of donors in this campaign––the computer-oriented millennial generation (born after 1980) whom we believed might be more responsive to an email than a snail mail donation request. We created a message to specifically appeal to this younger generation of library users (see figure 1).
The email campaign brought in a few thousand dollars in online donations. We also received several encouraging responses about using email as a communication method. One of the responses was from a thirty-something local artist named Christian Herr. He wrote that he had not been hitherto aware of the library’s need for outside donations. Although short on cash, he expressed a desire to support the library by volunteering his services. We invited him in to discuss his ideas. Herr explained that the millennial generation may not always be able to give monetary donations, but that they do want to help nonetheless. He suggested that perhaps he could encourage fellow young, emerging artists in our community to donate artwork to the library. These could then be sold via an art auction. This was an exciting and timely idea because the library’s home city of Lancaster has developed a burgeoning arts community with many downtown galleries near the library. Herr’s enthusiasm caused us to agree that an art auction might be a great way to raise money and library awareness as well as being a vehicle to promote local artists. This idea soon caught on with the community. Herr’s community spirit prompted additional support from a church, a restaurant chain, local breweries, a university, an art school, several businesses and many individuals for what became known as the Library Lovers’ Art Auction (LLAA).
Scope and Planning of the Project
Forming the LLAA Committee and Assigning Roles
The next step was to form a committee of experienced individuals who could plan and implement the various aspects of the event. We staffed the auction committee with positions (drawn from the Friends volunteers and library staff) to handle art solicitation; sponsorship solicitation; art inventory; publicity and catalog preparation; facilities and art display; event arrangements and refreshments; silent auction; and event cashiers, clerks, and runners. This was a perfect event in which to include the Friends of LPL. The Friends operate as an auxiliary fundraising and advocacy group for the library. Since the auction would involve a collaborative effort between library staff and the Friends group, it was decided that the library director (myself) and Friends president Cordelia Moyse would both serve as co-chairpersons of the LLAA committee. We both recruited committee members from among staff, Friends, and other volunteers. Our Friends president was able to recruit some influential community members to join the committee as well as provide essential advice and material support.
The first task of the committee chairs was to pick an auction site and date. A problem was that the library’s community room did not readily lend itself to an art auction event. However, Moyse is the wife of the rector of the St. James Episcopal Church, which also happens to be the library’s next-door neighbor. St. James had purchased an unoccupied warehouse adjacent to the library with the intention of using it as a community center. They were willing to host the auction as the inaugural event for this venue. The warehouse was undergoing construction to bring it up to code and the appeal of the location was its urban, industrial Greenwich Village–like arty look. The committee unanimously agreed that it would be an ideal place for an art event. However, there was concern regarding the size of the warehouse being too small for the auction. To solve the problem, the event arrangements chair, Joe Hess, recommended using a rented tent and chairs to hold the live auction in the adjacent parking lot. The pre-auction storage and display of the art would be in the warehouse along with the refreshments and the silent auction. Because the auction would be in a tent, we selected an early October date when the weather would still be mild. We decided we would have an early Saturday evening auction with ticket admission with a preview party the night before with refreshments at both events.
Recruiting an Auctioneer
One cannot have an auction without an auctioneer, so recruiting the right one was a critical step. Although some-not-for profits may employ volunteer amateur auctioneers, we sought a professional auctioneer who could provide valuable skills and experience and necessary auction supplies. Through personal contacts on our library and Friends’ boards we were able to get the area’s foremost art auctioneer, Karl Bolz, to graciously agree to serve as our auctioneer on a pro bono basis, waiving his standard 10 percent commission fee. Even better, he also agreed to provide us with free auction bidder number cards and bidder receipts, offered to publicize the auction both on his website and in the national AuctionZip database, and even offered to bring his computer-based, real-time bid recording system (which most professional auctioneers have) to the auction. He also offered us use of his professional auction clerk staff on an at-cost basis.
Solicitation of Artwork and Sponsorships
Our auction required three levels of solicitation:
- soliciting works of art and crafts to be auctioned;
- soliciting cash sponsorships and catalog advertisements; and
- soliciting donations of food, drink, and services.
Herr, the young artist who came up with the idea for the auction, accepted the primary responsibility for soliciting original art from his colleagues in the local artistic community. We also recruited the city of Lancaster’s public art manager, John Lustig, to join the committee to provide us with his expertise and experience in evaluating and selling art. Herr and Lustig served as our resident “art jury” and also coordinated the hanging and display of the art at the auction. With their input, we prepared a set of donation criteria to ensure that only high-quality pieces of original art, signed prints, and select crafts from recognized artists and artisans would be put up for auction. As each art piece was received, it was cataloged, photographed for the auction catalog, and stored in a secure climate-controlled site in a local community center that was volunteered by an LLAA committee member. We, of course, formally thanked each donor and recognized them in the auction catalog.
The LLAA committee focused its art solicitation on emerging artists. We realized that some of these artists might have financial situations that could prevent them from making outright donations of their art to the library. Therefore, we offered to take their art on consignment, providing them with a portion of the sale proceeds up to 50 percent. Though not encouraged, we accepted minimum reserve starting bid prices if required by the artist.
Donated and consigned artworks covered a wide spectrum of styles, media, and subjects. We received original paintings, original magazine sketches, collages, ceramics, jewelry, leather crafts, antique photographs, and signed prints. Subjects included landscapes, nudes, still lifes, portraits, and geometric designs. We also mined the library’s storage areas for auction items and found numerous and various pieces of art accumulated through donations and bequests over the years. These included original drawings, signed prints, and examples of nineteenth-century Pennsylvania German hand-lettered and illuminated Fraktur birth certificates. These items were retrieved, cleaned up, framed as necessary, and added to the auction inventory.
The two LLAA committee co-chairs also agreed to solicit high-quality art and craft items from the personal collections of library users and volunteers and from local art galleries and artisans. Friends and volunteer committee members also agreed to solicit cash donations and advertisements for the auction catalog from individuals and businesses.
The tools we employed to solicit included four solicitation letters from the committee. There was one for artists, another for art collectors, one for potential sponsors, and another for food and drink donors. We also employed direct personal visit solicitations to art galleries and followed up with letters, visits, and telephone calls.
St. James Episcopal Church generously agreed to provide the refreshments for the Friday night preview party to celebrate this first event in their new warehouse community center. We had set the auction night ticket price at $25 (or two for $40) and felt that for this amount we needed to provide some refreshments that were more than just snacks. We decided on heavy hors d’oeuvres, which would satisfy those who came to the late afternoon auction without having supper. The arrangements and refreshments subcommittee chair sought donations of food and drink from local restaurants, breweries, and wineries. We planned to serve beer and wine with the hope that relaxed and happy auction-goers might bid more. This required us to obtain a state-issued, special occasion liquor permit for the preview and auction dates at $30 per day. Although we allocated a $1,000 budget for food and beverage expenses, we found that this was tight. Fortunately we were able to obtain donations of food from Isaacs, a local deli chain. Two local microbreweries, Iron Hill Brewery and the Lancaster County Brewing Company, also donated a variety of craft beers. The owner of Isaacs Deli, Phil Wenger, who is a noted art collector, also provided a cash donation to obtain wine and specialty food dishes not available from his deli.
Promotion was necessary for the success of the event. We sought to promote the auction as early as possible. A press release was sent as soon as a few key pieces of art were donated and the event details were finalized. The local newspaper covered the event with a nice feature article in the pre-weekend entertainment section. The event was also promoted on local websites and online calendars as well as Facebook. We took advantage of our large email list and sent several electronic announcements. Images of the artwork were uploaded to the library’s Flickr account and linked to the library website. The auctioneer also included images of the art as it was received on his website. LLAA posters were prominently displayed around the library and elsewhere. The only paid advertising for the event was through a local arts organization,LancasterARTS. There was a $200 fee to be a featured member of the local Artwalk weekend. As a featured stop on the Artwalk, the auction was promoted in all of LancasterARTS’ advertising for the weekend. This was especially important because the LancasterARTS audience was exactly the type of people whom we hoped to reach.
Designing a Unique Logo
We were fortunate to have Ryan Martin and Ryan Smoker, the two owners of a local graphic design firm, The Infantree, offer their logo design services for the auction pro bono. They created an original logo to capture both the library and art elements of the auction. The result was an award-winning logo that was used on all promotional materials, including posters, invitations, and the catalog. The logo was prominently displayed on our LLAA poster and event invitation (see figures 2 and 3). In early 2012, we were both surprised and pleased to discover that our Library Lovers’ Art Auction logo received one of HOW’s 2012 International Design & Interactive Graphic Art awards. The logo is one of only six selected for publication and it shares space with some fabulous conceptual work. Although all auction volunteers cherished and proudly displayed their souvenir logo T-shirts and posters, the fact that they portrayed an award-winning design made them all the more collectable.
Capturing the Event on Video
Another example of an emerging artist coming forth to help the library was Andrew Bailey, a local Lancaster filmmaker, artist, and also the son of our LPLWest-Leola branch manager, Cindy Bailey. He captured the event with a two-and-a-half-minute video that is available on YouTube.
Catalog Design and Printing
The catalog layout proved to be a very time-consuming project that would have benefited from earlier and stricter deadlines. Again, because of the lack of upfront funding we relied on staff and volunteers to compile and design the catalog for the event. Fortunately, another local artist offered to assist us in creating a folio design for the catalog using the new logo.
This same graphic artist also created an original woodcut (see figure 4) from which he created fifty numbered and signed prints to be sold to benefit the library. He gave 100 percent of the proceeds to the library. This commemorative poster was featured in the catalog and sold at the preview event for $50 each.
Invitation Design and Lists
We compiled an invitation list to include all current library donors, local elected officials, and recommendations from LLAA committee members including known local art collectors. Major donors of art and cash were offered complimentary tickets. The invitation was designed to use the new logo and be compatible with the LLAA poster and catalog. Invitations were printed and then stuffed and mailed by library staff and volunteers.
Preview and Event Hosting
The date chosen for the event was selected to be coordinated with other related events in the city of Lancaster. As mentioned previously, the weekend of the auction was also the weekend of the city’s fall Artwalk event. The committee felt this would be a good weekend since many people would already be in town with the intention of buying art. On the evening of the day before the event, we held a preview that was open to the public at no charge. During the preview, hosted by St. James, light refreshments were served and some silent auction items were available for bidding (see figure 5). Proxy bids were also taken at the preview and auction tickets were sold. As a highlight of the preview event, a locally based art school, Pennsylvania College of Art & Design, provided fifty pieces of student art to be sold to attendees at a fixed price of $25 with proceeds to the library. Proud parents of the art students purchased many of these pieces.
The Main Event
The event was held on a Saturday evening with doors opening at 4 p.m. and the auction beginning at 5:30 p.m. Though we sold tickets in advance for the event, tickets were also available at the door.
Honorary Chair and Emcee Appointment
Meredith Jorgensen, a local television station news anchor, was the celebrity emcee for the event. The committee also selected a local restaurant chain owner, Phil Wenger, to be the honorary chair in deference to his generous sponsorship of the event. These were both great for adding to the prestige of the event.
Organizing the Auction
In advance of the event, an ad hoc group consisting of the auctioneer, art jury, and church facility manager met first to determine the most advantageous way to display and label the pieces to be auctioned and then reconvened to hang the art on the warehouse walls. The auctioneer provided some scaffolding and the rest was improvised. Auction committee members served as ushers, servers, auction runners, clerks, and cashiers. They were identified by their “uniform,” a T-shirt adorned with the LLAA logo. Souvenir T-shirts were also sold to auction attendees and quickly sold out. As people entered the LLAA warehouse, they provided their admission ticket to a clerk who registered them and entered their identification data into the auctioneer’s computer system’s bidder database. They then received a unique bidder’s number card and auction catalog.
Bid Control, Collecting Payment, and Distribution to Artists
As each item was sold by the auctioneer, the item’s catalog number, the winning bid amount, and the bidder’s number were entered into the computer file by the auction clerk. At the end of the auction, a bidder needed only to show their bid number to the cashier who then retrieved and compiled all of the bidder’s purchases and printed out an itemized and totaled invoice (including sales tax) for everything purchased by that person. We accepted payment by cash, check, and credit card. Having the ability to accept credit card payment (especially for big-ticket items) was essential as the majority of items were paid for in this way.
Following the auction, we printed a comprehensive list of all sold items showing winning bid prices for each and compared this with artist consignment agreements specifying percentage due the artist. The amount due each artist requesting a percentage of a sale was then calculated and checks were cut and mailed as required. This was very time consuming and we are seeking a way to automate the process.
Live and Silent Auction Inventory and Bidding
In addition to sixty-five live auction art pieces, there were also twenty-five donated silent auction items. Silent auction pieces were those items deemed inappropriate for the live art auction and included pieces of sculpture, pottery, jewelry, craft items, and gift certificates. Each of these was displayed with a bid sheet. People bid on each item by entering their bidder’s number and a bid amount on the item’s sheet. The highest bidder won the item at the prescribed ending time. Silent bidders could return as often as they wished to enter increasingly higher bids if initially outbid.
We allowed for proxy bids from people who could not attend the auction or were uncomfortable with live bidding. A proxy bidder indicates in advance the item they want and the maximum amount of their bid for it. An auction volunteer then serves as the bidder’s proxy by bidding on the item in question for them until it is won or the maximum specified by the bidder is exceeded.
Delivering the Goods
Upon paying for an auction item, the winning bidder’s invoice was marked paid and this was used to retrieve the item from inventory and deliver it to the successful bidder. In cases where the high bid was by a proxy bidder or the winning bidder left early, the item was held for the successful bidder to pay for and pick up the following week. A secure storage site was required for these held items.
Auction Total Final Results
- Total Income: $1,000 in-kind, $9,703 in cash donations, $14,258 sold auction items, $4,334 misc. (sponsorships, posters, raffle, and so on) for a grand total of $29,295
- Total Expenses: $10,978
- Net Proceeds: $18,317
Yielding this much with a first-year library benefit auction is unusually good based on our collective experience.
Problems and Successes
As with any first-time event, there were some unanticipated difficulties. Missed deadlines, lack of a central file for all art/artist information, shortage of focused and dedicated committee members, better control of physical tickets, lack of consistency of catalog information collected, catalog design issues, overly high reserve levels, confusion about setting reserves, and an overly complicated method of accounting for consignment fees are a few of the problems we encountered that will be handled differently in future library auctions.
In addition to achieving its fundraising goal, one of the most positive outcomes of the LLAA event was that it really increased awareness of LPL as a community resource and its need for broad community support. This resulting collective response was overwhelming and gratifying. So many different population segments came forth to volunteer to donate art and to donate in-kind aid and cash support. It became a true grassroots community and fun benefit event. It also provided a wonderful opportunity to forge new, valuable, and lasting relationships. These will pave the way for future Library Lovers’ Auctions, which will now be an annual event at LPL.