The founders of Miss Porter’s School, an all-girls high school located in Farmington, Connecticut, believed a stellar education can open a new world of opportunity for girls. To support this mission, a group of collectors and female artists came together to back what is being billed as the first-ever benefit auction of works exclusively by women, which is taking place March 1st at Sotheby’s in New York. Sale proceeds will go towards providing financial aid so that an even more diverse student body can attend Miss Porter’s School.
The generosity of these artists and others who have contributed works to the sale is inspiring under any circumstances. It is particularly notable because of the negligible tax benefits they will receive for their gifts. Contrary to public perception, donors who contribute works to charity auctions are driven by passion, not tax relief. This is especially true for artists who donate their own work.
A benefit for tomorrow’s women
Established in 1843, Miss Porter’s School was founded with the radical aim of providing young women with the same high-school education as their male peers. The school’s curriculum included a full panoply of science, language, and mathematics courses, in addition to various athletic opportunities. Today, the school has 312 students, most of whom live on campus as boarders. Around one-third of the students receive some form of financial aid to help them attend the school.
The idea for a benefit auction started in the summer of 2016, as planning began to honor the 175th anniversary of the school’s founding. A small leadership team came together to brainstorm auction concepts. The team was initially comprised of Dr. Anna Swinbourne, a former Museum of Modern Art curator who now teaches at Miss Porter’s, and Dr. Sunnie Evers, a school alumnus and trustee; they were then joined by Agnes Gund, the noted philanthropist, MoMA trustee, and Miss Porter’s alumnus.
Carmen Herrera, Blanco y Verde, 1966–67. Courtesy of Sothebys.
The team quickly coalesced around two ideas: The auction should only include work by women artists, and all sale proceeds should go towards financial aid. They then invited artists, collectors, gallerists, and others to turn the concept into a reality. Most of the artworks and support have come from contributors who believe in the power of single-sex education for women, even if they are not alumni of Miss Porter’s: Oprah Winfrey, a longtime supporter of single-sex education, is an honorary co-chair of the auction, alongside Gund.
Titled “By Women, for Tomorrow’s Women,” the live and online auctions have 40 works by 38 artists. The objects range in value from approximately $1,000 to $1.5 million, including pieces by
. The most valuable work in the sale is an early painting by Herrera, exhibited as part of her 2016 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which was donated by Gund. Around two-thirds of the works in the sale were donated by artists themselves.
The generosity of artists
These artists are generous in the extreme: None of them will receive meaningful tax benefits from their donations, due to two U.S. tax code provisions.
When a taxpayer donates an artwork to a charitable organization, she can receive a charitable deduction equal to the fair market value of the object only if the organization receiving it passes what is called the “related use” test. Put simply, the organization must use the donated artwork in pursuit of its mission. Art that is accepted into the permanent collection of a museum passes this test, as does art donated to a school where it will be displayed and used in art history classes. But if the intent of the charity is to sell the work, then the donation fails the “related use” test. In these circumstances, the taxpayer will only be able to receive a charitable deduction equal to what the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) calls their “basis” in the object, which is typically much lower than its fair market value. Because all of the artworks donated to the Miss Porter’s auction do not meet the “related use” test, it’s essential to understand how the IRS defines “basis.”
The IRS defines “basis” very differently for artists and collectors. Artists can only deduct what it cost them to make the artwork. For example, if an artist donated a drawing with a $100,000 fair market value to a benefit auction, they would likely receive a tax deduction of around $100 for it—the cost of the pencils and paper that went into making it. This is true even if the work sells for $100,000 or more in the auction.
So all the artists donating their works to the Miss Porter’s auction are receiving essentially no tax benefits for their generosity. Collectors are marginally better off than the artists, because the IRS deems their basis to be what they originally spent to buy the artwork. For the kinds of works that show up at auction, that is still likely to be far less than a work’s current fair market value. With that in mind, hats off to the great collectors, gallerists, and especially artists whose substantial generosity will bring more opportunities to a new, diverse generation of Miss Porter’s students.
Doug Woodham is Managing Partner of Art Fiduciary Advisors, former President of Christie’s for the Americas, and author of Art Collecting Today: Market Insights for Everyone Passionate About Art.
’s 2011 photograph Meeting is meant to make you uneasy. In a gentle morning light, the artist substitutes women subjects with frightening, human-like sex dolls, throwing a perverse reality into focus.
Through images like this one, which is part of the artist’s 2011 “Love Dolls” series, Simmons asks us to confront the extent to which women are stripped of their humanity or pictured as objects to be played with. “I don’t try to remove the dolls from their sexual origin,” Simmons explains. “I really use them as subjects in a story I’ve been telling for a long time—a woman’s interior. How does a woman become a character, and what does that character mean?”
This tension is under the lens in Grace Banks’s debut book, Play With Me: Dolls, Women and Art, set to release in October 2017 through Laurence King Publishing. The striking artworks featured—more than 60 in total—are at once jarring and familiar. Some recall the use of porcelain dolls in horror movies: objects of pristine innocence that, when placed in a dark context, are suddenly menacing.
The ways that dolls take on new meaning when thrust into different scenarios are explored at length in Play With Me, by way of profiling 43 different artists, both male and female, who use dolls as a means to study the role of female forms in contemporary art.
“A doll is the ultimate objectification of a woman’s body,” Banks explains. “It’s a mass-produced archetype of a woman.” The artists featured in the book, she continues, have employed dolls for this reason: as symbols of objectification through which to develop new, contemporary visions of the female nude in art.
Banks traces this narrative back to 17,000 B.C., when nude women were first pictured in cave paintings. Broadening our definition of what a “doll” can be, she argues that the term can be used to describe any depiction of a female form that is devoid of humanness, or portrayed solely as the physical shell of a person. This timeline moves through the first female figurines and nude portraits of Grecian goddesses, to more contemporary work, such as
’sCut Piece (1964), a performance where viewers cut the artist’s clothing from her body, leaving her naked.
The crux of the book, however, focuses on art created in the past 15 years. Banks has dedicated each of four chapters to the various ways that dolls can be seen in contemporary visual culture: “Blow Up” covers sex dolls and the ways that brands commodify women’s bodies; “Muse” looks at plastic and silicone dolls and the toys that children play with; “Female Gaze” dives into the evolution of gender through dolls; and “Cyborg” examines the roles women’s bodies play in designing for the future. “With the tools once used to objectify them,” Banks writes, “these artists transform women’s bodies into a self-governed pièce de résistance.”
Stacy Leigh, Average Americans that Happen to be Sex Dolls, series 2014. Courtesy of Stacy Leigh.
Take, for example, the mannequin sculptures of German artist
, featured in the “Blow Up” chapter. For these works, Genzken sourced ubiquitous shop mannequins and dressed them in haphazard outfits to consider the social issues that women face. Banks refers to these sculptures as bodies shrouded in “emblems of broken stories,” nodding to their dependence on the viewer to decipher their meaning.
challenges the Barbie doll’s Western beauty standards with her 2014 series “Plastic Bodies.” According to Banks, Bright was inspired by the story of the “Hottentot Venus,” the South African woman who was brought to the U.S. on a slave ship and exhibited in a traveling “freak show,” forced to be a spectacle of foreign womanhood. For “Plastic Bodies,” Bright took photographs of women from Baltimore and enmeshed their bodies with Barbie dolls, which Americans are so accustomed to seeing. “Playing with a Barbie doll is, in my view, an aggressive confrontation with something which is just not a reality at all,” Bright says. “But by the very nature of creating work, I’m trying to introduce a new dialogue of how women might be portrayed in culture.”
The featured works not only attempt to reconcile the past, but also look to our future. Those in the “Female Gaze” chapter consider the ways that female artists are defining how their bodies can be used moving forward in art. Artist
, who now identifies as a woman, “grew up collecting dolls, from Barbies as a child, to full-sized mannequins as an adult,” Banks writes. Gutierrez’s works bring us into progressive conversations happening around gender, identity, and sexual independence.
Gutierrez’s relationship to dolls appears traditional; she uses dolls as way to escape into a different world, just as children do. But in this world, gender is not an object, and violence towards gender ambiguity is not a concern. “The reality of the real world and the way I am perceived, fraught with bigotry, violence, and categorization, constantly upsets me,” Gutierrez explains. “I need to escape into this fantasy to re-imagine my own existence in a world where identity is fluid.”
Mai-Thu Perret, The Crystal Frontier, 1999-Present. Courtesy of Mai-Thu Perret.
Mai-Thu Perret, The Crystal Frontier, 1999-Present. Courtesy of Mai-Thu Perret.
The future is also of primary concern in the “Cyborg” chapter, where
is represented through works in which she has been reconciling her feelings about robot and cyborg technology for almost two decades. Her series, “The Crystal Frontier” (1999–2016), was originally inspired by an all-female, secular Kurdish military group in Rojava, Syria, and the physical strength of its women. “The Crystal Frontier” reimagines this storyline as a feminist community living in the New Mexican desert who are immortal.
“So much of women’s work depicting the female nude has been totally ignored by male art historians, and I wanted to look at these artists taking back the right to create the female nude on their own terms,” Banks explains. “I really liked the fact that some of the art in this book is unappealing, and not at all pretty. And I wanted to celebrate that. A lot of the artists I love just don't make work that’s easy to commodify, sell, exhibit in a gallery.”