The bidding was fierce at a Saturday night auction in New York City last March for a set of six framed, hand-painted watercolors. The artists, however, weren't there to watch all the excitement; they were home in bed. After all, they were only 5 years old.
By the end of the night, dozens of pieces of original artwork done by these kindergartners and their fellow elementary school students at P.S. 166 on Manhattan's Upper West Side had raked in more than $8,000 as part of a schoolwide auction total of $50,000.
The six paintings alone sold for $1,540—more than two high-profile items combined: a wine tasting for 25 people and tickets to see a Temptations and Four Tops concert, complete with backstage passes and photo op with the performers.
At many New York City schools, both public and private, the parent group holds an annual auction as a major fundraiser. Along with donations of gift certificates from local businesses and restaurants, packaged gift baskets, and services offered by parents (from chess lessons to sessions with a personal trainer), it's often traditional for each class to make a unique project to be offered for sale during the live or silent auction.
These collaborative masterpieces include hand-painted footstools with each child's thumbprint, bookshelves decoupaged with student drawings, decorated toy boxes, and books and CDs of original stories and poetry.
The P.S. 166 Parent Association sends out a list of suggested projects to class representatives early in the year and encourages parents, teachers, and students to get creative. Many projects start with inexpensive items ready for decorating. They're acquired from unfinished-wood furniture stores, craft suppliers, even Ikea and Wal-Mart.
Some projects are purely whimsical (a decorative kite made for hanging, not flying), while others relate to what the students are learning in school (a book of Iroquois names). What's great about these collaborative efforts is that everyone gets involved to give something back to the school, says Deborah Lott, P.S. 166 PA auction co-chairwoman. Even better, she adds, they raise big bucks for PA-supported enrichment and tutoring programs, computer labs, science kits, musical instruments, books, and other supplies.
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Parents have been known to spend thousands on a glitter-and-glue-encrusted object they don't need and can't use, simply because their kids participated and they want to own it or because they want to make a substantial donation to the school. "The children get very caught up in the projects and have a lot of pride in their workmanship," Lott says. "They hear all about the auction, and it's their only contribution; they want to feel they're part of it." The only problem, she says, is that each child knows mommy and daddy are going to the auction, and they want them to bring home the project they participated in. But not everyone gets the prize.
One parent who got carried away this past year was Buffy Perry. She desperately wanted the Andy Warhol-style self-portraits done in fluorescent blue-and-green tones by her son Zachary's third-grade class; they go with the Statue of Liberty retrospective done in oranges and reds by her daughter Taylor's class for the auction three years ago.
After a heated bidding war, Perry beat out another family with a total of $1,300. "I couldn't quite believe we spent so much, but I had promised Zachary, so we had no cap," she says. "The look on my son's face when I told him we won made it money well-spent." Plus, she says, it's a beautiful piece of art that hangs in the entryway to her home, opposite her daughter's. "It was a great project and a great cause, and it will have lasting memories. It will be fun for Zachary to see what his interpretation of himself was at 8 when he's 18."
Artists at Work
The process of creating auction items can be a fun class experience. One Tuesday afternoon before the auction, the first-floor hallway of the school was covered with a clear shower curtain. Excited kindergartners in class K-102 decorated it with their own renditions of themselves.
While many of her classmates drew simple round circles, added ears, mouth, nose, and eyes, and quickly signed their names, Annabelle Schultz took her time. The 5-year-old carefully shaped her mouth like a bright red heart, added spidery black eyelashes, long brown hair slightly flipped at the ends, and earrings, all with a background of spring flowers. Nearby, Atash Massiri drew himself as a vampire—that year's Halloween costume.
Down the hall, kindergarten teacher Stephanie Pappas laid out large pieces of paper on several tables and had students rotate to each, filling in details of their neighborhoods with crayons. "This is a real group effort," she explained as the children put in a sun, flowers, rainbows, stores, dogs, even artist Christo's saffron gates that hung in nearby Central Park.