An asinine end to the Donkey Program

Lynette Shelley's Missouri donkey, part of the DNC's Donkey Program - from the artist's website

Lynette Shelley's Missouri donkey, part of the DNC's Donkey Program - from the artist's website

What would you call a program that: brought art in a measurably noteworthy, interactive way to tens of thousands in person and to 2.5 million more on Instagram; created reams of positive publicity – including on network newscasts and in the pages of City & State PA – for everyone involved; and ultimately became one of the defining images of a once-in-a-generation event?

If you’re like the overwhelming majority of people who have been charmed by the Philadelphia Democratic National Convention Host Committee’s Donkey Program, which involved 28 local artists creating 57 elaborately painted and designed Fiberglas donkeys – one to represent each state and US territory – you would call it a success.

If you’re Caryn Kunkle, you call it a “bait and switch” that “kicks artists in the ass.”

Those words come directly from an email that Kunkle, the CEO of ArtJawn, a Philadelphia-based online marketplace that connects artists and buyers, sent to the New York Times. In the email, she accuses the committee of inveigling both herself and the program’s artists and, in doing so, of cheating them out of proceeds from auctioning off donkeys.

Kunkle maintains that during initial conversations between her, the artists and the committee, it was specified that the donkeys would be going up for auction after being taken off of display, and that all the artists would split 60 percent of the proceeds, while ArtJawn received the other 40 percent. This would be on top of the $5,000 contract ArtJawn signed with the committee to help manage the project, and the $1,000 received by each of the 28 artists for painting two donkeys apiece.

“Artists signed up for this commissioned project with the understanding that there would be an auction afterward,” Kunkle insisted.

However, there may not be any auction, which is understandably rankling both the artists and Kunkle. That’s because there are reports today only four donkeys are left to be auctioned – New York, Connecticut, Guam and American Samoa – with the rest having been claimed by their respective delegations.

“I knew July 29, when they didn’t give me the list” of available donkeys, that there would be a problem, Kunkle said. “I asked how many donkeys were spoken for  – they said 25 – and they are still giving away the donkeys. Some delegates specifically asked for them for fundraising. The artists would like confirmation for where their donkeys are going and what they’re being used for … they signed up for this commissioned project with the understanding there would be an auction afterward.”

Kunkle’s frustrations and assertions are shared by at least two of the program’s artists: Ellen Tiberino and Lynette Shelley. Shelley, who painted the Oklahoma and Missouri donkeys, said that she feels like “the artists were not treated with respect. When we originally had a meeting with Artjawn, there was nothing in there about gifting the donkeys. When I signed up, I was told there was going to be an auction; it’s sheisty to take a free donkey that an artist worked on and then use it for yourself – many delegations are taking donkeys specifically for future fundraising purposes, which is disturbing, because my name is associated with my donkeys – I don’t know what they're fundraising for.”

Tiberino, who created the Puerto Rico and Democrats Abroad donkeys, also says that the way the program is ending is contrary to what the artists were told. “I was told that part of the process was that donkeys would be auctioned off,” she recalls. “A donkey should not be given away to the DNC delegates as a party favor!” Then, recounting how, between taking Uber down to the waterfront warehouse where the donkeys were stored and buying art supplies, she exclaimed that she spent almost $1,000 just to create her art – not even counting the hours she worked on the donkeys.

The problem is, according to Joan Reilly, the Mural Arts Program’s chief operating officer, there is no reason for Kunkle, Shelley or Tiberino to harbor ill will. Reilly should know: Mural Arts also received a $5,000 contract from the committee to help manage the sprawling program, including providing artists with supplies and helping arrange orientation sessions for the artists.

“There were two orientation sessions where artists came to meetings to learn about the process and the contracts were distributed to them,” Reilly explained. “They had time to read it and ask questions. The contracts were also sent to them electronically. The artists were all clear they would get $1,000 to paint two donkeys and that the DNC would promote their work.

“Here’s where it gets sticky,” she adds. “The delegations had the right of first refusal: They could decide if they wanted to take their donkey to their state or territory. If they could pay for the shipping, they could take it home” – something that, in a nod to the appeal of the program, almost every delegation did.

The delegations did so within their rights, according to the contract between the DNC Host Committee and each artist, which reads in part:

“Each decorated donkey will become and remain the sole and exclusive property of the Host Committee; except that, on or after July 31, 2016, each replica will be made available to the State or Territorial Democratic Party of the State of Territory reflected in the replica … and to the extent the replica is not so taken and transported, it will be made available for auction to the public by ArtJawn.”

So if the artists signed a two-page contract that clearly spells out the terms of donkey disbursement, why the imbroglio? Why isn’t everyone considering the program a huge win in terms of publicity and recognition for the city and for the artists?

Anna Adams-Sarthou, the committee’s communications director, has a theory.

“Frankly it sounds to us” on the committee “like ArtJawn is trying to cause a negative narrative because they’re not making as much money as they wanted to,” she opined. “This was one of the most successful projects of the entire convention; it’s unfortunate that an organization is trying to turn it into something negative. To me, Caryn thought she was going to make a lot more money than she did, and she is trying to cause problems among the artists basically to benefit herself; I think she should be ashamed of herself.”

Reilly takes a slightly more sanguine view. “We understand: Artists pay a huge price for sharing their gifts and talents with the world,” she said. “It is a noble profession. I believe the DNC negotiated in good faith and was very clear about the rules of engagement. I think what has happened here is there was some confusion about the auction, that there would be many more donkeys to auction off.”

Reilly knows exactly how the artists and Kunkle feel, noting that between the supplies, staffing and maintenance expenses, Mural Arts’ contract didn’t come close to covering their expenses. “We went out of pocket to do it,” she said. “Once the donkeys were on the street, we sent out donkey doctors to care for them. We received no compensation for that. This was not a moneymaker for anybody.”