Nothing puts a bee in my bonnet faster than the mention of an art auction benefit. My career is littered with “invitations” to participate in whatever needy cause is laid at my studio door. Artists are tempted into these projects with the promise that our work will get “exposure” to a whole new audience of potential buyers. Inevitably, however, our starting bids are slashed to bargain basement prices undercutting our future markets and we are rarely reimbursed for our efforts or supplies. College Art Association did some research on the phenomenon a few years ago – one artist tracked his work only to discover that the same collector was buying him at every auction for 1/3 his studio price. He never saw a dime of that or the buyer. New audiences, indeed.
One problem with art auctions is forgetfulness – attendees too often need to be reminded that they are at a charity event. I can’t tell you the number of times I have watched the “moneyed professionals” sit on their hands,,Scrooge-like, during the live auction while amazing works of art that did not grow on trees, but out of desire and effort, languish at exorbitantly low prices. It is at this moment that I want to run to the podium and scream, “what the hell are you waiting for, you enjoyed the canapés, now buy the freakin’ art!” Except I wouldn’t say “freakin’.” But I don’t yell and they don’t get off their hands and it is the artists who generally rise to the occasion, doubly supporting the project – giving twice by making and buying – gleefully guilty of the glorified trades they are making. This is why art auction benefits largely fail – because artists don’t have the means to support both sides of the equation.
The Duluth Art Institute’s annual spring auction presents a fresh approach to the problem. Dubbed 7 x 7 x 7, artists are asked to make small work especially for the exhibition that can be sold pretty cheaply, thus bringing in a broader audience who can afford to go home with some art. Last year they added a nice spin by inviting artists to make larger work on a theme, having a live auction and reimbursing the artists with half of their bid price. Great idea, I’m in! I holler, and then I proceed to make a piece that is cheap enough to produce in order to keep the price nice and low and affordable. Only, the DAI cut my bid price by a third, thus undermining my whole strategy. I yelled, but they know me and are used to that. They know that I have a yelling gene that needs to be exercised every once in a while, especially in the land of Minnesota “nice,” of which I am so obviously not a native.
With all this charity action being the one- way street that it seems to be, it makes sense that various groups of artists would attempt to take the means into their own hands. Heck, if corporations and institutions can cash in on art, why shouldn’t artists exploit themselves, for themselves?
Surfing through the New York Times online last summer, I happened upon an article about a new pension fund for artists. The brainchild of David Ross (a former Whitney curator), the fund will invite artists to contribute artwork on the speculation that the value of the work will appreciate enough to support a nice little retirement in the future. All the artists will share, so if some artists in the fund never make good, they’ll get a piece of the pie in the end, just not so much, as each artist will first get half of their own appreciated investment. Oh yeah, and the pension managers will get 20% off the top.
Essentially, the idea is that artists are investing in themselves, so why does this concept make me feel so creepy? The initial artists have been chosen, but any artist can apply to be included at artistpensiontrust.org, so there seems to be a relatively progressive attitude about the process. I guess, having worked in the brokerage industry in another life, I just don’t want art to be sullied by investment. It goes against the risk-taking nature of the art-making code.
But what’s wrong with putting a little art under the mattress? That’s basically what collectors are doing . . . Perhaps because the whole deal seems predicated on achieving notoriety as an artist, thus raising prices and assuring appreciation, but not every artist who does good is going to be or should be famous. Moreover, I just don’t like to look at art as a commodity. Frozen concentrated orange juice is a commodity, not art. Art’s an idea, a state of being, it’s the Force, man. In reality, I know, it’s time for me to descend from that high horse I’ve got myself on and own up to the fact that we make to sell and we sell to eat (and to buy more supplies, it’s a vicious cycle).
Taking matters into their own hands, artists in the Duluth area have recently established the Artist Relief Trust Fund (ART Fund) to assist “artists in crisis.” Massaging the art auction idea, they are soliciting work from regional artists to be exhibited at local galleries with all proceeds going to the new organization. The fund will then be available to artists working in the Arrowhead Region. The idea here, if it works, is to set up a lasting fund – artists helping artists. As the work will be showing in gallery venues, it won’t be compromised to the degree that an art auction has a tendency to do. This seems a little more down to earth to me than the Artist Pension Trust – it’s set in the hard reality of the present, where most artists I know are living.
Art is not a luxury – it’s treated that way in our culture, and written about as a privilege, but imagine our world without it, in all its forms. Artists are some of the hardest-working people I know – and the most generous. But they get tired of trying to make ends meet, being pummeled with requests for donated work, and not even being invited to the charity ball. I suggest using a little irony when you just can’t take anymore: “Hey, I’d love to contribute – just let me check if my art tree is ripe and I’ll pluck a nice juicy piece for you…”
The Artist Relief Trust fund will be having its first exhibition of art March 5 - April 1 at various Duluth venues. Contact Bob DeArmond at the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council, (218) 722-0952, for more information or to contribute art , money, or time.