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The Problem With Benefit Art Auctions

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The trend in art fairs has been questioned and discussed much over the last decade, a conversation ignited by the inception of art fairs like Paris Photo (1997), Toronto International Art Fair (2000), Art Basel Miami Beach (2001), Frieze (2003), PULSE New York (2006), and most recently, PULSE L.A. (2011). The dialogue around these eusocial events has made for an almost anthropological accounting of human behaviour within the arts.

It seems to me that another sort of annual event has been peppering my calendar for the last half dozen years. No doubt the art fair has been an important go-to for me, but what of the benefit art auction? Lydia Fenet at Christie's Auction House recently suggested that there was a huge increase in auctions for fundraising purposes between 2000 and 2008. In Toronto this year alone, I've attended, been involved in, or hope to go to SNAP! A Photographic Fundraiser (March), C Magazine's 7th Annual Benefit Auction (April), Hunter and Cook Auction 02 (April), and Art with Heart: A Fundraiser for Casey House (October). That is a lot of paddle wagging, if I do say so!

My interest in the subject was sparked by my current involvement with yet another fundraising auction presented by ArtBarrage.com -- Freehand: An Art Auction for War Child. In the role of the "askee" within the context of an inaugural fundraising art auction, I noticed that a few of the artists I approached felt unable to donate work, either because it didn't make sense for them financially at the time or because they had recently given work to one of the other (older) auctions taking place in Toronto. I began to conduct a bit of research on the collective outlook on art donation among members of art communities and came across some puzzling discussions by art critics, dealers and their artists.

Sarah Douglas asserts in the Art Newspaper that benefit art sales "are not always ideal for dealers or artists," listing among her grievances many dealers' opinions that too many charity auctions exist, dealers and artists' are unable to turn anyone down (especially when swayed by collectors who are trustees of the charity-endorsing institution) as well as artists' inclination to donate second-tier pieces of art.

Although I think Douglas' analysis of the market effects of charity auctions is well worth noting, what strikes me as odd is her diversion from the charities themselves as the beneficiaries of the auction. Is it really for the benefit of collectors, dealers, and their artists that these charity sales were inaugurated in the first place? I won't deny that events such as the Artists for Haiti auction, which took place on Sept. 22 and was co-chaired by David Zwirner and actor Ben Stiller, create financial waves that ripple beyond the non-for-profit sector. With Christie's hosting the event, there were bound to be market comparisons between the auction house's standard private and public sales and the sales made on Sept. 22 for charity. But is it not the Haitians, both those affected by the 2010 earthquake in general and the underprivileged local children in specific, who we should be focusing on? Concerns about whether or not a buyer's premium is implemented seem misspent under these circumstances.

Aiding in the development of Freehand as a first year charity event has certainly had its challenges. Toronto's market for both emerging and established artists has idiosyncrasies that demanded two extremely knowledgeable curators when selecting lots. Furthermore, without much of a celebrity presence in our fair city, flashy sponsorship and society-style attraction are not helpful factors as they inevitably are in New York, London, and Los Angeles. The organizational body to which the auction is contributing is as magnanimous as they come, however, which makes all efforts seem insignificant when compared with the resultant benefits. War Child, an award-winning charity that helps children and their families emerge from the devastation of war-time experiences, will receive 50 per cent of the hammer price for each art work.

Given the foundation's contributed aid in countries such as Afghanistan, Sudan (Darfur), Uganda, and Ethiopia, this effort is timely and welcome among the privileged Canadians residing in Toronto. Similar to War Child, ArtBarrage.com aids and willingly gives access to the tools and strategies that artists need to represent themselves, sans gallery. It is this bond between artists seeking humanity through their practice and humans seeking salvation from war that affirms my involvement in Freehand. The fact that contributing artists get 41.5 per cent of their sale only sweetens the deal. For every nae-sayer in the charity auction world, I wager a guess that following Toronto's latest instalment of art-for-aid activity, there will be at least two who believe in the cause.

Freehand: An Art Auction for War Child, for which bidding will open online on Oct. 1, will feature up to 50 works of art executed by local and international artists. A live auction portion of this event will commence at 99 Sudbury, Toronto, at 6 p.m. on Sunday Nov. 8, 2011. Please contact info@atbarrage.com or the War Child office for further information.

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