About two weeks ago, I attended an artist-direct auction at the studio of the contemporary artist Ryan McGinness. The catalog specified that "the artist is the seller, and there is no auction house that will be taking a cut of the sale." Ms. Sara Friedlander, a specialist at Christie's, auctioned sixteen lots by Ryan and his friends, including Sebastiaan Bremer, Cheryl Dunn, David Ellis, Todd James, José Parla, and Eve Sussman among others. All but one artwork found a buyer, making the event a tremendous success.
Since then I have been pondering the significance of McGinniss's artist-direct auction for the art market. I considered the reasons that he might have circumvented the traditional sales outlets for new artworks, and what the implications of his choices might be for the market more broadly. The primary art market encompasses the first sale of an artwork directly from the artist's studio and conventionally occurs either through the artist or a primary dealer. The secondary market includes all sales of artworks thereafter, typically done through a contemporary artist's dealer, a third-party dealer, or an auction house. Ryan's artist-direct auction used a format traditionally associated with the secondary market to offer works on the primary market.
Specifically, I wondered if Ryan was highlighting the benefit of the auction format for works on the primary market while questioning the relationship between artists and auction houses? Or by removing the auction house completely was he instead commenting on the accepted exclusion of artists from the financial gains realized at these auctions?
Ryan McGinness's artist-direct auction, similar to Damien Hirst's single-artist auction, challenged the venues typically used for primary-market sales. But while McGinniss rejected the artist-auction house relationship, Hirst circumvented the artist-dealer relationship in favor of one with the auction house. In September 2008, Damien Hirst bypassed his gallery and worked directly with Sotheby's to hold its first single-artist sale of artworks that came directly from a contemporary artist's studio. The "Beautiful Inside My Head Forever" sale in London offered over 200 Hirst works from the primary market in a venue and format typically reserved for secondary market sales. The artist earned an estimated £50 million and evaded the typical gallery commission on sales. McGinniss also used the auction format for the primary-market sale he put on, but pushed the boundaries further due to his insistence that no auction house be involved in the process. Ryan's event rebuffed a different relationship that has evolved in the contemporary art market between the artist and the auction house.
On the other hand, Ryan may have been using the artist-direct auction to comment more broadly on the lack of financial gains realized by a contemporary artist when their artwork is sold at auction. In most of the United States, apart from California, a secondary-market artwork sold at auction does not provide a direct financial benefit to a living artist. In California, the Resale Royalty Act (1977), similar to the British Artist Resale Right act (2006), provides living artists with the right to claim a small portion of the proceeds of secondary market sales over $1,000 made within the state. Last week, however, Ryan McGinness and the other artists received all of the proceeds from the sale. Although these were not secondary market works, the format itself and the exclusion of auction houses highlighted the perennial tensions about profit-sharing that arise between contemporary artists and auction houses. Ryan's combination of an auction format with the financial gains of a primary market sale suggests a strong dissatisfaction with current auction house practices that exclude artists entirely from the proceeds of their artwork sales.
Ryan McGinniss's artist-direct auction was without a doubt a great success for the artists involved. However, the event left me with more questions than answers about the evolving relationship between contemporary artists, the primary market, and auction houses, as well as the financial gains living artists might see as their work enters the secondary market and the auction houses.