Spring Auction Round Up: Social Politics (Finally) Reaches the Art Market

There is no doubt that American society is in the midst of a new social upheaval. From, the renewed civil rights activism of Blacks Lives Matter, to the feminist surge of #MeToo, and the galvanized anti-violence and gun control crusade led by the kickass students from Stoneman Douglas High School, it’s undeniable: change is in the air.

But the conversation of inclusion and diversity has seemingly always fallen on deaf ears in the art world; for decades art institutions have stuck to a narrative of modern and contemporary art almost exclusively crafted and dominated by white men. In a recent study performed from 2016 to 2017, students at CUNY Guttman College surveyed forty-five of the top commercial art galleries of New York, and discovered that only 6.3% of all represented artists were black (only 4.7% were Latino and 8% were Asian; 30% of all surveyed artists were female).

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Njideke Akunkyili Crosby, Bush Babies, 2017. It set a record for the artist at Sotheby’s spring contemporary sale.

But in recent years, American art institutions have started listening to more these minority voices, and re-examining how they collect and display underrepresented artists beyond tokenism (read more about it in this 2015 New York Times article by Randy Kennedy or this recent op-ed by Olga Viso). And now recent auction records indicate that the collecting market is catching up: following last year’s $110.5 million auction record for a Jean-Michel Basquiat canvas, this spring season’s new records continue a rising (and hopefully permanent) trend in the art world that affirms the overdue cultural and historical value of works by artists of color.

On the sellers’ end, the Baltimore Museum of Art made waves when it announced it was auctioning some works by such modern art stars as Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Franz Kline, in order to create funds for purchasing works for the collection by women and artists of color. The Studio Museum of Harlem also sold works from its collection, but for the purpose of a new building project for its mission to collect and promote the black culture and artists. Their sale raised $16.4 million, and in the process set a new record for artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby, when her Bush Babies sold for quadruple the high estimate, at $3.4 million.

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Kerry James Marshall’s Past Times on the auction block at Sotheby’s (photo from The New York Times).

Additional records were set for other African-American artists: Kerry James Marshall’s Past Times, a tableau of dark-skinned figures engaged in the leisure activities of the quintessential “American Dream,” sold for a staggering $21.1 million dollars to hip-hop and fashion mogul Sean “P. Diddy” Combs. This sale broke the previous auction record for a work by a living African-American artist, which had been set only a few months earlier at $12 million for Mark Bradford’s 2007 Helter Skelter I, purchased by Broad Museum in Los Angeles at Phillips’ March sale. Barkley L. Hendricks’s portrait Brenda P also brought a record for the recently deceased artist, selling at Sotheby’s for $2.175 million. Other works by artists of color in Sotheby’s sale performed very well, exceeding their high estimates, including Julie Mehretu’s Conjured Parts (Dresden), which sold over double its estimate, for $3.4 million; Mark Bradford’s Speak, Birdman, which sold for $6.8 million, also double its high estimate; and Glenn Ligon’s Stranger #86, which exceeded its high estimate to reach $2.3 million.

Mark Bradford’s massive Helter Skelter I held the auction record for a work by a living African-American artist ($12 million) until Sotheby’s sale of Kerry James Marshall’s Past Times in May.

There’s no doubt that the art market is still largely shaped by the trophy-seeking collectors of the usual blue chip household names. But let’s hope these new curatorial initiatives and collecting trends continue to grow and support a diverse and inclusive narrative of modern and contemporary art.

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