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On the face of it, tonight’s auction gala for the Washington Project for the Arts is like any other fundraiser that the organization has held over it’s 40+ years as an arts nonprofit. But this year’s WPA party has generated some heat in posts on the Dotted Line Project, a Facebook group devoted to D.C.-area artists. Some of its more than 1,600 members are debating—coolly and calmly, because this is the internet—the merits of a fundraiser exhibition that isn’t open to the public. City Paper spoke with Peter Nesbett, the director of the WPA to address some of the issues that always come up during auction season as well as the WPA’s relatively new partnership with Paddle8 to put the entire auction online.
This interview has been updated and edited for clarity.
City Paper: Some artists in the Facebook community are upset about a critical exchange you had with Barbara Januszkiewicz, an artist in the area. You said that she had an “ax to grind with me” and that “I didn’t really understand what she was up to in her work” in comments. Do you think you crossed a line?
Peter Nesbett: No, I don’t. There are a few reasons.
I don’t see why having an opinion about an artist’s work is a problem. I know most arts professionals would keep opinions or comments like that to themselves. That is their right. But I prefer more candor.
I shared a series of exchanges [Barbara] and I had. She was rather aggressive with me over the course of six months about doing a studio visit with her, and showing her work, and I was very frank with her that I didn’t understand how her work was anything but the aping of others’ work from decades ago, with irony or critical conceit, and so I wasn’t interested. She didn’t like that. Still I don’t want to set up up any false expectations—I want people to know where I stand so we don’t waste each other’s time.
The most outspoken people on the Dotted Line are people whom I have either declined studio visits with—I am not going to do them simply as a courtesy—or they are the spouse of a former employee who I let go. I think it is important that people recognize that the motive on there end stems from a place of personal disappointment.
Finally, have you noticed that nearly everyone who has been critical of the auction or WPA is older and white, and yet they claim to be speaking on behalf of the D.C. artist community? I actually don’t think they represent the D.C. artist community today. At least not the communities I have been most involved with or interested in. Those communities are much more diverse.
CP: How is the auction accessible to viewers as an exhibition?
Nesbett: It’s first and foremost a fundraising gala. Years ago, when it was out at Artisphere, it was open for five weeks. We didn’t have an exhibition space, we didn’t have regular ongoing programming in quite the same way, so we had to think about both as a public exhibition and as a fundraising benefit. Truth be told it was always a fundraising benefit first, and by presenting it in a hybrid way, it was trying to be responsive to two different needs. We’re in a different space now, both quite literally (brick and mortar) and we’re treating it as an auction-benefit exhibition. Most are on view for the evening of the auction gala and accessible to those who are coming to the event to support the organization. That’s pretty standard across the country. I think we’re taking a somewhat more conventional approach in that respect in treating it as an auction gala.
On the flip side of that, we’re working with Paddle8 for the second year in a row, which provides access to the work to anybody with access to the internet, which was never the case prior to that. Even though [in the past] it might have been open to the public for a longer period of time, the actual possible reach was narrower in some respects. Even back then, you still had to buy a ticket to bid on art. Now you don’t have to buy a ticket. You can bid on art from Los Angeles, you can bid on art from D.C. I can see that some people that are used to it being a certain way might see it as more exclusive. It’s actually opened it up to more people. The D.C. artists that are in the Paddle 8 sale—there are 174 pieces in the show—the idea, we hope, is that there’s greater exposure by being A) situated in the context of their peers from elsewhere, who have their own collector base, and by B) by being online and there being accessible to their work that way. That’s the thinking behind these decision that are making it look different.
CP: Tell me about WPA’s pricing philosophy for its auction. There’s a concern among some artists that contributing a work to an auction can affect an artist’s market price.
Nesbett: There’s a number of things at play here. Number one, and this is in some respects, the bigger issue, is the fact that most of these auction ask for 100 percent straight-out donation from these artists. That’s sort of the standard. But WPA, and Transformer, has never done that. At WPA, going all the back, almost, has never done that. It’s always been a 50 percent split. The organization is really not trying to take advantage of artists and ride on their backs in that regard. It’s acknowledging their labor and their contributions to the organization and being respectful of that.
The second thing, and it’s an age-old challenge of benefit auctions. Because they’re auctions, there is always the possibility that work will sell below the actual retail value. There’s a reserve price, and the work can sell above the reserve price but below the retail price. I’m actually quite sensitive to that. Last year, we implemented a buy-now function on Paddle 8 to try to up the overall average price of the lot sold. My goal is to get it at close to retail as possible. I’m aware that the nature of this kind of event can make that challenging.
Last year, we instituted the buy-now feature, and we instituted it at the retail price. The possible concern is that there might be a bidding war around a piece that goes way above that. My overall thinking is that people will get nervous about losing a piece, and buy it at the retail price, thus assuring that the piece sells at the retail price. What we say, as a result of [the buy-now function], was that many more pieces sold at the retail price than had ever previously been sold at the retail price before. Thus bringing the overall percentage of retail price up.
Let’s say that you and I both want a piece by Linn Meyers. So you and I go head to head on it. Bidding starts at $500, and the retail price is $1,000. We want it so badly that we bid it up to $2,000. So it sells way above the retail. That’s good for the artist, it’s good for us, that’s great. But the number of times that actually happens—and this isn’t just in D.C., but for all benefit auctions—is pretty rare. We did an analysis and figured that for the three or four times that might happen in an auction, sacrificing that and putting in a buy-now function, which would sell that same piece for $1,000, would sell more pieces at $1,000. The overall gross would be higher as a result of people being nervous that they’re going to lose a piece that might have sold for $800 and grabbing it for the retail price. In the aggregate, more money comes into the auction and for the artists, and more pieces sell at the retail price.
Galleries have historically had concern about these events competing with the market. That’s another thing. We all know that galleries sometimes, on some occasions, are fans and supportive of these events and on some occasions see them as competition and aren’t thrilled by it. I want to see [the auction] be non-competitive with them—as much as possible, I know it’s not entirely possible. I want to see George [Hemphill] and Mary [Early] over there at Hemphill Fine Arts psyched that it’s happening, and that it’s expanding the pie and creating a buzz and introducing new works to the community.
CP: What do you say to an artist who looks at the WPA auction as a show platform? Maybe one that they might list on a resume or promote as an exhibit to their circles?
Nesbett: That’s tricky. The auctions provide opportunities for exposure to people who may not go regularly to the galleries. People who attend definitely do pay attention to the artist community and follow their careers. But not everybody does, so it’s an opportunity to make introductions. At the same time, the degree of curatorial rigor can really vary, by the nature of each event and by curator. Again, one of my hopes for this year, and it’s only a step in the direction, to be honest, is to introduce as much curatorial rigor in each artist or curator’s selection—to to make it so that if an artist is truly going to be listing it on a resume, that it has a thoughtfulness of an exhibition and not of a tag sale.
The curators have been amazing. We do pay them, but they do this as a real favor to the organization, because they get it and they want to support the organization. We’re not paying everyone $5,000 or $10,000 to curate a show. It’s a funny thing when artists do that—artists these days are listing art fairs on their resumes, as if that was a curatorial show.
CP: I wonder if part of the impulse is that these auctions get a bigger profile relative to the regular programming. I’m not just speaking specifically to the WPA auction. The auctions are the biggest parties or events of the year.
Nesbett: Yeah, maybe. There’s collectors of the community or patrons of the arts, and they engage with us in all different ways. There’s some who come here and follow all of our programs, and there’s some that really only engage at the level of the auction every year. Yeah, maybe. There is a selection process. That implies that the work was selected. There’s a certain perhaps honor bestowed upon the inclusion of your work as opposed to other artists work. That’s a tricky thing, and that’s part of the reason we as a staff remained out of the selection process. We select the curators, and the curators select the work. There’s a very small selection from the board, that’s a tradition. Beyond that, because like any juried or selection process, there’s people who can be perceived as winners and people who can be perceived as losers. That gets funky for us.