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Everyone, it seems, “promotes artists.” Dealers promote artists. Collectors promote artists. Cool kids who stage house shows promote artists just as museums promote artists, if at a radically different scale.

Nonprofit art spaces also promote artists, but to do so, they ask for a subsidy from the artists themselves.

In recent years, the silent art auction has taken hold as a funding mechanism for a number of D.C. nonprofit art spaces—and as a source of some tension in the visual-art community. While artists and commercial dealers say they support D.C. nonprofits and their missions, there are costs associated with participating in the auctions, some of which have fallen on the galleries and artists donating the works.

Recently, a number of prominent dealers reached out to Transformerdirector Victoria Reis, some privately and some as a bloc, to convey that Transformer should approach their artists through their respective galleries. And not just Transformer: Leigh Conner of Conner Contemporary Art and George Hemphill of Hemphill Fine Arts delivered a similar message to the Washington Project for the Arts, according to WPA’s executive director, Lisa Gold.

When Reis heard during the summer that a number of galleries were outlining a policy for nonprofits seeking donations from artists they represent, Reis said she was obligated to plot a different course.

“Not having seen it, not really knowing what it meant, we wanted to get a head start and reach out to new artists,” says Reis, whose seventh annual silent auction and benefit party featured more artists then ever—and more artists from outside the usual cluster of white-cube D.C. gallery spaces.

Grumbling from artists and dealers about the demands placed on them in the name of charity is nothing new, especially in a bad economy. Neither is the notion that galleries would set terms for their artists. What is remarkable is that it’s taken so long for the D.C. gallery community to take note and organize.

Their current motivation may owe to the fact that D.C. art auctions aren’t exactly wanting for glitz, while weathering a recession is tough for any gallery. Transformer’s auction, which took place Nov. 13 at the Mexican Cultural Institute, was sponsored by Cartier. (Transformer auction chairs Mirella and Dani Levinas own Cartier boutiques in the area.) A who’s-who of collectors, critics, and curators turned out. Mexico’s ambassador to the U.S., Arturo Sarukhán, and his wife attended as diplomatic chairs.

You won’t see the Cartier logo in any commercial galleries. “It flip-flops here in town,” says Jayme McClellan, the director of Civilian Art Projects, “where the nonprofits have the huge budgets and the galleries really don’t.”

Transformer’s auction is something of a prom for the art scene, in part because Transformer makes a point of extending every artist a ticket, which go for $175 to $200. The Washington Project for the Arts sets aside gratis tickets, as well.

And for many D.C. artists, participating is a good opportunity. First off, the auctions are fun: Members of a small community get to dress up and party together. More importantly, in the build-up to the auction gala, the host nonprofits tap various curators and art-scene luminaries to nominate and select the artists who go on to contribute—a lengthy process that involves studio and gallery visits. Though established artists will report feeling squeezed by nonprofits looking for donations, younger ones can see the auctions as big group shows that fetch looks from collectors and curators who wouldn’t pay any notice otherwise.

“For the most part, people are thrilled to have Smithsonian curators looking at their work,” says Gold, referring to the Hirshhorn Museum’s Milena Kalinovska, one of the curators selecting work for the WPA auction in March 2011.

Whether an artist makes anything at an auction is up to the market. But artists and galleries are typically down several costs before the first round of hors d’œuvres is served. Packaging and shipping falls to whoever sends the work to the auction. Framing costs at least $100 for a piece that’s 11-by-17 inches in size, and very easily more.

For galleries, the opportunity cost of a lost inventory sale is big. Though the commercial gallery owners interviewed for this article were quick to stress that they support nonprofit art organizations in D.C.—as dealers, and also personally—one dealer who didn’t wish to be named noted that commercial galleries will give hundreds of thousands of dollars in the form of artworks to nonprofit organizations over the course of a couple of decades.

It’s easy to see how those numbers pile up. The WPA and Transformer host benefit auctions annually; the next WPA auction will be the organization’s 30th benefit. After auctions in 2006, 2008, and 2009, the Cultural Development Corporation abandoned the model for a black-tie gala, according to the company’s communications manager, Emma Fisher. Over the last 17 years, the Whitman-Walker Clinic has raised more than $1.1 million through art auctions. The clinic’s most recent Art for Life auction, held on Nov. 12, was a sold-out event featuring works by 110 artists—90 to 100 of them from the D.C. area.

The Whitman-Walker Clinic asks that 100 percent of the proceeds of the auction go to its HIV prevention program, according to Chip Lewis, the clinic’s deputy director of communications. For the other auctions, this number has been more flexible.

This year, gallery owners are standing up and saying “yes” to auctions—yes, with caveats.

“It became a little more synergistic this year. I think it’s a win-win for everyone,” says McClellan. In 2009, 15 works from Civilian’s inventory went to various auctions. This year so far, 12 works by 12 artists she represents have gone to auctions—with some new preconditions. Production costs will now come off the top of the sale. And it’ll be up to artists to decide what percentage of the sale will benefit the nonprofit in cases where the profits are split.

Gold said that the new arrangement strikes her as fair, at least insofar as it’s been outlined to her.
“I think [the galleries] want recognition. They represent artists and some of them feel they donate work on behalf of artists and they want to get a cut,” Gold says. “It’s a tough time for some galleries to offer inventory to nonprofits.”

One dealer working in tandem with several other D.C. galleries says it’s premature to discuss their negotiations vis-à-vis auction hosts, since they’re ongoing. The dealer said the outline will be clearer in the spring.

If so, it might represent the first step toward something else the D.C. art community lacks: A contemporary art-dealer alliance. Hemphill of Hemphill Fine Arts, Martin Irvine of Irvine Contemporary, and Greg Kearley of Project 4 discussed forming one in 2007, after the D.C. Art Fair. But according to Kearley, the plans were dropped when the fair failed to return the next year.

The benefits could be manifold. Take the Contemporary Art Dealers of Dallas, an organization that represents a handful of the most visible commercial galleries in that city. For a year, CADD even operated a collective Art Lab gallery, and while the economy scuttled that effort last September, it was a success insofar as it drew lots of interest from the community.

After all, if artists are willing to essentially pay nonprofits to show work in short-lived auctions that attract new and veteran collectors willing to pay for the opportunity to buy the work, isn’t that an underutilized niche in the market? Why shouldn’t the commercial galleries get in on it? No D.C. dealer operates two spaces, but perhaps, together, many of them could.

Photo by Darren Santos, courtesy of Transformer