Skip to main content

Interview with Bemis Curator about Annual Art Auction

An interview with Hesse McGraw, Bemis Curator
Three Brothers by John Westmark
Published on November 1, 2010

Share It!


The Bemis Center For Contemporary Arts will hold its 12th Annual Art Auction across two nights, beginning with the Underground Auction on November 4th and concluding with the Gala Auction on November 6th. This first ever two night auction will allow the Bemis to make use of its new Underground space and share even more of its art with the Omaha community.

We sat down with Bemis Curator Hesse McGraw (seen here being interviewed previously for the Hopey Changey Things exhibit) for a chat about auctions in the online age, how this year’s event is different, and how it all fits into the larger mission of the Bemis Center.

This is the first year the Bemis will be hosting auctions in two spaces, what is it like having the Underground space? What does it allow you to do?

Hesse McGraw: I think with the revitalized Underground this year, it made sense to expand the auction. Also, coming off of last years auction which, to that point had been our most successful auction we’d had in the past, we were looking for ways to expand the auction in terms of the number of pieces but also expand it in terms of the number of local artists. Last year we had right around a hundred local artists and this year with the Underground we’ve expanded that to be about a hundred and forty. The total works out to about 20% more, last year it was 340 and this year we’re at 400.  Those are just details, but conceptually it allowed us to expand the commitment to presenting local work alongside nationally and internationally renowned artists.

How is the opening process going?

HM: Thus far it’s been great. Every year we think of the auction as being, both the big gala event, but also a four week series of events that coincide with the exhibition. This year we had the large exhibition where both upstairs and downstairs are open, every Thursday we’ve had tours through the galleries with 5 or 6 artists each time. It’s sort of amazing, these tours are pretty in-depth and they go into a lot of the subtleties and nuance that the artists are dealing with in their work, but then afterwards you realize that after an hour, hour and a half conversation that you’ve basically touched the surface of 2% of the work that’s in the auction. It’s a pretty amazing thing when you zoom out and think of the scale of this event, not only in terms of works but in terms of the issues, the subjects, the media, the kind of content that the artists are dealing with. It’s a pretty expansive exhibition.

Are these interested buyers that come to the tour?

HM:  It’s a range.  Art students, buyers, collectors, other artists.

That’s pretty cool that they get to go through it with the artists. Is that rare?

HM: It’s common, of course, to do an artists/curators tour, but I think the thing that makes this unique is obviously the scale of it. It’s extremely rare that you’d find 275 artists in it.

Who’s work are you most excited to have at this year’s auction?

Vera Mercer - Naked Dear HeadVera Mercer - Naked Dear HeadHM: It’s hard to say. To me it’s always exciting when it becomes an opportunity to look at the newest work that someone is creating. So the works I get really excited about are the ones that come straight from the studio. There are a number of cases where the works were made while the artists was in residence here.  For instance, Christina West and John Westmark’s pieces were made a couple months ago while they were in residence. Aaron Storck’s newest painting, which is a kind of follow up to his works that were in Hopey Changey Things. Keith Jacobshagen’s works which preview his upcoming exhibition here. Vera Mercer’s photographs sort of preview her upcoming exhibition.

The thing that’s exciting about those works is that you’re sort of getting a glimpse into a much larger practice for each of these artists, and the works represent both their practice but in a lot of ways, they also represent the relationship that these artists have with the organization. In terms of the residence, they made the works here, in terms of Vera and Keith they represent upcoming exhibitions. For Aaron, this is the newest painting after his recent exhibition here, and Aaron will also be a resident next year. In the sense that the auction is ultimately about supporting future projects, future artists in residence, it’s exciting when the actual works have a tie-in to both the past and present at the center.

What does it mean for the city of Omaha to host internationally recognized artists?

HM: That’s a great question. I think that question is at the core of the organization, why we exist, and why what we do in Omaha matters. The Bemis is one of the very few non-profits based in Omaha that has an international outreach, and it’s unique that that outreach is dedicated to supporting artists. I think that the way that the residency is structured and the way that the exhibition program is structured, we really try to give over the institution to the artists and give them complete freedom in the projects that they’re doing here, and I think the reasoning is that when you don’t place expectations on artists, they exceed what you could have anticipated.

In terms of the public life of the city, I always think that artists are the people that transform places, they’re the ones that transform their environment. They look at their environment in a completely novel way and they make a transformative impact on their surroundings. When you think about this building and where it sits in the urban fabric of Omaha and you think about all things that have emerged around the building in the last 12 years that we’ve been in this building and the last 25 since Bemis was in the previous building, it’s completely changed the urban fabric of the city, and that’s solely because of the energy that artists bring to this place. I think what bringing artists into the city does is it allows for a process of imagining what’s possible.  Without that, the city would never change.

In the online/eBay age, how important are live auctions for galleries? Does the Bemis have online auctions?

HM: It’s live online, so while the auctioneer is taking bids and running though that process it’s streaming live as well. So you can basically be a virtual bidder.

So it’s more bringing the two together?

HM: It’s a good question because the social atmosphere and the social aspect of the event is pretty critical. People want to go out and have a great time, see other people and dress up and have an experience. I think I can say of coming to the Bemis Center auction is unlike any other experience you’ll have in Omaha. You have a mix of everyone from students and artists to collectors, patrons, and city council people showing up, so it’s a huge mix. It’s important that it’s attached to a live public event. That’s the sort of social spirit of the place.

Along those lines, what kind of people patronize the auction? How can you encourage younger art buyers?

HM: I actually think that we get a really broad support base for the auction. There are people who have been buying since the beginning (this is the twelfth year) and they’re, in most cases, more established collectors, but I also think it’s quite common for people to come to the auction and buy the first work of art they’ve ever purchased. I think we want to be really clear about the fact that it’s an auction that can be for everyone.

Prices in the auction range from $50 to $50,000 and there are a hundred pieces who’s starting bids are under $300 and 250 pieces who’s starting bids are under $1000. It’s accessible, and I think the key idea is that we’ve structured it to be an artist friendly auction, so works are intentionally not sold at sort of bargain basement prices. If you’re looking for a deal, you can find that but, we’re also pretty intentional about protecting the artist’s market. In that respect, it’s supporting the Bemis Center, it’s supporting future projects, but it’s also supporting the market and the viability of producing work as a living, practicing artist. In the respect that 140 of the artists are local, I think that it’s a huge jolt of confidence to the possibility of a more robust local art market.

"Art is a market. In a market, money determines the value of an item based on quality and demand. Good art will always cost more." — Is this statement true?

HM:  Nonsense. This auction isn’t ultimately about the art market. It’s a fundraising auction, it’s very much attentive to what the market is doing but our intentions are completely different. Our intentions are to support artists. Whereas the market’s intentions are to build profit for collectors and dealers.

Do you find those are always in conflict?

HM: Sometime, not always.  I think that there is a curatorial, there’s a community development perspective, and foremost there’s a mission behind this auction.  Those aspects of the auctions are the things which keep it buoyant, they keep it lively and they keep it focused on something that’s bigger than profit making.  The market structures things in a way that is not always about the quality of the work.

Is that about building a market? A brand? Certain interests?

HM: The forces that are at work, it’s about what can be turned into a commodity and I think that often limits the freedom that artists have in this context. When we do an exhibition or when an artists comes to do a residency or when an artists does a community art project, the market for the work that they’re doing is never a question. There’s an important freedom in that. For artists to work in a free way in our culture, it’s good that there are structures outside of the market to support their activity.

What’s the mission for the auction?

HM: What our mission always is, to support exceptional talent. Which means to provide direct support to artists. We do that through providing time, space, financial support, curatorial support and in many cases, partner with them to catalyze their work in a way, through programs that engage the public. The programs and activities of the Bemis take many different forms but I think that’s always the core, how is this project supporting the artist that we’re working with? The basic idea is kind of like flipping the market analogy on it’s head and saying that artists are the customers.

The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts 12 Annual Art Auction kicks off this Thursday, November 4th with the Underground Auction from 7:00 - 9:00 pm. The Gala Auction will be held on Saturday, November 6th from 5:30 - 10:00pm. Visit the Bemis Center website for more information.

anybody huBrendan Wirth is a musician and sound designer. Listen to his music at or follow him at @makeballet.

We want your writing

A Place in Omaha

Recent comments

More by anybody hu

Popular Content