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Bemis' Annual Art Auction Inches Toward $500k in Sales

Three days of the Bemis Center's largest annual fundraiser
Bidding on a photograph by Vera Mercer
Published on November 13, 2010

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For the first time ever, the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts spread their largest annual fundraiser over three days, including a special Preview day, leading to a 17% increase in attendance from 2009. Below are impressions about the two nights that comprised the Bemis Center’s 12th Annual Art Auction: the Underground Auction and the Gala Auction.

Bemis Underground Auction

by Jared Spence

Revelers of art were welcomed by a red carpet on the evening of November 4th.

This year marked the first year an additional auction was held in the recently renovated Bemis Underground, a space dedicated to supporting community artists and providing them with unique professional opportunities.

It’s a great place for emerging artists,” Andrew Johnson, engineer and featured artist in the auction, said. “They’re very open and inviting to new artists, and I think that means a lot to the actual artists themselves.”

Inside the doors and down the set of stairs, the concrete floored and brick walled room was abuzz with endless chatter, music, and good times being had by all.

Everyone from students and professors to connoisseurs and admirers of art were present. Auction-goers could be spotted in frocks ranging from overalls and work-boots, jeans and tennis shoes to suits, ties, simple evening gowns and heels, showcasing the fact that art brings together all walks of life.

Self-described art enthusiast Amy Chittenden said she was surprised by the diverse crowd.

I think we, my husband and I, typically see the same people at a lot of the events we attend around town, but I see a lot of new faces tonight,” Chittenden said.

According to Rob Walters, an Art Instructor at Iowa Western Community College, the event did a great job opening the Underground as a more legitimate gallery.

I think the turnout speaks for itself,” Walters said. Generally speaking, he added, there is not a lot of traffic in the Underground due to the competition from the upstairs main gallery.

Jacob Thiele, one half of the DJ duo for the event, said he was surprised by the talent of the local artists and even found himself window shopping in the gallery.

I didn’t sign myself up to look at art, I came here as a DJ tonight,” Thiele said. “I didn’t really think about it, but when I saw the art, it blew me away!”

12th Annual Gala Auction

by Jordy Clements

The auctioneer announced the first item, repeated his call, and then looked around expectantly, waiting. Then, a gentleman in the first row let out a bellowing "Yea!" and the 12th Annual Bemis Gala Auction began with the kind of resounding confidence that eventually propelled it to over $270,100 in live sales.

Adhering to the most logical rule of major art purchasing—never bid sober—many had taken a libation to loosen their lips and their pocketbooks during the hours of silent auction that preceded the live bidding—I chose champagne. As the army of bubblewrap packers descended on the newly sold pieces from the silent bid, and the delicious hors d’oeuvres were similarly packed safely away, I sipped bubbly and toasted my own success: the excitement of my first live art auction.

The evening’s auctioneers, Omaha-based Proxibid, are actually known for the reverse, having made a name for themselves online auction bidding services. However, the November 6th Bemis event once again reminded what online marketplaces still lack:

The human element.

midway through the evening

…I watch as a wife cringes, her husband looking from the art on the video screen, to the auctioneer, and down, at himself, at the drive deep within to continue this. "Don’t," she says audibly. "Don’t," she wills.

The auctioneer looks out over the crowd, questioning, "7, give me 7-5? 7, give me 7-5?"

Assisted by three bright-eyed spotters, the auction team work the crowd en masse, scanning every gesture, calling out ever-inching bids to the live audience and the handful of online bidders.

The auctioneer peers at the gentleman who just seconds ago had agreed to pay as much as $6,500 for a Deborah Masuoka sculpture entitled Rabbit Head. "7, give me 7-5?"

The spotter closest to him, a tall blond woman, engages. "C’mon," she intones. Her hands clench as she pulls them in close to her body, eyes wide and hopeful. "Yes?" she mouths, oblivious to the man’s wife and her downcast gaze. "Yes?" she asks, stopping just short of saying "please?"

"7, give me 7-5?" the auctioneer delivers again, this time more forcefully, as he scans the audience. The crowd buzzes, focusing its attention on the two bidders that have now come to dominate the room. "Please give him 7-5," they pulse collectively, "Please…let this continue…"

The man shifts, and a simple hand raise wills the process on.

"Yea!" the blonde screams in excitement. "I have 7-5! 7-5 give me 8? 7-5 give me 8!" the auctioneer booms.

And the auction continues. The power balance has shifted. One ego has wrestled free, and another will is being tested, and will be tested, all the way up to the $14,000 sale price, the second highest of the evening (behind only the $20,000 paid for Betty Woodman’s Balustrade Relief Vase).

"$14,000. Sold!" The crowd erupts in cheer, partly in release, and partly in respect of what they just saw. The blond thanks the man for his successful bid, and she seems genuine.

As much as a love for art, it is the human connection inherent in auctioneering that presumably drives the dollar figures higher. And as the Bemis’ largest annual fund-raiser, there were dollar figures, including flat donations as large as $10,000.

Yet, as a sport, and as an evening, the Auction was not bathed in competition, but in love, love for art, and a passionate support for artists.

All this to say, it was a damn fine night, and I’m grateful to the over 250 artists and 50 volunteers who participated.

Throughout, I spied Hesse McGraw, curator of the Bemis, walking the floor, grinning like a Cheshire cat. It wasn’t dollar signs I saw in his eyes—despite the $464,330 raised in total from the 1002 people attending the Preview, Underground Auction, and Gala Auctions—it was something else. On this night of furious sales, Hesse, like many of us, glows with something you can’t buy at any price: deep satisfaction, grateful happiness, and an outbid of your own expectations.

JMSpenceJared M.Spence