The Back Room: The Donation Detour


This week in the Back Room: the backlash against charity auctions, Kyiv’s art scene stands strong, a major Picasso makes its auction debut, and much moreall in a 6-minute read (1,809 words).


Top of the Market

Bye-Bye, Benefit Auctions?

Installation view of "Sprüth Magers x Artadia: An Exhibition to Benefit the Next Generation of Artists," at Sprüth Magers New York, April 4–22, 2023. Pictured: Pamela Rosenkranz, I Wish I Could Cry Blood (Stare Circle) (2021). Photo by Genevieve Hanson, courtesy of Sprüth Magers.

Installation view of “Sprüth Magers x Artadia: An Exhibition to Benefit the Next Generation of Artists,” at Sprüth Magers New York, April 4–22, 2023. Pictured: Pamela Rosenkranz, I Wish I Could Cry Blood (Stare Circle) (2021). Photo by Genevieve Hanson, courtesy of Sprüth Magers.

Tim here. In the art world of 2023, charity auctions have become almost inescapable. Whether in person or online, these events have raised millions of dollars for dozens of good causes inside and outside the art world. They’ve also helped several in-demand artists achieve record prices, bolstering the case for benefit auctions as a win-win for the industry. 

And yet, over the past few years, the hidden flaws of the format have started nudging some galleries and nonprofit organizations to pivot in one of two directions: away from using major auctioneers as charitable middlemen, and toward abandoning the benefit  in favor of the benefit .  

Why? That was the subject of this week’s Gray Market

Anchoring the analysis is a three-week group show at Sprüth Magers’s New York space benefiting the American nonprofit Artadia. Eight members of the gallery’s roster are participating, ranging from canonical veterans Barbara Kruger and Louise Lawler to fast-rising ultra-contemporary artists Lucy Dodd and Pamela Rosenkranz.  

Although Artadia never requested a specific share of sales proceeds, Sprüth Magers pledged its entire percentage and gave each participating artist the autonomy to donate as much or as little of their cut as they chose. Of the 12 works in the show (priced from $7,500 to $100,000), five had been placed by Wednesday, with 100 percent of proceeds from those transactions going to Artadia. 

But the key to the charity exhibition is that the nonprofit organization on the receiving end isn’t the only one that benefits… 


The Pros of the Benefit Exhibition

  • Galleries know the artists and their dedicated collectors best, increasing the odds of placing works with good stewards at fair prices—and ensuring that the studios know where to send loan requests for institutional shows or check facts for a catalog raisonné when the time comes. 
  • Artists may offer higher-caliber works for gallery exhibitions than auctions. They understand that holistic curation elevates every individual piece in a group exhibition. Plus, there’s strong appeal in being able to collaborate on the install and commune with peers, collectors, and viewers for weeks after the opening.
  • Exhibitions have long lives and many dimensions of success. A gallery show can “start conversations that can last longer than the duration of the show and bear more fruit than a simple transaction,” said Monika Sprüth. “It goes back to supporting a community. This model allows for ideas and relationships to develop.” 

And then there are the downsides avoided by ignoring gavel-based giving… 

The Cons of the Benefit Auction

  • The makeup of any bidding pool is an X factor. The transactional frenzy of live charity auctions can attract flippers shut out of the primary market, and it can also leave even well-intentioned buyers with works they’re only lukewarm about once the night is through. Neither outcome is great for the artists or their dealers.Meanwhile, the impersonality of e-commerce and the longer duration of online auctions (which typically last at least a week) can tamp down the competitiveness among an exclusively remote pool of bidders. This can create a worst-of-both-words situation: modest prices mediocre placements. 
  • Buyers are often stuck with added costs. Even when selling works to benefit a nonprofit, auctioneers don’t always waive the buyer’s premium. Passing this sizable expenses onto potential donors doesn’t necessarily sit well with every charitable organization—or every potential donor.  
  • Most artists hate the scrutiny brought by auction results. In many cases, prices brought under the hammer are still publicly available, even if the proceeds go to charity. Auction-performance anxiety—as well as the post-sale pressure brought by an extreme result, good or bad—can be enough to dissuade plenty of artists and their dealers from participating at all.  

Who Else Is Experimenting With Charitable Alternatives?

Hauser and Wirth, whose ongoing series of benefit projects, dubbed Art for Better, has zagged from the standard benefit auction in two major ways over the past few years.  

In October 2020, the mega-gallery raised $8.2 million for 16 nonprofits through a benefit exhibition of 100 works, some of which were exhibited at its two New York locations for multiple weeks. Hauser and Wirth donated all fees and commissions from the exhibition, while also allowing artists to choose what percentage (if any) of their share to pass along to the beneficiary organizations. 

In December 2022, the gallery raised almost another $4.6 million for the United Nations Refugee Agency through an online benefit auction facilitated entirely in house—the first time a dealer had ever opted out of using a third-party auctioneer for such an event, according to gallery president Marc Payot. The move enabled Hauser to nix the buyer’s premium and funnel all proceeds to charity. 


The Bottom Line

The ultimate question about these alternatives to traditionally structured benefit auctions is how much uptake they’ll ultimately get among other dealers, artists, and charitable organizations.  

It sounds to me like the momentum is gathering. Philomene Magers said that her gallery would definitely consider returning to the benefit exhibition model with the right partner—and would encourage other dealersto do the same. Carolyn Ramo, the executive director of Artadia, said that several other nonprofits have asked for details on how to put together their own in-gallery initiative. 

The surge in interest doesn’t make the standard fundraising structure evil, or even necessarily so flawed that it should be avoided. But it does imply that galleries and nonprofits focused on long-term value have their eyes, ears, and minds open wider to experimentation on this front than ever before. 


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Paint Drippings

The latest Wet Paint tracks rumors of Joe Bradley‘s defection to David Zwirner and Anish Kapoor‘s unorthodox compensation for the so-called “Mini-Bean.”

Here’s what else made a mark around the industry since last Friday morning…


Art Fairs

  • The 27th edition of Miart attracted art world hordes and slow but steady sales. Though the parties were pared back, international exhibitors increased by 40 percent from last year, and the fair’s Decades section—dedicated to reevaluating 20th century artists—excited visitors. (Artnet News)
  • This summer, Korean art dealer Rok Hee Hwang will stage Korean Art London, a new boutique fair featuring work by 30 contemporary Korean artists at Mall Galleries in Trafalgar Square. (Artnet News
  • 170 exhibitors from 36 countries flocked to Expo Chicago last week, where reported sales ranged from a $75,000 Gio Swaby textile at Claire Oliver Gallery to a sold-out booth of works by Lauren dela Roche ($5,000 to $12,000 each) at Horton Presents. (Artnet News


Auction Houses

  • Sotheby’s and Christie’s will both anchor their New York contemporary evening sales in May with works by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Sotheby’s will offer the disc-shaped  (1985), estimated “in excess of $30 million,” while Christie’s hopes to bring $45 million for  (1983), from the collection of Valentino Garavani. ()
  • French auction house Artcurial announced the acquisition of Swiss auction house Beurret Bailly Widmer Auktionen, which has locations in Basel, Zurich, and St. Gallen. The new company will be known as Artcurial Beurret Bailly Widmer. () 
  • Sotheby’s will offer the blue-chip NFT collection of failed crypto hedge fund Three Arrows Capital via a series of sales beginning during its May auction cycle and continuing through the rest of 2023. (Artnet News)



  • This May, Gagosian will open its first solo show of new paintings by Harold Ancart since the artist’s surprise departure from David Zwirner last year. () 
  • Goodman Gallery added Chinese documentary filmmaker Wang Bing to its roster. ()  
  • Off Paradise (NYC) now reps painter Maximilian Schubert and has extended his current solo show at the gallery through May 27. (Wet Paint



  • Youn Bum-mo stepped down from his post as director of South Korea’s Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art halfway through his second three-year term, after a recent audit of the museum revealed 16 instances of illegal or unfair business practice. ()
  • Jay Xu, the longtime director and CEO of the San Francisco-based Asian Art Museum, will leave his post in 2025. Xu was the first Chinese American to serve as a director at a major U.S. art museum when he began in 2008. () 
  • Michelle Cotton has been tapped as the next director of the Kunsthalle Wien, effective summer 2024. Formerly the program director at Luxembourg’s MUDAM, Cotton will take over her new post from curatorial collective WHW (What, How & for Whom), which had filled the role since 2019. ()


Tech and Legal News

  • Swiss customs authorities reversed course on a proposed requirement for museums to display all artwork they have imported tax-free. (Artnet News
  • Hong Kong’s arts council pulled HKD 1 million (about $127,000) in funding from two projects, stating suspicions that they violated the city’s national security law. ()
  • France’s State Council rejected an appeal to censor a hotly debated painting by Swiss artist Miriam Cahn depicting sexual war crimes committed in Ukraine. (Artnet News


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“With the constant shelling throughout the winter, we decided to postpone our reopening plans… Now, as the situation has stabilized, we feel it is the right time to reopen… to support the Ukrainian art scene during challenging times.” 

Max and Julia Voloshyn, cofounders of Kyiv’s Voloshyn Gallery, on their decision to resume programming at their space in Ukraine’s capital as of last Friday, April 14. The gallery had been converted to a bomb shelter and haven for local artists and arts workers since the Russian invasion began in early 2022. (Artnet News


Work of the Week

Pablo Picasso’s

Pablo Picasso, Nature morte à la fenêtre, painted on January 18, 1932. Courtesy of Christie's.

Pablo Picasso, Nature morte à la fenêtre, (1932). Courtesy of Christie’s.


Date:          1932


Estimate:    $40 million


Seller:         Private collection


Selling at:   Christie’s (NY) 20th Century Evening Sale


Sale date:   May 11, 2023


This never-before-auctioned portrait of Picasso’s lover Marie-Thérèse Walter will lead Christie’s 20th Century evening sale in New York next month. The large-scale painting, which does not carry a guarantee, is one of multiple works by the artist set to go under the hammer this season to coincide with the 50th anniversary of his death. But the year of its creation may be the bigger deal. 

The year 1932 was widely recognized as a pivotal one in Picasso’s career. He created more than 100 important works during those 12 months, including various portraits of the then-22-year-old Walter, his secret lover during his marriage to ballerina Olga Khokhlova

Several of those 1932 paintings have commanded gaudy prices during recent May auctions in New York. Picasso’s  went for more than $106 million after fees at a Christie’s sale in 2010.  brought more than $103 million at Christie’s in spring of 2021. And last May,  from the collection of hedge fund titan Steven A. Cohen, raked in $67.5 million at Sotheby’s. 

Christie’s is hoping  continues the trend. Publicly exhibited only twice, the work was originally among the 10,000 pieces inherited by the artist’s granddaughter Marina Picasso. It was later acquired by the late Swiss dealer Jan Krugier, who advised Marina until his death in 2008. The painting then went to Krugier’s descendants, who are now bringing it to market.


Thanks for joining us in the Back Room. See you next Friday.


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