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Art News: How Online Art Auctions Have Become a Platform for Change

The world’s leading galleries are spearheading digital initiatives and embracing philanthropy as the natural way to operate in a world affected by COVID-19

Online art auctions may not be a new phenomenon, but their prominence has certainly been accelerated due to the recent worldwide lockdowns. “Quarantine has been a time of great reflection,” comments Michael Nevin, cofounder of New York City’s The Journal Gallery. That reflection has led to a reexamination of art’s ability to adapt and bring about change, with many galleries going digital to raise funds for healthcare charities.

Here, we take a look at some of the top institutions finding novel ways to bring art into people’s homes, benefiting both philanthropic causes and exhibiting artists in the process.

Multiple Personalities, a painting by George Condo will be available at Christie's online art auction
Artist George Condo once described his work as “psychological cubism”—especially fitting for this piece, Multiple Personalities (2020), which was created during self-isolation.

From the Studio with Christie’s

On July 10 Christie’s auction house will present From the Studio, an auction of around 20 artworks forming part of Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Art Day Sale. All proceeds from this event will benefit the amfAR Fund to Fight COVID-19. The auction brings together a selection of contemporary artworks donated by leading artists and sourced with the help of Nevin, and includes pieces such as Multiple Personalities by George Condo and Palm Grier by the Haas Brothers.

The key to art is to adapt to changing social and economic times. Change is the only way forward—Jay Rutland

“I’m humbled by the generosity of artists in their support of the amfAR fund,” he says. “Almost every artist contributing to From The Studio produced the work donated while in quarantine. My hope is that they not only go into great collections, while raising much-needed funds to develop an effective treatment for the coronavirus, but that we are able to view these works in the future and gain insight into what it meant to live during this time.”

Palm Grier (2018) a sculptural palm-tree shaped lamp by the Haas Brothers
Palm Grier (2018)—a sculptural, fiber-optically lit palm tree lamp, complete with illuminated beadwork date pods—is typical of The Haas Brothers’ playful approach and has been donated by the artists to the From the Studio auction.

Art for Better

Hauser & Wirth is among those striving to make a difference. As the world went into lockdown at the end of March, the high-profile gallery with spaces in Zurich, London, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Gstaad, and St. Moritz announced the creation of its #artforbetter initiative—a philanthropic endeavor set up to raise funds for the WHO COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund.

Since the inaugural #artforbetter exhibition of artworks by George Condo, the gallery has donated 10 percent of profits from a series of online showcases, including solo presentations of new works by artists including Rashid Johnson and Nicolas Party.

Anxious Red Drawings by artist Rashid Johnson
"This time feels simultaneously unsettling, urgent, and radical," says artist Rashid Johnson. His Untitled Anxious Red Drawings, 2020, (oil on cotton rag, 97.2 x 127 cm / 38 1/4 x 50 in) was made during lockdown.

“It’s clear that these critical times demand a charitable response,” says Hauser & Wirth cofounder Iwan Wirth. “We see ourselves as members of a worldwide community, and our support of the World Health Organization is a way to participate in an immediate humanitarian effort.”

The #artforbetter initiative is now central to Hauser & Wirth’s ongoing philanthropic framework as the gallery works with artists to launch limited-edition benefit works. Among those included so far is an Earth Day print by Jenny Holzer—of which the edition of 100 sold out in less than two hours—and most recently, a series of works by Annie Leibovitz.

A grid of nature photography taken by Annie Leibovitz
Comprised of a grid of photos taken while in quarantine, the proceeds of Annie Leibovitz’s Upstate, 2020, (edition of 100 +15 APs, 44.5 x 55.9 cm / 17 1/2 x 22 in, unframed) will be split equally between a number of charities.

Art for Heroes

In London, Maddox Gallery—which also has spaces in Los Angeles and Gstaad—has spent this time in lockdown raising funds for Heroes. This charitable organisation was set up by, and is in support of, the healthcare workers comprising the U.K.’s National Health Service. Thirty of Maddox Gallery’s artists have donated artworks to the gallery’s #ArtForHeroes campaign, with all proceeds from the sale of these artworks going to the cause.

“The inertia of lockdown has made our collector base feel even more acquisitive,” Jay Rutland, the creative director of Maddox Gallery, explains. “For Maddox, the positive impact of an online auction is a continuous commitment to our artists and collectors.”

It’s clear that these critical times demand a charitable response—Iwan Wirth

“The explosion of digital initiatives following the cancellation of fairs and the closure of auction houses and galleries has proved to be effective,” he says. “During lockdown, we have built two virtual showrooms that have received over 10,000 visitors exploring our artists’ work. We will certainly continue to embrace this technology. Without question, the key to the art market is to adapt to changing social and economic times. Change is the only way forward.”

Counting Blessings by Haris Nukem
Counting Blessings by Haris Nukem forms part of the artist’s 2019 exhibition Faith, which touches on the fragility of public services.

Art for Justice

“Art can be a vision for justice,” adds the vice president and partner of Galerie Lelong & Co in New York, Mary Sabbatino. “In this heightened moment when everything is being reexamined, we’ve been able to have open conversations about how we can take responsibility for change.”

While the gallery has long proven its commitment to philanthropy, for Galerie Lelong & Co, this time of adversity was the catalyst for its first online initiative, Red, an exhibition exploring interpretations of the color by artists including Etel Adnan, Rosemary Laing, and Yoko Ono. A portion of proceeds from this group exhibition went to Heart to Heart International, a humanitarian initiative that strengthens communities through improving health access.

Drapery and Wattle by Rosemary Laing
Drapery and Wattle (2017) by Australian artist Rosemary Laing was created through physical installation, and forms part of Galerie Lelong & Co’s first online initiative, Red.

“Those of us who are fortunate to be in a position to support organizations working for a better, more just world are obligated to do more than feels comfortable,” says Sabbatino. “I’ve been humbled by seeing the extraordinary generosity and collaboration of my colleagues at this time.”

Banner image: Technology and Old Masters combine at the Christie’s New York auction of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Salvator Mundi’. Getty Images