Carol Fitzwilliam likes to call it "a cross-Canada adventure," a novel feat, for this country at least, of art-acquisition derring-do ending Tuesday in a Toronto auction house. It's the Femmarte Collection – 36 lots, mostly paintings, photographs and works on paper, consigned to Concrete Contemporary Auctions and Projects by the 36 women who have bankrolled the collection since Fitzwilliam, a Montreal lawyer, and Gerda Neubacher, an artist and former Toronto art dealer, started it in 2004.
No one's expecting to make a killing. The lots' total estimated value is between $102,000 and $135,000. Subtract the auctioneer's fees, the 20 per cent of net proceeds Femmarte intends to give to the artists , and the 36 investors will be lucky to pocket a couple of thousand dollars each.
But who knows? Femmarte's nothing if not unique. Between 2004 and 2009, its all-female membership, residing in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary and Ottawa, focused almost exclusively on buying work by rising Canadian female artists at "the lowest possible price." Today the collection includes pre-fame creations by such notables as Shary Boyle, Canada's representative at the 2013 Venice Biennale; Sarah Anne Johnson, winner of the first Grange Prize in photography in 2008; and Melanie Authier, runner-up in the 2007 RBC Canadian Painting Competition. Annie Pootoogook, winner of the 2006 Sobey Art Award, is represented by three pencil-and-ink drawings.
As an investment club, Femmarte always intended to sell its wares. But, Fitzwilliam said in an interview, "it wasn't the financial that drove anyone to invest in it. Every one of the members got involved because she was enthralled by the vision of enhancing the market value of emerging artists and giving a certain recognition to women artists in Canada." It was a risky leap of faith since contemporary Canadian art is a hard sell , particularly at auction.
Fitzwilliam hit upon the idea more than a decade ago while reading an article in L'acualité, the francophone equivalent of Maclean's, about Quebec sculptor Robert Poulin. In 1995 he'd persuaded 12 or 13 friends, most members of an amateur hockey squad, to each invest $2,000 to buy works by contemporary Quebecois artists. The article told how Poulin and pals invested that amount each year for several years, held on to the art for five years, then sold it.
"That L'acualité article sat on a corner of my desk for well over a year," Fitzwillliam recalled. I left it open at the article and I would say to myself: 'I want to do this – but I want to do it for women artists.'" Yet for all her organizational smarts, Fitzwilliam, a self-described "frustrated artist," lacked "the creative eye. I needed to find my holding soulmate to be the creative part."
Meeting Poulin, she quickly learned his group, called La Peau de l'Ours ("the skin of the bear") was "a copy cat" of an earlier investment club with the same name in Paris. It was started in 1904 by financier and gallerist André Level who persuaded 12 others to join him in contributing 212 francs each to a new investment fund. Its target was unusual for the time: modern art, in particular works by such then-rising or under-recognized, often scorned, artists as Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse and Gauguin, Edouard Vuillard, André Derain and Raoul Dufy. By the time La Peau de L'Ours was ready to go to auction, in March, 1914, the club had accumulated about 145 paintings and drawings. Some paintings reportedly sold for 10 times their original price.
Impressive, yes – but Fitzwilliam believes the return in actual francs likely was "modest." More important to her was "the fact that a prestigious collection had supported these emerging artists meant that the collection had a legacy of market impact far beyond its 10-year horizon. That's what I was thinking about with what became Femmarte."
Her vision started to become a reality when she connected with her "creative eye," Gerda Neubacher, in fall 2003. Two years earlier, the Austrian-born Neubacher had, with her son, Manny, opened an eponymous gallery in Yorkville dedicated to contemporary art. "We supported and tried to get young artists into our gallery," she recalled recently. "Maybe we'd have show every month and after a while I realized they were mostly guys. So I said, 'Manny, we have to get more women in and bring them into the mainstream.'" Visiting the International Women's Forum in Toronto in October, 2003, Neubacher met Fitzwilliam and, after a dinner at Gallery Neubacher, they hatched their plan to create an investment club focused on emerging female artists. Fitzwilliam would be president, Neubacher the curator in charge of scouting art in galleries, art fairs, exhibitions.
By fall 2004 the duo had enlisted 22 female friends and acquaintances, each of whom agreed to put $1,000 into an art-buying fund. The plan was to spend the next five years purchasing a "wide range of women's art," then auction the works after a five-year hold. A website would display the purchases and artist biographies and links forged with art professionals to "solicit introductions to deserving artists and advise on potential acquisitions."
Neubacher got the collection going by acquiring four works in 2004, the first being, intriguingly, High Arctic Mountain Range, a 1975 mixed-media work on paper by Kate Graham who, at the time of purchase, was 91. True to the club's ethos, Neubacher kept a close eye on the bottom line: The most she ever spent on a single work was $8,500 and this for a large, sexually charged canvas, Doctor, by Montreal painter Eliza Griffiths. Its estimate for Tuesday's auction is $9,000 to $12,000.
Members were allowed to display individual works in their respective offices or homes. Initially, an investor could hold a piece for six months before rotating it. But when "the transportation costs of moving art from city to city became prohibitive," it was agreed the works could stay put for a year, even several. Fitzwilliam, for one, displayed two Pootoogooks at her business as well as a mixed-media work, Eve's Pleasure, by Montrealer Stephanie Beliveau.
Unsurprisingly, some custodians have grown attached to their loans – so much so that Fitzwilliam is predicting a few will be bidding at next week's sale.