A gallerygoer in Dusseldorf or Paris is more likely to know about Jeff Wall and Michael Snow than a Canadian art stalwart like Tom Thomson. So why is it that on the Canadian art scene, dead guys still rule – especially at auction?
Not only are the top 10 prices to date for paintings by four dead white men (Thomson, Lawren Harris, Jean Paul Lemieux and Paul Kane) and one dead woman (Emily Carr), this particularity has emerged over the past 10 years just as the rest of the auction world has become more attuned to contemporary work.
Now, however, Concrete Contemporary Auctions and Projects is putting an unfiltered – and unabashedly commercial – spotlight on current Canadian artists. A partnership between long-running Waddington's and its recently appointed vice-president of business development, Stephen Ranger, Concrete is hosting its first live sale March 8 in Toronto, offering 70 lots to individuals and public institutions. None of that work, it proudly declares in a recent release, dates from before 1980.
Of course, Canadian auctioneers have sold art by living artists before. But until relatively recently, these sales were a hodgepodge: An auctioneer could find himself selling a quaint snow scene from 1932 by a long-deceased artist one minute, then hammering down a monochromatic abstract from 1983 by a still-living painter the next.
The situation changed in November, 2008, when Vancouver-based Heffel Fine Art split its live sale in two, first hosting bids for post-Second World War and contemporary art, then, after a break, selling the Harrises and Carrs that have long defined the secondary market. The country's other major art auction houses – Joyner Waddington's and Sotheby's – also have adopted the same-day/split-sale practice, although Heffel remains the only one of the three to publish two separate catalogues.
Explained Ranger in a recent interview: "I've thought for a long time that the contemporary market has been under-served by traditional auction models and that the work really wasn't being given its due. I don't think you can show Group of Seven panels beside Robert Houle's work or Micah Lexier's work or Kelly Mark's work. The people who buy them are different; the way they're discussed and viewed is different, and I think you have to respect that."
While novel for Canada, the selling of recent work by contemporary artists has been an American and European auction staple for quite a while. In fact, it's where the big money is: A $2.5-million (U.S.) bid at Christie's can get you a superior painting by an Old Master such as Rubens – but hanker after a naughty canvas by a hot fortysomething such as John Currin and get ready to spend upwards of $5-million. One collector did just that in 2008 for a 1999 Currin called Nice 'n Easy.
No living Canadian artist, not even Wall, can achieve anything close to that, at least not yet. The March lot expected to have the highest pre-sale estimate – $60,000-$80,000 – is a large untitled photo laminate with acrylic on canvas from 2010 by Vancouver's Ian Wallace. The artist is donating the piece as a fundraiser for The Power Plant, the country's most prestigious not-for-profit venue for cutting-edge art, which, in turn, has consigned it to Concrete.
Ranger, a former president and chief operating officer of Ritchies (before the auction house went into bankruptcy), acknowledges contemporary Canadian artists are relatively unrecognized by the public. Which explains, in part, another Concrete initiative: establishing an acquisition fund to help public institutions buy Concrete's wares. The auctioneer will fund 50 per cent of the purchase price of one work per auction, up to a maximum of $10,000. Galleries will have to submit proposals to an arms-length committee for approval.
April Britski, executive director of Canadian Artists' Representation (CARFAC), applauds this as a "nice incentive" to encourage "new investment in contemporary Canadian art." But what's in it for the artist beyond the possibility of some exposure? CARFAC recently has been pressing for an "artist resale right" that would see an artist (or estate) earn a 5 per cent royalty on the purchase price of his or her work sold at auction or by a commercial gallery in the secondary market. The Concrete acquisition fund may help an Art Gallery of Alberta, she observes, but "most artists involved [in contemporary art]are still living [yet]they won't see a cent from these sales."
As for Waddington's, it will continue to sell post-1945 works through its Joyner division, established in 2002. Joyner auctioneer Rob Cowley admitted he and Ranger occasionally will face a consignment that could go in either quiver. For the most part, though, Joyner will, as it does now, concentrate on modern art – works from the 1940s through the 1970s – rather than contemporary. "I don't think you're going to find there's going to be a huge change," Cowley said.