The Road to Hell is Paved with Theme Art Auctions

WAMC-LOGO”The Road to Hell is Paved with Theme Art Auctions” originally aired on WAMC in 2007.  Click on the WAMC logo to listen to the audio version of this article.


E. O. Schaub

Ah summer. Time for the return of so many familiar, warm-weather things: strawberry picking… outdoor concerts on a picnic blanket… farmer’s markets …and increasingly, the inevitable charity theme art auction, (cue the ominous music.)

Oh, it all started out innocently enough. Way back in the summer of 1999 the city of Chicago held the now-renowned public art exhibition “Cows on Parade,” featuring some 300 life-size artist-decorated fiberglass cows. (Little known fact— Cow Parade actually made it’s original debut in Zurich, Switzerland the year before, with an astonishing 800 of the beautified bovines.)

At that time it was a brand-new and rather innovative concept: pick a generic form, create multiples, have artists decorate each one differently, display them for a period, and then auction the pieces off for charity.

It caught on like wildfire, and not surprisingly. I mean, the whole thing sounds a Chamber of Commerce director’s dream. After all, we’re killing multiple birds with one stone, aren’t we? Between awareness of the arts, fund-raising for a good cause, and an event that the community can get behind while promoting the region to tourism as well… what’s not to like?

Not to mention the fact that, to the vast majority of non-art world initiates it is a rare invitation to enjoy modern-day art without reservation or suspicion: there is no catch. A painted fiberglass hippo is probably not going to turn out to be a statement about contemporary American society that is designed to make us feel crappy about ourselves, and it is equally unlikely to turn out to be a treatise on postmodern theory with references to Heidegger… it is simply a painted fiberglass hippo for us to enjoy guilt-free, because it is for charity after all.

So the idea caught on, and spread like summertime poison ivy. Here in Southwestern Vermont alone we’ve seen the Brandon pigs, birds, art palettes and rocking chairs, the Manchester horses, the Bennington moose (meese?), and the Rutland trains.

It’s hard to pin point the exact moment when a good idea goes bad. But somewhere along the way things began to get really weird.

Did I mention what Manchester has in the works for its next artistic theme? Hubcaps.

I’m sorry- what?

Coming soon to a community near you! Twenty-seven gorgeous boomerangs! Thirty-two differently decorated shovel handles! Get your red-hot rodents, while they last! Type “fiberglass animal art auction” into your favorite search engine and you’ll see that Vermont is by no means unusual. From the life-size sharks in San Jose to the “larger-than-life Loggerhead sea turtles” in Tampa Bay, we just can’t seem to get enough of theme-art weirdness.

Now, pardon me for noticing, but… doesn’t this begin to trivialize what it is that artists do? That is to say, are artists nothing more than decoration monkeys, draping ornament on any given object, regardless of meaning?

AND… don’t artists have enough trouble resisting the pressure to develop, brand, promote and stick with until their dying day a particular “style,” to the exclusion of (God forbid) trying something new? An unfortunate side effect of the “theme” art auction is that it thrives on and encourages “schick” to a shocking degree. (And speaking of schtick, the theme auction also has a nasty habit of reducing art to the one-liner. One wonders, will audiences ever tire of clever titles like “Cleo-CATra”?)

But, perhaps worst of all is the fact that the artists almost always do this (all together now!) for free.

It wasn’t always so. Artists working on the original Cow Parade made actual proposals which were then selected and commissioned by sponsoring businesses, as well as public entities like the Chicago Transit Authority. But somewhere along the way we’ve lost this salient portion of the formula, and if sponsoring businesses are involved in these smaller scale, hometown versions, they frequently are footing the bill solely for the fiberglass animal or other blank object… the artist is expected (oh surprise!) to chip in gratis.

Few people realize, I think, how very often artists are asked to do things for free. As in: constantly. And yes, it is flattering. And yes, the charities are inevitably wonderful, deserving causes.

But, at the end of the day, what do the artists exactly get for all their labor and creativity transforming this generic fiberglass giraffe/steamshovel/fire hydrant into a unique work of art? Ah yes, publicity. Well, ask any artist you know. That and a buck fifty will get you half a latte at Starbucks.

Now, at this point I have to fess up. Yes, I too fell sway to the siren song of the theme art auction. In fact, I myself was the instigator and all-out ringleader of a theme auction we held in my town for the benefit of the restoration of the local historic Town Hall just a few years back. The artists were, without exception, gracious and giving. It was their answering the call- once again- that carried the day and raised a few thousand dollars for this, as always, noble local cause.

How could this be, I wondered recently, that my position has changed so dramatically on this issue in so short a time? I believe the answer is simple: I was thinking with my fundraiser hat on, and from that vantage point, it made perfect sense. In fact, I think a failure of empathy with the artist’s viewpoint is so often at the root of the general disconnect between artist and public, and the source of a whole host of problems unique to the profession. As in: “But why does this cost so much?” (Oh, I don’t know, because I was hoping to pay my rent this month…) Or: “If you’re so good, why aren’t you:

(pick one)
a.)in New York?”
b.) in L.A.?”
c.)crazy/ alcoholic/ homeless?”
d.)dead yet?”

And of course my personal favorite: “Your artwork is so lovely. I’m going to bring all my friends and relatives back again and again so we can experience it, take up reams of your time, and never, ever buy anything!”

So perhaps the Frankenstein-like transformation of the theme art auction is simply another case of a fine idea becoming too popular for its practitioners’ own good. A return to a more public support of art? More art in the streets? Heck, more art, period? No one will deny that’s all a good thing. But we have to stop relying on the backs of artists to make it happen- charity or no. (Do you think the fiberglass people made the armadillos for free because it was for a really good cause?)

The lesson we can learn from this is an important one on both sides of the fence: Artists can be aware of what I’ll call Modern Art Fatigue: the palpable relief their audience clearly exhibits at being given permission to enjoy art for the sheer pleasure of it- no pedigree, irony or self-indictment required.

By the same token, the public can stop treating artists like the complimentary court jester, and instead begin respecting and supporting them for the cultural treasures that many of them truly are. (NEA, can you hear me?) ‘Cause you know who else is a really good cause? The artists themselves.

Sermon over. Time to pass the collection plate.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s