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The Zaha Hadid-designed Serpentine Gallery
The Zaha Hadid-designed Serpentine Gallery

John Currin Richard Prince
John Currin, Edwardian, 2011; Richard Prince, Untitled, 2010; Damien Hirst, Beautiful Magnificent Everyone Loves a Good Romance Painting, 2007, all sold on June 30, 2011


July 8, 2011

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Art benefits are a fact of life in the nonprofit world. Artists are regularly asked to donate artworks to fund-raisers held by alternative spaces, artist-run projects and ordinary charities. This trend reached a sort of apogee last month in London, when the Serpentine Gallery teamed up with Sotheby’s London for a benefit art auction of 46 donated artworks, which sold during the auction firm’s contemporary art day sale on June 30, 2011. All but two of the lots found buyers, for a total of $7,313,991.

The top lot at the “Artists for Serpentine Sale” was John Currin’s Edwardian, 2011, which sold for $1.1 million; the number two lot was a Richard Prince collage on canvas, which brought $870,871. Other participating artists were John Baldessari, Matthew Barney, Gilbert & George, Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread and Gerhard Richter. “We are honored and deeply grateful,” said Serpentine Gallery director Julia Peyton-Jones and gallery co-director Hans Ulrich Obrist in a statement.

How did the Serpentine pull off this financial coup? “No one can say no to Hans Ulrich,” said one insider.

The auction benefits the new Serpentine Sackler Gallery in Kensington Gardens, not far from the existing Serpentine Gallery. Scheduled to open in 2012 during the London Olympic and Paralympic Games, the Serpentine Sackler is located in the 206-year-old neo-classical Magazine Building, which is being renovated by Zaha Hadid. The restoration and extension -- an adjoining pavilion of a starkly contrasting design featuring an asymmetrical, wavy roof -- provides nearly 900 square meters of space for galleries and a restaurant (approximately the size of the Serpentine’s existing footprint).

As one might expect from the new gallery’s name, lead funding has been provided by the Dr. Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation. The amount of the gift is being kept confidential, though the Serpentine says that the sum is the largest single gift it has received in its 40-year history.

Although the auction suggests, on the one hand, a too-cozy relationship between artists and a museum that promotes them, it also indicates that our most successful artists, millionaires all, are taking their place alongside more traditional philanthropists like the Sacklers.

Further details on the benefit auction at Sotheby’s -- how much of the proceeds go to the museum, and whether those funds are earmarked for planned new art commissions (an indoor light installation, an outdoor “playscape”) -- could not be immediately determined.

The question is, would this kind of museum-auction house synergy be accepted in New York? A similar event on this side of the Atlantic was the 2007 collaboration between the New Museum and Phillips, de Pury & Co., a benefit art auction that totaled $8.2 million; the sale was part of the museum’s capital campaign for its new building on the Bowery.

A contemporary candidate for such a benefit sale that comes immediately to mind is the Brooklyn Museum, which recently cancelled its showing of “Art in the Streets” due to what it said were financial difficulties. It’s easy to imagine, too, that artists could be convinced to participate if benefit proceeds went for new acquisitions.

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