Culture  Bidding on contemporary art

Centre Clark holds its 25th annual art auction

Last Sunday, the Centre Clark held the 25th edition of its annual art auction, the longest-running of its kind in Montreal. The auction started out to promote local artists and raise funds for the non-profit Centre Clark, a collective of about 50 artists that provides both resources and display space. This year, Centre Clark’s art auction was held at the Galerie Diagonale, where private art collectors gathered once more to show their support for local contemporary art. The art pieces had been on exhibition at Centre Clark for two weeks prior to the auction, so the general public and potential bidders had the opportunity to get up close with these art works, and pick out their favourites in advance.

The auction proceeded soon after a short introduction by auctioneer François Marquis, and followed all the proper formal procedures (short intro to the artist, announcement of the opening bid, and the increment for higher bids, “going once, going twice, sold!”) although the atmosphere remained notably relaxed and casual. The proceedings were conducted entirely in French by Marquis, who kept the crowd laughing throughout the auction.

As the bidders had their own favourites locked down long before, the auction started out rather slow, with opening bids as low as $250, no initial bids for the first two works, and several pieces being taken home for under $1,000. As the event continued, the bidding soon turned competitive and there was a contained, but nonetheless budding, excitement from the audience. Soon, Marquis called out several bids that reached eyebrow-raising prices. The first piece up for a ferocious round of bidding was number 17, “Smoke” by artist Michel de Broin – with an opening bid of $700 that quickly rose to $1,700. Several other popular artworks included Valérie Blass’ Untitled, a stunning work that fetched a well-deserved $3,900 (opening bid: $2,000)! A watercolour on photography, Untitled was arguably the most eye-catching piece of this auction. It features a figure bent elegantly in a photographer’s pose, with one foot propped on a chair and the other raised by a stack of books.

There was also an interesting round of bidding for number 35, Petite Réflexion by Julie Ouellet, between two eager participants, made all the more dramatic given that one of them was a phone bidder. Yet, it was none other than Yann Porcreau, coincidentally the General Coordinator of this auction, who had one of the highest final bid for a single piece – bidding $3,300. It was the art piece that had the greatest difference between its final bid and opening bid, which was $1200. The bidders were an animated bunch who cheered openly and whispered to each other whenever a competition was heating up, then finally applauded when a rewardingly high bid was made.

There was no doubt that the bidder, the organizing committee, and the artists who were present had a fun afternoon at Centre Clark’s 25th annual art auction. The event was nonetheless rather small-scale, with an audience full of middle-aged, middle-class patrons, all private collectors rather than gallery owners. It is uplifting to note a strong sense of support from art lovers. And while there was no stopping members of the public from paying the $15 registration fee to join in the fun, the event’s organizers seemed more-or-less content with their limited scope and relatively homogeneous audience.

During the auction, one cannot help but look around the cozy room with art pieces placed side-by-side and wonder if there could be a larger turn-out, especially considering this is a contemporary art auction that has been running for 25 years. Then again, the audience for an art auction is a bit self-selecting in the first place. While Clark Centre’s lower starting bids mark this as more accessible than some of the flashier, high-society auctions that make the newspapers, there still isn’t much of a chance the average Montrealer would decide to spend their Saturday afternoon at an art auction the way that they might think to go see a movie, even if they were searching for something to adorn an empty wall. Seeing as the Centre is looking to raise funds, it may have been beneficial to make more of an effort to change this perception. Hopefully, better things are to come with the current renovation at Centre Clark, as new neighbours such as Optica, Dazibao, Circulaire, Diagonale, and Occurrence will soon share the gallery space with Centre Clark. Visitors can expect to encounter more beautiful contemporary art by local artists soon.