Concrete Contemporary Auction - Testing the Market for New Canadian Art

LEAH SANDALS CanadianArt. Published Thursday Mar. 08 2012. Waddington's, Toronto.

This week, one of Canada’s oldest auction houses, founded in 1850, is launching what it calls “the first truly contemporary auction of Canadian art ever held for commercial purposes.” On March 8, Waddington’s slick, new, poured-cement space on King Street East will host the debut gavelling of its latest venture, Concrete Contemporary Auctions and Projects.

Though there is much that is fresh about Concrete Contemporary Auctions and Projects—like its emphasis on post-1980 Canadian artworks, and its creation of an “acquisition fund” program that covers 50% of select public-institution purchases—it is also home to a familiar face on the national auction scene. Waddington’s created Concrete in partnership with Stephen Ranger, a former president of Ritchies who has more than 20 years’ experience in the Canadian auction business.

In this interview, Ranger (now president of Concrete and vice-president, business development at Waddington’s) talks with Leah Sandals about current challenges, past scandals, and trying to grow stronger markets for Canadian art.

Leah Sandals: With this auction, you’re trying to initiate a secondary market for contemporary Canadian art—something regarded by many Canadian arts professionals as nearly impossible, and something that seems particularly daunting given the economic slowdown of the past few years. Why is now the right time to try to develop this market?

Stephen Ranger: The short answer is that there’s never going to be a perfect time. And, although times are tough in a lot of places, the art business has, on many levels, been insulated from that.

As a longer answer, I’ve been thinking about doing this project for at least a couple of years, if not more.
Looking around the world, I saw thriving secondary markets for contemporary work—not just in major markets, like New York and London, which are the obvious ones, but in places like Chicago and Los Angeles, in Amsterdam, in Italy, in Australia, pretty much everywhere.
My longtime involvement in a number of charitable sales, like the Casey House Art with Heart Auction that I’ve been doing for 19 years, was really what tweaked my interest in contemporary work. It seemed to speak to people of my generation and younger.

I care about contemporary art. It’s work that speaks to me. So to be able to put together an auction like this is a real thrill and honour. Having seen so many people come through auction halls and previews through the years, I thought, Why aren’t we doing this here? There’s no good reason. Somebody just had to do it!

LS: On a slightly different timing issue, the Concrete auction is set for March 8, the same day as the opening of the 2012 Armory Show. As a result, most of the serious contemporary Canadian collectors will be in New York on the night of the auction. How are you dealing with that scheduling glitch? Why did it happen?

SR: That was an unfortunate coincidence. We picked our date way back it just was a date that worked for us here logistically.

Not all the action at auctions happens the night of. In fact, most of the work is done beforehand. That’s why we’ve had lots of preview time—at good auctions you generally have a pretty good idea what’s going to sell before the sale. And I think our community is small enough that we’ve managed to get the word out.

Also, there are some people who don’t like going to galleries, who are intimidated by galleries. Then there are some people who don’t like going to auctions, who are intimidated by auctions. We’re trying to get at least the former in here.

LS: What is the provenance of the works in this auction?

SR: It’s what I would call atypical. I really only sourced the work within the last six months. But I had been engaging in the conversation with artists, with dealers, with curators and with people in the community for a couple of years.
There are pieces from private collections. There are a couple of institutional pieces: the Ian Wallace from the Power Plant and the Garry Neill Kennedys from the Khyber. There are also pieces that came from gallerists and artists directly.

A number of these artists have never had their work sold at auction before they’re anxious to have the market expand. And we’ve been really well supported by the gallerist community. Some of them said, “I don’t think so.” And others said, “You bet! It needs to happen. We want to expand our market. We want to get our artists out there.” I applaud that. They want to see their artists expand into other areas, and having a piece sold at auction adds value to the work.

LS: There are a lot of great artists in this auction, I agree. But the Canadian artists with the biggest markets—people like Jeff Wall and David Altmejd—are not here. How can you say you’re doing an important auction of leading contemporary Canadian art and not have those big-market names?

SR: Well, this auction [like most other commercial art auctions] works on a consignment basis we simply weren’t consigned any of those materials. I will say that neither David’s nor Jeff’s work has ever been sold in Canada at auction. The market for them is international now, so that work doesn’t come to Canadian auctions. You could probably ask any of my competitors, and they would tell you the same thing.

LS: Speaking of competitors, you were involved with Ritchies at a time when it went bankrupt and failed to pay consignors. Following that debacle, some commentators called for more accountability, regulation and transparency in the Canadian auction business. What are you doing here to encourage that, or to learn from past difficulties?

SR: As far as accountability and transparency goes, the auction business is actually among the most transparent places in the art market, because things actually happen out in the open. When you see something sell on the auction floor, you know what it sells for. When something happens behind a gallery wall, you don’t always know what it sells for.

Of course, in any business, deals get made—sometimes quietly, sometimes publicly. Should there be more regulation in the auction business in terms of overall corporate governance? Yes. I think there should be. In any business, I think there should be good governance.
I actually feel very fortunate to work in this business. When I went out on my own after the Ritchies thing, I started a consultancy. I didn’t intend to, but work just came my way. And one of my biggest clients was Waddington’s—who had been my former competitor, of course. I’d had a very good dialogue with Duncan McLean, the Waddington’s president, over the years, so it just evolved that he wanted to make some changes in his business and asked me to help. I was already planning this project, and he wanted to partner. That’s how I ended up here.

LS: Any business venture, whether it’s a coffee shop or a furniture store or what have you, expects to take a certain period of time to become profitable. What’s your timeline in terms of evaluating Concrete’s viability?

SR: Well, you don’t go into any project saying you’re just going to do it once, and if it doesn’t work, then it’s over. We’re looking at this as a long-term project, at least three to five years.

And one of the reasons we’re calling it Concrete Contemporary Auctions and Projects is because the auction is just the first part. We want to be able to do exhibitions here, and curatorial talks. We’d like to be able to do things, for instance, like have exhibitions of artist-made jewellery, or of contemporary Chinese photography.
We’ve also established the Concrete Contemporary Acquisitions Fund as part of this because we feel it’s important that this work get into the public sphere. We have put our own money up to help that happen. There’s no other auction house in Canada, if not North America, that can say they’re actually putting their money where their mouth is. I think that’s important.

The thing is, I’ve said for years that we should be adding zeros to all our work, but we’re not. You can go along Queen Street West or Yorkville or really anywhere that contemporary art is sold and buy work by Canadian artists who have amazing public exhibition histories—who are collected by the National Gallery or the AGO or the Musée des beaux-arts de Montreal or the Vancouver Art Gallery—for under $10,000.

I think with this auction and other activities, we can help generate more interest for this work in the market. Our visibility will help generate interest, if nothing else.

LS: What public galleries applied to the acquisitions fund program?

SR: I can tell you who won: the Seneca College Art Collection. They put together a wonderful proposal, so they will be the beneficiaries of the fund. I can’t tell you what they’re bidding on, because that wouldn’t be fair. But we will make our formal announcement following the auction of what they’ve purchased.

LS: Artists in Canada are still waiting on resale right legislation. What’s your response to artists who are in this sale—not as consignors—and would like a cut of their sales from this show?

SR: Well, let’s put it this way: If the artist resale right is legislated, we’ll fully support it. If it’s just sort of talked about willy-nilly, then there’s nothing to support.
I know this sort of seems like I’m hedging the question, but I’m actually not. There are people at all different levels of the art community who are very much for and against [the resale right]. There are artists and dealers, curators at museums, and collectors who all think that we haven’t got there yet, that we haven’t figured out the best way to do it.
We actually do not have an official position on it beyond the fact that if it’s legislated, we’ll support it. But more than that, I would say that we would want to be part of the conversation. Because what if a work on the secondary market sells at a loss? Do you still pay the artist? Is the onus on the collector to not only have bought the piece in the primary market, but to put more money out when they’ve lost money on a sale? Not every artist’s career keeps going up and up, though it’s easy to focus on the ones that do.

So do I think artists deserve to share in their success with their collectors? Yes, I do. Have we found a way to do that properly? No, I don’t think we’re close. I think there’s a lot of noise being made and I think it’s a legitimate conversation we have to have.

LS: How about dealers who may be unhappy about auction of their artists’ work on the secondary market? I know that loss of dealer control can be a source of tension on the international level.

SR: We’re not there yet in Canada, because there really isn’t an established secondary market for contemporary work. Maybe in a year or two, I’ll be able to better answer that question.

LS: So what are you most excited about personally in this auction? And what artists do you have in your own collection?

SR: I’m excited about just about everything we have, actually. I think to have the Geoffrey Pugen in is amazing. Certainly to have a work by an artist the stature of the Ian Wallace in the sale is an honour. I love the Iverson self-portrait. I think it’s just a stunning painting. To have works by Kelly Mark and Micah Lexier—I think those artists are hugely undervalued and really important. I love having pieces by Tony Romano and Jay Isaac in the sale here, because as artists and as individuals I have such admiration for them. I thought Hunter & Cook was brilliant, and I was sorry to see it go. To have a Lynne Cohen is pretty spectacular as well, and a Ken Lum.

What do I have in my collection at home? Well, I’ve got such a mishmash. I don’t really collect. I would say I buy. Collectors tend to be more focused than I am. I have everything from Brian Kipping to Max Dean to Stephen Appleby-Barr to very traditional things. I was given some very good advice early in my career: buy the best you can afford and buy what you love. I don’t look on the art that I own personally as an investment.

The first Concrete Contemporary Art Auction takes place on the tonight (Thursday, March 8) at Waddington’s in Toronto.

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