Visual Art 11-14-2005

Art Fundraisers: Bravo Photo Bravo

One in a short series, this piece visits Photo Bravo at the Minnesota Center for Photography. Photo Bravo is an art auction that raises money for an arts organization; it serves as a sterling example of the category.

Slade and auctioneer
Bill, Vance
Copley et al

There’s a long tradition in Minnesota of art auctions benefiting arts organizations. The most recent was the 12th annual Photo Bravo auction and party that benefits the Minnesota Center for Photography. There have been others, too, all across the state.

Of these annual auctions, PhotoBravo is among the oldest. Vance Gellert was present at this years’ version; he was the founder of the event thirteen years ago (this year is the twelfth, because one year it didn’t happen. He doesn’t remember why). Gellert was director when the MCP started, as pARTs Gallery above Hagen Body Shop at 2800 Lyndale in Minneapolis.

The first incarnation of Photo Bravo (in 1992) was Photo Lotto, billed as “the democratic way to acquire fine art.” Works were donated by some of the best photographers in town. Still, the Lotto formula didn’t raise a lot of money; Gellert notes that one purpose for the event was publicity, and another was to have a really good party—community spirit, camaraderie, good art, and spreading the word about the space were just as important as raising money.

In its twelfth year now, most of the kinks seem to have been ironed out. The party and auction on Saturday, November 11, was jammed with board members, collectors, and photographers (who got free admission to the party if they contributed work—something that should always happen). The ticket price of $50 for nonmembers was steep, but, as contributing artists got in free, it seems a perfectly reasonable way to raise funds.

There were some 90 works on sale. About a half of those were put up in the live auction, with a very skilled photo auctioneer from New York cheering buyers along. The others were in the venerable and popular Photo Lotto—one could buy any number of $5 lotto tickets and tuck them into the boxes below the photos, and at the end of the evening one ticket was extracted and some lucky soul got a beautiful image for a five-spot.

Works went, generally, for fair market value or above, sometimes substantially above. There was a clear acknowledgement of the value of artistic work, and the Photo Lotto part of the evening meant that fewer noses were put out of joint from being pressed up against the glass wall of other peoples’ wealth. The atmosphere of the evening was one of celebration: of the work of the photographers; of the generosity of board members and contributors and volunteers and staff; of the taste and discrimination of collectors, who bid enthusiastically and often.

This is really a model to follow for arts organizations who are considering fundraising options.

Done by people with less experience and smarts, the art auction of donated works for a worthy cause can be dispiriting. Works often sell for less than market prices; artists sometimes don’t even get admission to the party where the works are sold and so do not meet the collectors who buy their work; not only do artists who often can ill afford it donate their work with no return, but the auction does their price history no favors. People who could afford to pay full freight get work for half price; artists are embarrassed when work sells for less than it should or, even worse, doesn’t sell at all. Artists who do attend often buy the work of their friends out of solidarity and loyalty, and the event doesn’t celebrate artists so much as it beats them up. Photo Bravo has successfully avoided all this.

The trouble is, it isn’t easy to eliminate the sorry outcomes outlined above: it depends upon getting a lot of things right in the organization, from a board with some means and the taste and wit to spend it on good local art, to a staff with the energy to organize, down to the smallest details, a complex event with a lot of fine points to it. The Photo Bravo auction was a great example of getting a lot of things thoughtfully right. It might take twelve years to duplicate its success.