Black art stars go to auction

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on May 14, 2018.

Detail of Crosby’s Bush Babies, 2017. The work has an estimate of US$600,000 to US$800,000.

(From left) Tenenbaum, Golden and Carlotti.

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As college interns at CBS Records, Val Carlotti and Thelma Golden learnt how to make chart-topping music. Three decades later, they have teamed up to produce a hit art auction.

This week, Sotheby’s will auction 42 works to benefit the Studio Museum in Harlem, including coveted paintings by market stars Mark Bradford, Glenn Ligon  and Njideka Akunyili Crosby.

Carlotti, who joined the auction house from Goldman Sachs about a year ago, and Golden, the Studio Museum’s director since 2005, hosted a dinner and preview last Wednesday night. Among the guests: Frederick Terrell of Credit Suisse; Nicolas and Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn; Ron Mitchell, the founder of human resources tech start-up Virgil; Sotheby’s director Marsha Simms and museum board members Kathryn Chenault, Carol Sutton Lewis, Amelia Ogunlesi, Holly Peterson and Ann Tenenbaum.

Collectors across the US are keenly focused on inserting black artists into the canon following generations of neglect. The signs are everywhere: from the portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald to billionaire Steve Cohen’s gift of Chris Ofili’s Black Virgin Mary to the Museum of Modern Art and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s US$110 million auction record at Sotheby’s a year ago.

“We’re all having a moment,” said artist Xaviera Simmons, crediting the contributions of those preceding her, like Norman Lewis, Kerry James Marshall and Carrie Mae Weems.

The auction could bring in as much as US$10 million (RM39.5 million) if the works hit Sotheby’s estimates. The goal is to raise funds to renovate and expand the museum’s 125th Street home with a design by David Adjaye. Golden said the museum was 70% of the way to completing its US$175 million goal. This money will help create 82,000 sq ft of space that “will elevate our service to artists, audiences and our vibrant Harlem community”, she said.

The auction’s high calibre of work is a sign of the respect Golden has among the artists, who are donating their pieces.

“I feel like I’m doing it for family,” said artist Derrick Adams. “You do almost anything for Thelma.”

The evening sale of contemporary art on Wednesday will include Bradford’s 2018 Speak, Birdman, a 5ft (1.52m)-by-6ft kaleidoscopic map made with layers of paint and salvaged paper. It has an estimate of US$2 million to US$3 million. Another work is Ligon’s Stranger #86, an 8ft-by-6ft abstract painting made with oil stick and coal dust, estimated at US$1 million to US$1.5 million.

The day sale on Thursday will include more affordable works. Toyin Ojih Odutola’s ink and pencil drawing From a Place of Goodness, depicting a head of a black woman, is estimated at US$10,000 to US$15,000. The artist, who was included in Studio Museum’s Fore exhibition in 2012 to 2013, recently had a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Carlotti and Golden may not have stayed in the music business, but they booked a great act for after-dinner: Jon Batiste, the band leader of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, wowed the crowd with his renditions of Thelonious Monk and Louis Armstrong. — Bloomberg