La Jolla art auction breaks Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego fundraising records


By Pat Sherman

The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) held its most successful biennial art auction to date — drawing 375 bidders and raising $900,000 in net proceeds for the institution’s programs and future art acquisitions.

The auction, held April 30 at the nonprofit organization’s Prospect Street museum in La Jolla, was also the most successful, single fundraising event in MCASD’s 73-year history, said its director, Hugh Davies.

“I’ve been on cloud nine since last Wednesday,” he said. “We knew we had a great success on our hands.”

The auction featured 100 works obtained via the museum’s relationships with artists and galleries around the world, including donations from La Jolla gallery owners Scott White, Joseph Bellows, Jose Tasende, Mark Quint and Ron Stevenson.

“We hope it’s a rising tide that lifts all ships — the galleries and the artist,” Davies said. “There was a time when we were afraid we were cutting into their market — that people would come and shop at our auction and then wouldn’t have money to spend at their galleries — but the evidence over the years is quite the opposite. It makes people go and visit those galleries. It really is a sort of high-card introduction to collecting.”

Davies said 12 items in the live auction grossed about $600,000, while 90 more moderately priced works in the silent auction brought in about $430,000.

“It really was a more democratic auction,” he said. “You didn’t have to be a significant collector.”

MCASD Chief Curator Kathryn Kanjo conducted this year’s auction.

“She did a fantastic job of securing works at a low price-point from important, emerging artists and significant established artists, so that there were many works in the $1,000 to $4,000 range,” Davies said. “It meant that younger people could afford to participate, and for the first time we saw a really significant representation of people in their 30s and 40s who were excited to be bidding and taking works home. … It really makes us a collecting community and gets people living with and thinking about art on a daily basis.”

Standout items and winning bids this year included: “Waiting for the Sibyl” by William Kentridge ($130,000); “Red Ready” by Ed Ruscha ($85,000); “Animal (Black) at Ocean: Tranquil” by John Baldessari ($85,000); and “Coil” by Liza Lou ($80,000).

Auction attendees included philanthropists Irwin and Joan Jacobs, Peter and Olivia Farrell, art collectors Matt and Iris Strauss, Blink 182 frontman Tom DeLonge and wife Jennifer, singer Sia (known for her recent hit “Titanium”), and Fred Savage of TV’s “The Wonder Years,” who bid by phone. (Mobile bidding was offered for the first time this year via an app accessible on bidders’ smartphones or tablets, allowing them to bid on silent auction items from around the world.)

MCASD members Terry Gulden and wife Renee Comeau of La Jolla placed a winning bid on a large ink drawing by contemporary artist Robert Therrien. A piece by abstract painter Jack Whitten that they purchased at a previous MCASD auction previously hangs in their living room.

“Hugh will never allow anything in the auction that they wouldn’t have in their collection — and that says a lot,” said Comeau. “A lot of museums will put anything up for auction that they can get their hands on.”

By arrangement with the contributing artist or gallery, any item not reaching its minimum bid suggested by the artist was retained by MCASD for its collection. “That gives the participants in the auction enormous confidence that all these works have been very carefully pre-screened by professional curators,” Davies said.

Building expansion plans

A separate, capital fundraising campaign will be employed for the planned expansion of MCASD’s La Jolla gallery space by New York architect Annabelle Selldorf — an exciting prospect, but one that Davies says still has some vetting.

“We’ll start testing the waters this summer with an outside campaign consultant doing a feasibility study,” he said. “There are a lot of important steps that we have to test in terms of the feasibility of being able to build what we want to build and then … to see whether our supporters and donors see this as a sufficiently compelling priority that they want to make happen.”