Gay Art Auctions: Does the label help or hurt an artist’s market?

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AS PART of a commemoration of Gay Pride Month and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, Swann Auction Galleries held its first ever Pride Sale on Thursday in New York.

The sale included a letter from Frederick the Great that sold for $281, a binder of 100 photos of “hunky bodybuilders” from the 1960s that sold for $1,875, and a photograph of the artist David Wojnarowicz by Peter Hujar that carried a high estimate of $25,000 and sold for $106,250, which is more than double Hujar’s previous auction record.

“We’re very delighted to have an event that gets more people through the doors,” says Nicholas Lowry, Swann’s president and principal auctioneer. “The auction market is not a big market, and if we can expose what we do to more people, that’s a win for us.”

Next is an auction at Sotheby’s New York called Bent (“because progress is never a straight line”) on June 27, which is “in recognition of what is believed to be the largest international LGBTQ pride celebration.”

That 117-lot sale includes an Andy Warhol silkscreen of a man’s groin, estimated from $90,000 to $120,000, Horace Bristol’s famous photograph of a naked marine manning a machine gun in World War II (estimate: $10,000 to $15,000,) and a painting by Martin Wong of a “Hispanic youth,” estimated from $5,000 to $7,000.

Following that is an online-only photo auction at Bonham’s titled Stonewall@50 that runs from June 27 to July 10 and contains over 130 lots, including work by Herb Ritts, Annie Leibovitz, and Nan Goldin.

There have always been LGBTQ artists, of course, and there has always been art that represented queer themes. But until now, major auction houses hadn’t grouped these works into a single category.

“Look at our top-performing artists — Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, David Hockney — so many of the moneymakers in [the contemporary art] department are queer artists,” says Harrison Tenzer, a contemporary art specialist at Sotheby’s who helped organized the Bent sale. “But so many of those artists were successful despite being gay.”

By putting gay artists’ work in a Gay Art category, auction houses are following in the industry’s well-worn tradition of grouping seemingly disparate artworks into fairly arbitrary categories in order to sell them. Sotheby’s forthcoming Ancient Sculpture and Works of Art sale in London, for instance, includes artifacts from around the world that were made thousands of years apart.

“I think the calculus is that it’s June [a historically slow month for auctions], and it’s Stonewall’s 50th anniversary, and auction houses will do anything to get material,” says Wendy Olsoff, the co-founder of the Chelsea gallery P.P.O.W., which helped build the careers of Wojnarowicz, Wong, and other cornerstones of the contemporary queer canon. “If it was Old Women Pride Month right now, they’d have that show instead.”

But the move is also in keeping with a programmatic approach that’s recently been embraced by galleries, curators, and museums — and deep-pocketed collectors — wherein the racial, sexual, and even geographic background of the artist is nearly as important as the art.

“A lot of institutions are trying to balance their collections now and try to be more inclusive to minority artists and artists from different cultures,” says dealer Keith de Lellis, whose gallery recently staged a show of work by George Platt Lynes, a photographer who chronicled New York’s gay avant-garde from the 1930s until his death in 1955.

“I don’t know whether some of these artists would appreciate being labeled ‘gay artists,’ but there are some artists that make art that is more in tune with gay culture, and there are others that make more general art.”

The question is whether this new method of categorization will help or hurt artists’ markets.

Warhol, Hockney, and Johns didn’t do much to hide their homosexuality, but their art was rarely, if ever, categorized by their sexual preference.

“It’s like, ‘What do you mean, ‘gay art,’ that doesn’t mean anything to me,” says Tom Gitterman, whose 57th Street gallery put on a major exhibition of the group known as PaJaMa, which chronicled a dreamy, queer utopia on Fire Island, N.Y., Provincetown, Mass., and Nantucket, Mass., from the late 1930s to the early 1950s. “It’s either good art or it’s not.”

(A group of 10 photographs by PaJaMa is included in the Sotheby’s sale, with an estimate of $15,000 to $25,000.)

Suddenly categorizing Andy Warhol as a “gay artist” might not put a dent in his multibillion-dollar market, but there are other, less famous artists for whom that designation could have more impact.

“The two best shows we’ve had in terms of selling were the PaJaMa show and the George Platt Lynes show,” says de Lellis. “A lot of the buyers were museums that wanted to broaden their collection to include artists that were gay.”

When he first started buying works by Platt Lynes, “Pictures were under a thousand dollars,” de Lellis says. “Now they’re $5,000 for a print, and some people say that even that price is low.”

Indeed, there seems to be a consensus that works by mainstream artists included in the auctions will remain totally unaffected; the same goes for artists whose work has always dealt with explicitly queer themes. “I don’t think the whole thing hurts David [Wojnarowicz]’s market,” says Olsoff. “The only way it could hurt is if the works do badly.”

Only the lesser-known artists in the auctions might benefit from the association. “I don’t think this sale is necessarily going to be a big market-breaker for anyone,” says Tenzer. “But it can increase visibility for someone like Luis Frangella, whose art is explicitly queer.”

Tenzer says that Sotheby’s LGBTQ-themed sale is something of a trial run. If it does well, it could serve as a template for more sales in the future. “To be quite honest, it’s sort of an exciting experiment,” he says. “Based on the results, it will point us in some different directions.”

Swann’s Lowry says that he’s already planning the next one. “This is not a one-off sale, where we hang a rainbow flag in the window like Adidas and McDonald’s and then go home,” he says. “We’re hoping this becomes a yearly event.” — Bloomberg