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Guests arrive for the North Dakota Museum of Art's annual Benefit Dinner and Silent Auction.  photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
Guests arrive for the North Dakota Museum of Art's annual Benefit Dinner and Silent Auction. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

A behind-the-scenes look at NDMOA’s annual Silent Art Auction

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In the instance of the 54 pieces of artwork auctioned off Feb. 1 at the North Dakota Museum of Art’s annual Benefit Dinner and Silent Auction, the pieces were passed from the artists to curator Matthew Wallace, to the buyers. And, for a few hours in between, volunteers of the museum held on to the art as they tried to get the highest bid for the sake of both the artists and the museum, which split the profits 50/50.

Although the passing of artwork may seem natural, it can be a difficult process for everyone involved. It involves risk, acceptance, caution and the willingness to let go.

Selection process

The selection of auction pieces started in late November and continued through the end of January, just days before bidding began. In most cases, Wallace visited the artists’ studios and hand selected the artwork.

“You have to hand select them to get pieces the audience will like,” he said, adding that with each piece he asked himself who will buy the piece and how will it fit into his or her current collection.

Some artists had a small collection for him to choose from, while others let him choose any piece from the studio. For veteran artists, like Dan Jones, of Fargo, the process is fairly routine.

Jones said he planned to have a drawing in the auction this year because his charcoal exhibition was a hit at the museum last year. Wallace selected a small drawing of hay bales along a shelterbelt drawn with conte crayon on a piece of handmade paper.

“I had a couple of things he could have taken, but he liked that one,” Jones said.

It may not have been the exact piece Jones had in mind, but Wallace eventually got what he wanted.

“It was tough negotiating with this guy, but he’s been doing this for years, so he kind of knows the drill,” Wallace said.

He added that whether it’s a new artist or someone who’s been a part of the auctions from the very beginning, the selection process can be a game of cards.

“An artist might think a certain piece will do better than another,” he said. “But, they look at it from the side of the creator, and I look at it from the side of the buyer.”

Wallace said he also runs into the problem of having limited art to choose from because the artist might have several exhibitions running the same time as the auction. This was the case for ceramic sculptor Shawn O’Connor, artist in residence at UND.

“I had just shipped off a bunch of work for exhibitions, so what I had on hand was fairly limited,” O’Connor said, adding that he deferred to Wallace for the auction selection because he’d never been to the event before and didn’t really know what to expect.

Wallace combined several of O’Connor’s pieces for a set of five, choosing four cups and a water pitcher.

The passing of pieces

Once the selection was made, the piece passed from artist to curator. For some artists, it can be difficult to let go of the art, especially if it’s not the piece they were expecting. Wallace said some artists develop an emotional attachment to their pieces, and others struggle to let go of the plans they had in mind for the piece to be shown in a different exhibition.

But, for Jones and O’Connor, the passing of pieces was more natural.

“My philosophy on my artwork is that they’re all like my children,” said Jones. “I want them to go out in the world and be successful, which means sold.”

Jones said he did take a bit of a risk entering his piece into the auction, in which every piece starts at $100. His pieces typically sell for $500 and more, so he said the price is something he always wonders about.

“It can be somewhat of a gamble for an artist who has higher priced artwork,” Wallace added.

Jones said he wouldn’t agree to a $100 minimum at any other auction, but this auction is different. “The North Dakota Museum of Art has done so much over the years to promote the regional artists, and Laurel (Reuter) just really takes care of us,” he added.

He also has a following of people in the area who collect his work, so he said he doesn’t worry about his pieces “selling on the cheap.”

 O’Connor, who moved to Grand Forks in August, might not have a regional following like Jones, but the passing of pieces is inevitable for him.

“My primary focus is to make utilitarian ceramics, things for everyday use,” he said. “I really feel like my work isn’t complete until it’s being used. My intention is always for them to live out their life in someone’s cupboard being used every day.”

Human easels

He and Jones may not have an attachment to their artwork, but Wallace said he became a bit attached to the art himself.

“It’s so fun being able to go and pick out the pieces,” he said. “You can’t help but have an attachment.”

Wallace said he had a couple of pieces in mind that he would have liked to buy, but his duties to the museum come before bidding. He left the auction empty-handed, but Wallace said the best part is being able to walk into someone’s home or a business a year or two later and see the artwork placed.

“It kind of completes the circle,” he said.

But, before that cycle can be complete, Wallace and many museum employees and volunteers must work hard throughout the night to make the event a success.

High school students, college students and other community members volunteer their time to be human easels, walking the artwork around the museum for people at each table to see the art and place their bids.

Second-time volunteer Siri Bergsgaard, a junior at Central High School, said there’s a lot of pressure to get a high bid and not drop the artwork.

“You kind of have to target certain people,” she said. “You can definitely tell who the big buyers are.”

Marcell Willis, a volunteer from the Grand Forks Air Force Base, agreed that there’s a lot of pressure on the human easels.

“(We’re) handling the artwork,” he said. “And it’s kind of the artist’s baby.”

The volunteers work for the museum and the artists to get the highest bid throughout the night, but when the time runs out, their duty is to the bidder. As soon as the clock hits zero, they have to draw a red line under the last bid to close the auction and secure the piece for the winning bidder.

An unforeseen connection

For Jones’ painting, the winning bidder was Laurens Robinson, of Fargo.

When Robinson and his wife, Stefanie Hanisch, were invited to the auction, they saw the collection online and were immediately drawn to Jones’ painting.

“That one caught both my eye and my wife’s,” Robinson said.

Oddly enough, Robinson and Hanisch have a connection to the artist. Their children attend the Dakota Montessori, where Jones’ wife, Julia Jones, is the directress.

“I’ve met Dan, and Julia has mentioned that he is an artist… but I hadn’t seen any of his work,” Robinson said.

They didn’t realize it was Jones’ art until they got to the auction Saturday night.

“When we’ve bought art, there’s always been a personal connection somehow with the artist, so that definitely influenced our decision,” he said.

But, that wasn’t all; Robinson had a personal connection to the subject, as well.

“I sell equipment that is used around the world to grind up these round hay bales,” he said. “So, it really does remind us of North Dakota, the work I do and the personal connection to the Montessori.”

He added, “We thought it was a very fitting piece and something we would always cherish for years down the road.”

Robinson and Hanisch are currently looking for the perfect place to hang the drawing. He said they will probably replace the frame with something darker and hang it somewhere in their house or his office.

A different purpose

Suezette Bieri, of Grand Forks, is looking for the perfect spot to display her new artwork as well. Bieri had the winning bid for O’Connor’s ceramic pottery.

She said she collects funky, unusual pottery, and she thought O’Connor’s was a really nice set. But Bieri doesn’t plan to use the pieces like O’Connor intended while creating them.

“When I buy ceramic pieces or pottery, they really, for the most part, are for display,” she said. “They’re functional art, but I tend to use them just to hand them around because they’re so beautiful to look at.”

It’s not the use O’Connor intended, but it’s no longer in his control. As artwork passes from hand to hand, the intentions, interpretations and connections often change. But, the story it holds only grows with each passing.

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Jasmine Maki is a features reporter for Accent. Her main beats are arts and entertainment and life and style. She also occasionally covers health, family and TV.
(701) 780-1122
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