Arts center officials hope charity auction a sign of art’s for-profit potential in Lawrence

Art auctions in New York City and Europe bring in not only artists and curators but also financiers, hedge fund managers and investors of all sorts. Art is big business in many parts of the globe, with big money at stake and some even suggesting that there’s a bubble in the art market.

With art, as with so many things, Lawrence is a bit different.

Art auctions are rarities in Lawrence. By far the largest and most prominent is the Lawrence Arts Center’s annual benefit auction, and it’s an altogether different animal than the auctions of New York or Paris, not least because its goal is not profit, but to raise money for the nonprofit center’s exhibitions program.

Lawrence has no shortage of talented artists capable of selling their work. Yet very often they have to look elsewhere for markets because the buyers just aren’t here. Although it’s a charity event, officials at the arts center hope the auction’s strong performance the past few years is a sign that local demand for Lawrence art can one day meet the supply.

This year’s annual auction, the center’s 34th, brought in about 600 people to peruse and purchase art, said Susan Tate, CEO of the center. With sales, tickets and donations, the auction raised more than $180,000 for the center, beating a $120,000 goal. Artwork sold at an average of 102 percent of the retail price set by the artists.

Nearly 100 artists offered their work. Adding hype to the event were several works donated by the estate of William Burroughs, the Beat Generation-era writer and artist and long-time Lawrencian whose 100th birthday would have been Feb. 5th of this year.

Ben Ahlvers, an artist and director of exhibitions at the arts center, curates the auction. Ahlvers chooses among many possible artists and decides who to invite in a given year. About 80 to 90 percent of the artists say yes, Ahlvers said. Artists then choose the market prices of their work and occasionally request a percentage of the sale.

Not all pieces go for thousands of dollars. Ahlvers said he tries to choose a wide range of “price points,” to give as many people as possible a chance to participate.

Most of the works go into a silent auction, which begins about a month before the live auction event, on April 12 this year. Tate calls the live auction a “party” atmosphere that creates its own “alchemical reaction” between patrons and artists.

“It’s meant to be a great deal of fun,” Tate said. “Sometimes that’s a part of our calculation.”

Tate said she and her team “work very hard to make sure our auction doesn’t undercut the market for art in Lawrence.” They do that partly by ensuring works don’t sell 50 percent below the market price. Also, by switching to an invitation-only format four years ago, the center limits the number of artists who can participate, hopefully increasing the attention each one gets in the process.

In what Tate and Ahlvers describe as a “soft” market for art in the city, they have reason to be sensitive about undercutting artists. Tate said many artists make their home in Lawrence, but end up selling their art elsewhere. Artists can fetch more for their works in other cities with more buyers and more market infrastructure, such as for-profit galleries and auction houses like Christie’s in London and Sotheby’s in New York.

But Tate hopes that the center, the city and the Chamber of Commerce can work together to market Lawrence as a “destination point” for fine art. That’s one goal of the new arts district the center is trying to establish on 9th Street between Delaware and Massachusetts streets, dubbed the ArtPlace.

Tate and Ahlvers also hope the auction generates lasting interest in art, and, more to the point, in buying original art in Lawrence.

“People are very generous” at the auction, Tate said. “But we want them to think about buying art from artists every day.”