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Buying Art Blind: A New Approach to Acquisition

By Ola Topczewska, Contributing Writer

When art collectors spend thousands of dollars on a new piece, they generally like to know what they are buying. This is not the case in the Institute of Contemporary Art’s (ICA) latest fundraiser “75 Artists for 75 Years,” a collection of works donated in honor of the museum’s 75th anniversary. Each is on display and available for purchase at a cost of $3,000—but only through a blind drawing. Purchasers won’t know which work they will be bringing home until the exhibit closes on November 7.

This unconventional fundraiser is only one part of the festivities organized by ICA to commemorate its 75th birthday. Other components include a multimedia mural piece on the Sandra and Gerald Fineberg Art Wall crafted by the artist Swoon; an upcoming nine-screen video series about China created by Isaac Julien; and a cross-disciplinary exhibition entitled “Dance/Draw.” These exhibits, coupled with the unique fundraiser, reflect the ICA’s commitment to being on the cutting edge of contemporary art.

From its beginning, the ICA has sought out unconventional and underappreciated works. It opened in 1936 under the name “The Boston Museum of Modern Art” and acted as an eccentric offshoot of the already well established Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1939, it exhibited the first survey of painter Paul Gauguin’s work; shortly afterwards, in 1941, it showed paintings by Frida Kahlo. By the time the museum had been renamed the Institute of Contemporary Art in 1948, it had become a recognizable institution in the art world. In 1951, it displayed work by a young Lucian Michael Freud, followed by a 1966 performance piece by Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground, entitled “Exploding Public Inevitable.” Other renowned artists whose works have made an appearance include Edvard Munch, Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Gehry, and Damien Ortega.

As a visitor assistant at the ICA for five years, Christina Tedesco has watched the museum undergo many changes. Most significant is the 2006 opening of the museum’s new waterfront building, designed by the award-winning architectural team Diller Scofidio + Renfro. The ICA’s sleek and spacious new waterfront home was conceived by the architects to integrate the museum with the outside world. A large mural space in the entryway is designed to be seen by paying visitors and the general public alike. ICA associate director of marketing, media relations and digital communications Colette Randall explains how the museum reflects changes in the art world itself. “Another development within contemporary art has been a move towards more labor-intensive modes of production, as well as a reconsideration of the traditional categories that have separated decorative art and craft from fine art,” she writes in an email. “We see this in the work of Charles LeDray and Josiah McElheny, both artists whose work has been presented at the ICA.”

Given the museum’s innovative past, it’s not surprising that the “75 for 75” benefit pushes the envelope of art sales. “It’s not common for a museum to have a [random] benefit drawing as an exhibit,” concedes Tedesco, “but since we’re a contemporary art institute, there’s a little more leeway.” The 75 works span a vast range of media: Julian Opie’s “Verity Walking” is an acrylic hologram that changes as you pass it by, Rodney McMillan’s contribution is a latex construction, and Carol Bove’s untitled sculpture consists of a walnut suspended by golden chains. One buyer will walk away with Jenny Holzer’s piece “Detainees,” which is made from a copy of a federal document on which all of the words have been blacked out except a chilling sentence about torture. “One of the unique aspects of contemporary art is that it places everyone—audiences, curators, and museum staff—in a shared conversation about new art and what it means,” writes Randall.

Like many visitors who stopped by the exhibit’s debut on a Thursday afternoon, Jude Gartland was unaware of the ongoing fundraiser. “It’s certainly an interesting concept,” says Gartland, adding that, while he was pleased with many of the pieces, he thinks buyers might be put off by the blind nature of the drawing. According to Gregory Lewis, associate professor of Economics at Harvard, “[Blind drawings are] an incredibly inefficient way to allocate resources.” He explains that they allocate the art to individuals based on chance, not who values it most. The fundraiser brings up the question of what art buyers value more, the artwork itself or the intangible benefits associated with owning a piece of ‘high art.’ “There are people who buy art because they love looking at it and want to own it,” writes Linda Poras, a professional art appraiser with years of experience, in an email, “and there are others who look at art as an investment.”

In the midst of an economic downturn, many museums have felt the effects of decreased consumer spending. The ICA reports it has maintained steady attendance numbers. Yet, Poras adds, “With more art museums than ever and non-profits competing for the same grant monies, it is more important than it has ever been to look to alternative revenue mechanisms.” Creative ideas like “75 for 75” may be what it takes for the ICA to remain at the forefront of the contemporary art world for another 75 years.

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