Stop Shopping At Sotheby’s

by Whitney Kimball on March 23, 2012 · 12 comments Rise Up

Teamsters from the Professional Art Handlers Local 814 picketing outside Sotheby's Tuesday morning.

Things were looking dire on Tuesday morning at Sotheby's during the Chinese fine art auction. A battered troop of about thirty art handlers—accompanied again by the inflatable fat cat crushing a union worker—marched a long semi-circle inside the partitioned protest zone, chanting “No contract, no work, no peace.” The crowd was about half Sotheby's art handlers, and half members of other local unions. One elderly couple had come to support their son. This time, the whistles and vuvuzelas were gone, along with the force that drove the first protests eight months ago.

“People are falling behind on their mortgages, people who had kids in private school are taking them out, people's phones are getting cut off,” one union member told me. He explained that the art handlers have “bent over backwards to compromise,” abandoning almost all of their initial proposals, and are simply asking Sotheby's not to gut the union.

We've asked for some basic guarantees of the union's existence. Their current proposal is that every time a union worker retires or quits, they will be replaced with a non-union worker with low wages, no retirement, and no benefits.

According to a union member, teamsters consistently makes concessions in meetings, and Sotheby's reschedules them several weeks in the future, prolonging the length of time its union will go without pay. This behavior from the world's largest art business, which boasted record sales last year and record profits in 2010. He continued,

The clients…know us, and they miss us in there. They tell us they want us in there. But it seems to me that one or two people in this company are intent on making us suffer, and we can't understand why.

It's true that at least a few of Sotheby's clients have been publicly supportive. Back in October, for instance, philanthropist and longtime Sotheby's client Lily Safra sent sandwiches to protesters who rallied outside the home of a Sotheby's board member and collectors. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. even cancelled an event that he had planned at Sotheby's—which was especially noteworthy, considering his father's long and notorious battle with the Teamsters' Hoffa family. There has been support elsewhere, too, especially from Occupy Wall Street groups, which conducted mic checks in restauranteur and Sotheby's board member Danny Meyer's restaurants this week. It was clear on Tuesday, however, that the teamsters will need a swift and massive push from the public, and they will need it soon.

One can't help but look to recent protests that have gathered more steam, like SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act), which was defeated quickly by a loud and widespread public uproar over the internet. Though most people didn't know what SOPA was until January, new sources self-censored their websites in protest, people changed their Twitter pictures, started petitions, and blew up Facebook and Twitter. For most of us, that protest required about as much effort as a Facebook like.

This isn't just about the art handlers; the art world is marked by inequality at every turn. We see it in the legions of artists struggling to pay off student loan debt, who look enviously at the few of their classmates with successful gallery careers. We see it in the way galleries take brutal advantage of the willingness of graduates to work for years as unpaid interns. We see it in the behavior of museums who replace staff with volunteers, without thinking of dropping executive pay or acquisitions budgets. The collective bargaining of the art handlers' union is one of the few remaining guarantees of fairness in the art world, and Sotheby's is doing everything they can to eliminate it. That's a problem for all of us.


anon March 23, 2012 at 5:21 pm

The problem here is that the concept of “not shopping” at Sotheby’s as a suggestion was feeble from day one. We’re not talking about boycotting a company or entity that produces something like a widget that you can easily buy at a competitor across town for approximately the same price. If a rare or unique work comes up for sale (we’ll leave aside the issue of artworks made in multiples, but even then, this still applies to a certain degree), and it comes up at Sotheby’s, and it’s perhaps one’s only chance in the world in one’s lifetime to acquire that work, one has no option, and no one is going to ‘not shop’ at Sotheby’s in that event.It would have been far more effective from the beginning to suggest that no one CONSIGN works to Sotheby’s for sale. One could instead consign what they wish to sell at Christie’s or Phillip’s as an example, with no major difference (unless one is bidding the services of the houses against one another for a particularly special consignment). The only issue with that strategy is that each individual house can only accommodate so much work per sale or per season, and once the other houses are ‘full up’ – then you’re back to square one.But the idea of ‘not shopping’ makes no sense when we’re discussing one-of-a-kind works that one can’t get anywhere else in the world. You need another strategy….

Will Brand March 23, 2012 at 6:08 pm

Well, right. “Shopping” was mostly chosen because it alliterates. It wasn’t much of a suggestion.

Frankly, I don’t have anything concrete and immediate that makes sense for most of our audience. Yes, don’t consign work to them. Yes, don’t bid on works they offer. Yes, don’t go to their grad school. But other than that? I don’t know. I need help.

Like, what can we do?

Yell? They’ve demonstrated they won’t listen.

Disrupt auctions? That failed entirely during the Fall contemporary evening sale—I have a suspicion we only got some folks’ blood pumping, just in time to get psyched for bidding wars—and had questionable results when it was done during smaller day sales. 

Humanize the art handlers? Thirteen did a wonderful job of that ( ) and it had limited traction. Besides which, the rest of the staff at Sotheby’s have been working with these folks—in various capacities—for years; surely they know exactly who’s suffering, here. 

So what? I’m not trying to be defeatist, here; I honestly want a solution.

Get promises from the acquisitions committees of museums to not buy work from Sotheby’s during the lockout? That could work, though museums aren’t a huge share of the auction market. Then again, their board members are. 

Build a database of all work sold at Sotheby’s during the lockout, and insist on bringing that up whenever the work reappears on display? That’s a little long-term, considering most works are most immediately going into a private collection or gallery storage. 

Spam the hell out of Carol Vogel when she writes her usual triumphant auction results piece after the spring sales? I don’t know if she’d care enough to comment in what is usually an opinion-free section.

Show up to collectors’ funerals, identify yourself as being from Sotheby’s to whoever’s managing the estate, then clap when the coffin is lowered? That’d be pretty effective at costing them business, but it’d be off-message and way too dark.

I dunno. We’re still working on the solution we can all help with. Your suggestions are welcome.

Will Brand March 23, 2012 at 6:22 pm

Actually, towards that museums point, Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (of Queens) is both the Chair of the Cultural Affairs Committee and the son of two union members; maybe he can say something.

Anonymous March 24, 2012 at 1:55 pm

Point taken, though discussion of strategy is probably best left to the union. We’re more addressing the urgency of the problem and the issue of visibility. What we can do is keep talking about it, so that the name “Sotheby’s” becomes synonymous with “union-busting.”

Sterling Crispin March 24, 2012 at 6:20 pm

How about stop buying artifacts and support living artists directly?

The entire ecosystem of collectors coveting one of a kind artifacts, and artists producing these kinds of things is rotten to the core.

It reeks of materialism and has nothing to do with what art is actually about. These objects take the form of art, but they are not art. The art market is a market of art-like objects, not of art itself. Art is something beyond what the materials used seek to embody or communicate, and you can’t buy or own it.

If you’re a wealthy patron of the arts you should support living artists by paying them to make new work. Ween yourself from the teat of collecting rare objects, when you die nothing you own will follow you. The impact you can enable through supporting living working creatives has the potential to do incredible good in the world, where as shuffling ownership of art-like artifacts will do next to nothing.

If you must buy this kind of art, then buy it and donate it to public institutions under contract that it must always remain in the ownership of the public. Any of these things of real cultural wealth shouldn’t be locked up in a fridge somewhere, they should be available to the public.

anon March 25, 2012 at 10:47 am

In addition to my first anon commentary (and thank you for the response Will – it points up exactly the issue(s) I was trying to make/emphasize – that not ‘shopping’ at Sotheby’s isn’t exactly efficacious, and yet there really IS no precise helpful response – I think, in retrospect, it would have to be shareholder pressure – THAT would potentially do something meaningful) – I need to respond to the response from Sterling as well.

This is utter nonsense, the same kind of broadly meaningless generalizations and pap that are always tossed out over and over again.

“…The entire ecosystem of collectors coveting one of a kind artifacts, and artists producing these kinds of things is rotten to the core. How about stop buying artifacts and support living artists directly?…”SC what you’re saying is that the Art one makes should be supported during their life, but the minute they die, suddenly, it’s NOT worth support? In other words, there should be no collector’s support of history whatsoever? That’s just stupid. 

“It reeks of materialism and has nothing to do with what art is actually about. ”
It is no more or less materialistic to collect work that an artist makes while they’re alive or while they’re dead. Making art, and SELLING it – that’s materialistic. Look in the mirror. It’s amazing how only collectors are always ‘materialistic’ in the exchange.

“Art is something beyond what the materials used seek to embody or communicate, and you can’t buy or own it.”

Well, obviously, you’re completely wrong about that….

“If you’re a wealthy patron of the arts you should support living artists by paying them to make new work.”
Why should anyone who collects anything have to follow any arbitrary rules, let alone yours? People collect stuff for a huge range of reasons – financial, intellectual, spiritual, emotional, historical, societal, and tons of others – and usually collect for all those reasons at the same time.  There’s no ONE reason. I think PART of being a patron of the (visual) arts is collecting the work of living artists. But suggesting that the minute the artist dies the patron should suddenly lose interest and toss that artist on the garbage heap never to be collected again just because it fulfills some kind of bizarre righteous reason you elucidate is idiotic.
“Ween yourself from the teat of collecting rare objects, when you die nothing you own will follow you.” 

Oh geez, now you’re REALLY sounding dumb. So if an artist (living) makes very little work, don’t collect that artist either?!? So now, according to you, we should only collect LIVING artists who make a LOT of work, but the minute they die, STOP collecting that artist! SO many rules to follow!

“If you must buy this kind of art, then buy it and donate it to public institutions under contract that it must always remain in the ownership of the public. Any of these things of real cultural wealth shouldn’t be locked up in a fridge somewhere, they should be available to the public.”
More rules!  I love it when people try to tell/enforce how other people should live and what they should do. That’s always nice. Tell you what – skip the entire materialistic artworld and -1.) Create a lot of work while you’re alive (no rarity for collectors)2.) Do not sell any work at all (totally avoid the entire capitalistic society)3.) Upon your death, leave everything you’ve made to museums with the proviso that they can never sell it. And insist that your art MUST be on display at all times and available to your adoring public, and not locked up in a “fridge” somewhere

Sterling Crispin March 26, 2012 at 2:34 am

For an anonymous coward you sure have a lot to say.

I might take you more seriously if you had the dignity to attach your identity to these criticisms. You’ve taken my statement, overgeneralized it, and then criticized me for your own misunderstanding of what I said. Your attempt to misrepresent what I said only highlights your own foolishness and eagerness to be confrontational, its a cartoonishly juvenile criticism.

I did not say there is no place for collectors to support historical art whatsoever. My point was a shift toward supporting living artists would have greater impact, and has more real worth for yourself and society as a whole, than shuffling the ownership of artifacts. At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter who owns what artwork, especially if its in private storage. It may as well not exist if no one gets to see it. Whats more powerful, being able to say “I helped bring this into existence” or “I own this thing” or even “I owned this thing briefly, then sold it” what good does that do anyone?

I did not say collectors are solely responsible for the materialistic art market. Artists and the entire ecosystem surrounding it obviously have their part.I did not present my opinion as a set of rules, or demanded anyone to do as I say. I presented it as a question and then elaborated, the only one demanding anything is you.I did not say that if a living artist makes very little work, not to support that artist, you’re just putting words in my mouth at this point. 

I stand by this statement, which seems to be the fundamental gap in our disagreement

“Art is something beyond what the materials used seek to embody or communicate, and you can’t buy or own it.”

An artwork can take the form of a painting, but not all paintings are artworks. This is the “it” when people say “you dont get it”, and you sir, or madam, don’t get it.

If you look at a Rothko, or insert whomever artist, and all you can see is paint on a canvas, the thing itself, you’re missing the point. You can own the painting sure, you can own all of them if you have enough money, but its just a vehicle for art.

There are a lot of new questions to be asked, and owning the answers to old questions doesn’t really help anyone other than yourself.

Will Brand March 26, 2012 at 12:50 pm

Though I think the response you got went overboard, the guy’s basic point—rah I’m angry don’t tell me what to do—isn’t a bad one. Shaming people into being less dumb, as a working method, is getting harder. I think you’d be better off making a multi-pronged attack of self-interest.

For collectors, it’s in their own self-interest to ensure rare or unique works are on display as much as possible, because that’s how legends get made. Most works we think of when we think of art, and nearly all the works pictured in textbooks or journals, are on long-term display in public collections; and as the highly-publicized sale of Diana and Actaeon proved, it’s very possible to use private-owned public-display to attract ludicrous prices. Being free with image rights or attracting media attention (as with Charles Saatchi’s collection) works well too.

The bottom line is, the average work sold at auction—which surfaces every decade or so only to disappear back into another private collection—simply isn’t a part of the discourse around art, and isn’t involved in the conversation. If anyone’s going to write about it, it’s going to be a low-level auction house staffer with relatively little education, insight, or influence. If anyone’s going to praise it, it’s going to be someone working on commission. Nobody’s ever going to put it in a textbook, or reference it in another work, or use it for a visual gag on The Simpsons, however good it is, because nobody knows what it is. It’s entirely to the benefit of collectors to “free” their art by displaying it, and it’s also entirely within their power. 

There’s also the whole historical argument where you play your cards right, support emerging artists, and end up being as cool as Robert and Ethel Scull (who remain in Painters Painting despite being dead).  

On the other hand it’s also entirely to the benefit of many artists to avoid creating undue rarity; video artists, for instance, get more attention when they provide their work online for free, and plenty of artists have had success with multiples—which, it is too often forgotten, is one medium that allows the artist near-permanent control over prices. I have the cash on hand, right now, as a not very famous and not particularly successful art critic, to go buy a Joseph Beuys, because he made huge editions; that’s an easy way of fighting the market right there, and it can be used to an artist’s advantage.

I’m not trying to flesh these arguments out entirely (most or all of them have been made before), just to say that there’s an easier line of reasoning than the moral argument of “support living artists so they can make more ideas, because then you’ll be cool.” I think self-interest and legacy have broader appeal than moralism across class boundaries—the nouveau riche don’t feel noblesse oblige—and across cultural ones—Russian oligarchs have had few great public philanthropists to emulate. Just saying.

Maybe, towards both our points, it’s worth reflecting on the fact that I’m sure an auction house’s profit margins are far lower on multiples than on unique works, because the per-item costs (like cataloguing, storage, the labour involved in managing consignments and payment, and shipping) are pretty much set, regardless of the value of the work. I think if prominent artists starting making twenty or a hundred of everything, the auction houses would feel the pain over time. I mean, who’s getting rich off Fluxus? 

(BTW, our policy on anonymous commenters is that we don’t like them, but we tolerate them if they have an email that’s real and identifies them; we have an email for this guy, so he’s OK by us.)

Sterling Crispin March 26, 2012 at 5:45 pm

Who’s getting rich off Fluxus indeed! I think with netart there’s a push toward that style of working.

As a side thought, the level of detail in mechanical reproduction is going to reach a point in our lifetimes through nano engineering that the concept of unique discrete things is going to fade into the history books. Maybe the role of the auction house will become more important, but I doubt it.

Imagine the mp3 revolution happening to objects. 3d printers are just at their infancy and will exponentially grow in detail. People are already printing out driveable cars, clothes, and small planes.  And there are labs doing things at the nano scale like reproducing a formula 1 car smaller than a grain of sand. Imagine printing out a bottle of wine from the 1800’s molecule by molecule to exact detail, fuck sothebys.

Will Brand March 26, 2012 at 11:46 am

Yo this is mean and you should chill out. Sterling’s a guy who sells pizza shirts, and he’s not “enforcing” anything on anyone. He’s putting his idea out there and exhorting people to go along with it. That’s okay by me.

Davidlee March 26, 2012 at 4:13 pm

The problem is art sales at this level have nothing to do with making art or how we as artists or museums think about art. It is about the creation of currency. These works are bought and sold as investments. Places, objects to hold wealth. These arturrencies, can be traded across other forms of global currencies as easily as gold. Only they are more valuable.  We are talking about serious wealth, the protection and sustainablity of that wealth. So no these investors are not going to pass up an opportunity to buy a safe haven for their money. At best if you persuaded some buyer to stay out, you would only help those still buying. 

This is about classism. We have allowed all the gains of labor, working people to be eroded. We have been neglectful of our own self interests. Just look at the state of national politics. Just look at those supporting these anti labor ideas. 

A good place to start would be for art professionals to stop working for free, don’t volunteer or take an unpaid internships. I am sure Sotheby’s or the Met can get all the free labor they want. Until we all place a value on our labor and the labor of our fellow workers we are simply in a losing battle.

Don’t pay for people to look at your work. Don’t show your work anywhere (for profit galleries, museums, etc.) for free. Take that money and form artists collectives and show and use collective funds to promote yourselves. 

Simply don’t work for free. 

Art Handlers are trained skilled professionals and should be treated as such. 

Mike March 27, 2012 at 2:59 pm

I don’t remember who said it but “I’m beginning to feel like the invisible hand is attached to an invisible proctologist.”

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