"I'm very excited and very nervous. The stakes are high tonight," whispers Wendy Watriss, artistic director and co-founder of Fotofest. She is peering into the ballroom as the guests of the Fine Print Auction are taking their seats, blowing air kisses and waving their paddles before the stage.
The auction that proceeded had the room on fire as aristocrat collectors and calculating curators waged war over 81 prize pieces. Once the ashes settled, almost $200,000 was tallied to fund FotoFest's artist-based programs and the classroom education program, Literacy Through Photography.
The bidders' agendas were as diverse as the represented artists. In the days preceding the auction, savvy collectors from Argentina, France and Iran poured into Houston to claim a seat. Auction chairs Blakely Bering and Austin James promoted the event as the premier venue to locate cutting-edge contemporary photographic art from around the world.
Dr. John Berry, whose work recently unveiled at ART BIKE, and wife Beverly were seeking to support former Glassel School Core Fellow, Charles Cohen. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston dispatched a contingency of bidders to secure new items for the permanent collection.
MFAH photography curatorial assistant Natalie Zelt explains, "Several works by artists featured in the museum's recent exhibition of contemporary Korean photography, Chaotic Harmony, are up for bid. Tonight gives the museum the opportunity to extend the glory of that temporary show."
Other art world notables included Sotheby's vice chairman Jamie Niven, as well as the auction house's legendary auctioneer Denise Bethel, who donated her sauve shot-calling to the event.
Thankfully, for some it was all about the aesthetics. Among art patron Slavka Glaser's purchased pieces was Moscow photographer Vadim Gushchin's Manuscripts #4 — a stark silver gelatin print of a white rolled paper against a black background. Gushed Glaser, "This is a classic abstract image from Russia's most important living photographer.Just the composition - it's so pristine! Gushchin is a modern-day Gerhard Richter."
Almost the entire show sold for more than the organizers' estimates. Alfredo Jaar's The Silence (For Seydou Keita) earned top place at $8,500. The artist proof, dedicated to the great Malian photographer, was taken in Zaire (now Congo) while Jaar was covering the Rwandan refugee experience. The title references the international community's unresponsiveness during that country's genocide.
Tied for second place were Japanese artist Eikoh Hosoe's Man and Woman #33 and South Korean Bae Bien-U's SNMIA-108h. The two pieces, whose monochromatic naturalism stood in sharp contrast to Jaar's vivid fuchsia and orange print, garnered $7,500 each.
The crowd's numbers (sale of tables were up 40 percent from the previous auction) thrilled Auction Chairs Bering and James. "There is so much excitement for photography right now," Bering says. "As we've watched the economy's downturn, we've witnessed photography doubling and quadrupling in price. Individuals and investors understand the medium's mounting value."
The FotoFest Fine Print Auction captured a critical moment in contemporary art in Houston and the world over.
Rather than cower before a crippling recession, collectors and curators have embraced a globally-consious realism — an aesthetic that is brash, honest and unwilling to make any compromises.