Jerry Toner has been an auctioneer for nearly 30 years, and come Feb. 17 he’ll have presided over his 11th straight benefit auction for the Missoula Art Museum. But this year, Toner, who is already booked every Saturday a year in advance, is adding a new date to his MAM schedule: two days prior to the gala event, on Thursday, Feb. 15, the veteran master of ceremonies is expected to help a crowd of curious newbies and tentative greenhorns dip their toes in the art-buying waters at Artini:Auction.
“Whether it’s an event that hopes to make $10,000 or $1.2 million—and I’ve worked both on back-to-back nights—I’m still calling it the same way,” Toner says in a recent phone interview from his Seattle office. He then adds, somewhat disappointingly, that his “call” will not include the stereotypical rapid patter of commercial cattle auctioneers.
“No, no,” he says. “I can do that, but it doesn’t really help. I actually slow it down.”
And there begins the education. For a rookie-geared inaugural event like Artini:Auction—billed as a casual, cocktail-infused primer on all things related to art collecting, local benefaction and the placing of winning bids—Toner is playing the role of guru. He’ll lead a moderately priced 10-item auction (bids start between $75 and $150), chair a panel discussion comprising Average Joe art collectors explaining how they broke into the often financially daunting hobby, and, perhaps most importantly, begin by introducing any novice wannabe bidders to auction etiquette.
“Do your homework, as in know the art and know your budget,” Toner says, offering some of his most basic advice. “And when you see an item you like and you’re interested, it’s as easy as raising your bid card. If I don’t see you, a spotter will and he’ll yell out, like, ‘Here!’, so I know.” Toner waits a beat before realizing how he may want to address his new audience, and adds a bit for clarity: “Other than me, a spotter is the only one who should be yelling out during the auction. That probably goes without saying, but…”
Part of what’s precipitated the demand for Artini:Auction as an event distinct from MAM’s 35th annual gala auction—the museum’s only fundraiser of the year—is the runaway success of MAM’s monthly Artini parties. Since introducing the themed gatherings in August 2005, each of which features live performances, free food and a cash bar, the museum has added 199 new annual memberships, a boost accounting for more than 25 percent of MAM’s overall membership base.
“The whole idea of Artini:Auction is the same as any Artini—to make art and the museum as easy and fun and accessible as possible,” says MAM Outreach and Membership Coordinator Nici Holt, who spearheaded the Artini idea. “There’s a minor intimidation factor that surrounds the thought of attending something called a ‘fine art auction,’ and the hope is that we’re moving past that.”
The 10 items up for bid at Artini:Auction are comparable to the 69 items in the gala event, but were set aside based on price (the artist, not MAM, determines the opening bid in both events) and diversity. Included is a digital print from Red Lodge’s Jean Albus, a collage by Billings’ Jane Waggoner Deschner, an acrylic painting by Stevensville’s Gigi Don Diego, a porcelain teapot from Helena’s Sarah Jaeger and a multimedia work by Missoula’s Courtney Blazon. There’s nothing stopping the bidding from skyrocketing, but the hope is that the lower starting prices will help entice first-timers.
“What people don’t always realize is that it’s often a really good place to find a good deal,” says Toner. “You can pick up pieces at a discount if you’re lucky.”
But Holt and MAM curator Stephen Glueckert both insist the event isn’t necessarily about making a smart business deal. Purchasing art doesn’t have to be an exact science, or require the cunning opportunism that Toner suggests.
“Trust your instincts,” Holt says. “A lot of times people put so much weight on the decision to buy art—they make it about legacy or worry about whether it’s a good investment or how it will appreciate. It’s okay to trust your gut reaction and purchase something simply because you like it.”
A perfect example occurred last year when a painting by Clay Mahn was juried into the gala auction. Mahn is a high-school student at Sentinel and doesn’t carry quite the name recognition of, say, big-ticket artists Rudy Autio or George Gogas (starting prices this year at $6,000 and $1,750, respectively). Nonetheless, Mahn’s abstract work went from a starting bid of $200 to a sale price of $1,150. His work this year, “Besa #6,” opens in the gala event at $250.
While Mahn’s sale is indicative of a bidder finding value in an unknown artist, William Volkesz’s “Canine Confab,” a MAM staff favorite, should test any bidder’s conviction that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. The Bozeman artist’s large-scale kitschy creation, inspired by his fascination with American popular culture, includes 39 dog tchotchkes attached to an acrylic painting of a rough collie. The bidding starts at $1,500.
“There are no right or wrong purchases,” says Toner. “What one person may eye as a masterpiece, another has already crossed off their list. But what makes it interesting, what gets the adrenaline going, is when a number of people are all aiming for the same piece. That’s when it gets really fun. That’s when people get a taste of a real auction.”
Artini:Auction is Thursday, Feb. 15, at Dauphine’s, 130 E. Broadway, beginning at 5:30 PM. Admission is $15/$10 in advance/$5 for MAM members. MAM’s gala auction is Saturday, Feb. 17, at the Hilton Garden Inn Conference Center, 3720 N. Reserve St., at 5 PM. Admission is $85/$80 in advance/$70 for members. All auction items are currently on display at the museum.