Adam Price isn't afraid of change.
Price, who came to Omaha in February to lead the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, one of the city's most adventurous art organizations, has stirred things up since he arrived.
He's hired new staff and done away with a staid all-black dress code for employees. He's rethinking how best to let Omahans know what's happening inside Bemis' internationally recognized artist residency program. Most of all, he's rethought just about everything concerning the Bemis Art Auction, the organization's largest annual fundraiser.
He cut the number of artists to 200, down 60 percent from last year's 500. And there are just 15 items in the live auction, down from last year's 28. There's a new, upscale caterer, the Boiler Room Restaurant. There's an outside auctioneer from Christie's, the famed New York auction house, and an outside curator, Kansas City's Plug Projects. There's a new ticket price: $99, up from $25. This year's tickets come with a credit toward any art purchase made during the evening.
And here's another first for the Bemis: The auction is sold out.
“Art has value,” Price said. “This is a fundraising event to contribute to the function of Bemis, not a fire sale.”
This year, Bemis sold 303 tickets at $99 each; the rest of the 657 total tickets — more tickets than they've had for past auctions — were given to participating artists or as part of other giveaways.
This year, the auction doesn't fill all Bemis' galleries. Instead, Mel Ziegler's show, “An American Conversation,” will continue in Gallery 1. Price isn't taking down the exhibition because he wants auction patrons — some who just visit once a year during the event — to see what the Bemis does the rest of the year.
Art in the silent auction is installed across the hall from Ziegler's show and includes a wide array of media, including video, sculpture, painting and drawing. More silent auction pieces are installed in a new gallery space in the back of Bemis, an area that used to be devoted to the now defunct art sales program. Bemis knocked down dividing walls to create a more open gallery space, now called Gallery 4.
The live auction will take place in a large back gallery and will be open to everyone attending, not just to those with the higher-priced VIP ticket, as in years past. The VIP ticket option is gone. And for the first time, “experience packages” will be part of the live auction — another of Price's ideas.
The idea is to auction off whole art experiences. For instance, attendees can bid on a three-night trip to New York, stay in the home of a local collector, get a private tour of the Guggenheim and tour artist Betty Woodman's studio. Another three-night package in Chicago includes a private tour of the Smart Museum and a day touring the city with artist Theaster Gates, the artist behind the Carver Bank project in North Omaha. There's also an Omaha package that includes a tour of Bemis Board Member Todd Simon's art collection and a dinner for eight prepared by an executive chef from Omaha Steaks.
“Maybe everyone who wants to buy a work has already bought one at the auction,” Price said. “An experience might be more memorable.”
Other small changes include paper bidding sheets tacked to the wall instead of bidding through iPads, a shorter lead-in time for people to see the art that will be in the auction and no pre-parties or cocktail events before the big night.
Price said the auction had grown too large in the past few years and paring it down was one of his goals.
“There were more works than anyone could bid on,” he said. “I want to be careful about how we support the local community. We cut back, and hopefully that will encourage people to bid more.”
Omaha artist Mary Zicafoose, who has a piece in the silent auction this year and has been donating work to the Bemis auction for more than 10 years, said the changes were needed.
“The focus at last year's auction wasn't so much on the art, it was more on the gala,” she said. “When you have hundreds of pieces like you did, it's hard to focus on the art.”
She's also a fan of losing the pre-parties and other events before the night itself.
“They had siphoned off some of the esteem for the event with all the pre-parties,” she said. “You just want to be so pumped at the unveiling and to have the crowd run in and start bidding. That is the dream, I think.”
Larry Ferguson, another long-time Bemis auction donor who also has a piece in the silent auction this year, said he's not sure this year's auction will appeal to the long-time collectors. He was a fan of the pre-parties and tours of the auction before the event. Without them, he said, it might be harder to drum up interest in the works being auctioned off. He said he's also less excited about the smaller auction. And the Christie's auctioneer doesn't do much for him, either.
“I remember back when we had a cattle auctioneer do it,” he said, “and it was as big a hoot as anything else.”
Ferguson said his biggest worry is that the higher ticket price will dissuade artists and young people from attending.
Price thought of that, and to offset it, the Bemis gave many free tickets to artists as well as had other ticket giveaways.
The changes to the auction are all part of Price's larger plan to make the Bemis more welcoming. He's tackling the question every Bemis leader has faced: How to give the center the same reputation in Omaha it has outside the city?
“People around the world love the Bemis,” Price said, “but I don't know if we have that locally. I want Omaha to feel excited to live here because the Bemis is here. I want it to be an immense source of pride.”
The Bemis is different from most artist residency programs, Price said, because it has exhibition space. He wants to install shows and have events that bring the two parts of Bemis together. He wants more Omahans to recognize what happens on the upper floors, where the residents live and work. New events, such as the one image, one minute event that Price brought to Omaha earlier this month, encourages all sorts of people — Bemis residents, artists, educators, writers and others — to present a meaningful image and speak about it for fewer than 60 seconds. The photograph the presenters share cannot be one they took.
“I want to think about what participation is,” he said, “because people want to talk to each other, and know each other. And contemporary art can do that.”
Price hopes that the changes at Bemis make visitors realize that contemporary art isn't as difficult as its reputation might suggest.
“Why is the 'Mona Lisa' easier for us to understand than art that's being made in our day and age?” he asked.
The focus of the Bemis auction is narrow, Price said, and it's meant as a fundraiser. But what the Bemis does outside of the auction — exhibitions like the Ziegler show he's leaving installed during the event — cast a much wider net. One he hopes snags some people.
“If they see this show and it prompts curiosity,” he said, “I hope it helps them understand.”
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Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts 15th Annual Art Auction
Where: 724 S. 12th St.
When: 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday
Tickets: Sold out, but the auction is on display now until the event takes place. Each item can also be viewed online at bemiscenter.org.