The Back Room: Who Benefits, Exactly?

Every Friday, Midnight Publishing Group News Pro members get exclusive access to the Back Room, our lively recap funneling only the week’s must-know intel into a nimble read you’ll actually enjoy.

This week in the Back Room: the strange calculus of charity auctions, Adam Lindemann tries to make history (again), a Ugandan star on the rise, and much more—all in a 6-minute read (1,654 words).


Top of the Market

Goodwill Stunting

Auctioneer Simon de Pury conducts an auction on May 26, 2022 during the annual amfAR Cinema Against AIDS Cannes Gala at the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Cap d'Antibes. Photo: Patricia de Melo Moreira/AFP via Getty Images.

Auctioneer Simon de Pury conducts an auction on May 26, 2022, during the annual amfAR Cinema Against AIDS Cannes Gala at the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Cap d’Antibes. Photo by Patricia de Melo Moreira/AFP via Getty Images.

Are benefit sales a problem, a solution, or both? In last week’s Art Detective column, Katya Kazakina dived into the world of charitable auctions—specifically, their potential to be used as a vehicle for (ahem) market encouragement.

While raising funds for underfunded institutions and other causes they hold dear is a solid motivation for any artist to donate their work to a benefit sale, recent history suggests that appearing in such sales can also be a wise (and lucrative) move for their markets.

As a case in point, consider the most recent fundraising gala for the Norton Museum of Art in Palm Beach. The six-lot live sale raised more than $700,000 thanks to a roomful of museum trustees, connected donors, and other wealthy individuals battling it out for new works by buzzy artists with long wait lists at major galleries—all (allegedly) in the name of philanthropy.

The biggest-winning talents of the night included…

  • Marina Perez Simão, whose benefit piece brought $140,000 versus primary-market prices ranging from $35,000 to $250,000 at
  • George Rouy, whose contribution commanded $160,000 versus primary prices topping out at $100,000 at Almine Rech.

Notably, neither artist had previously appeared at auction, per the Midnight Publishing Group Price Database.

So, which parts of this construct get a little uncomfortable?

For starters, charity auctions can contribute to speculative bubbles forming. Katya cites the cautionary tale of Jacob Kassay, who saw one of his iridescent silver canvases sell for 12X its high estimate at a Kitchen benefit in New York during the Zombie Formalism boom. Soon after, he achieved a (for-profit) auction record of $317,000…  shortly before his auction market collapsed.

Still, the number of hot young artists persuaded to take the gamble would indicate the risk to reward ratio remains persuasive.

As Katya puts it, charity auctions create a “virtuous cycle—not dissimilar to the curse of BOGO (“Buy One, Gift One”)—where everyone seems to benefit, but which is based on the asymmetry of access and information. While galleries and artists don’t directly profit from these sales, many find ways to indirectly monetize them to build up publicity and justify steep primary market prices.”

It’s little wonder, then, that it is now common practice for some of today’s best-selling contemporary artists to regularly donate works to auction for charitable causes. As a case study, Katya pinpoints Rashid Johnson, whose top three auction prices to date were all achieved by such lots…


Rashid Johnson’s Benefit Sale Boom

  • May 2021: $1.95 million artist record set at Christie’s for Anxious Red Painting, sold to benefit the Community Organized Relief Effort.
  • November 2021: $2.55 million artist record for Bruise Painting “Or Down You Fall, sold to benefit climate-law initiative
  • November 2022: $3 million artist record (yes, again) for Surrender Painting “Sunshine,” sold to benefit the Right of Return Fellowship to support formerly incarcerated creatives.

Johnson’s primary prices have also lifted skyward the same timeline…

  • 2021: large “Bruise” paintings, shown at David Kordansky Gallery, were priced at $600,000 to $1.2 million each.
  • June 2022: large new paintings exhibited at Hauser and Wirth in Menorca were offered at $975,000 to $1.75 million


The Inflection Point

Once upon a time, artist-donated works were kept to dedicated charity sales and benefit galas. But lots to raise philanthropic funds have been appearing in major auction houses’ main evening sales with increasing frequency in the past 10 years, further blurring the lines between a good cause and cold commerce.

The inflection point arrived in May 2013, when Sotheby’s contemporary evening and day sales in New York included 25 works sold to benefit the Whitney Museum’s campaign for a new building. Leading the charge was a new Jasper Johns painting that went for $2.85 million, helping to push total sales for the grouping to $19.1 million, more than 150 percent of its $12 million high estimate.

The tide has risen considerably since then, elevating right along with the larger growth in demand for works by living artists at auction. And yet, in some ways, we still have no more resolution than we did a decade ago.

The haziness extends to auction data itself. Benefit works offered in for-profit auctions are recorded alongside typical commercial results in the Midnight Publishing Group Price; works donated to live and silent auctions conducted by nonprofits are not.

Also in question is whether money spent on benefit sales qualifies as tax deductible. Several attorneys disagree on the merits. Meanwhile, auction houses tend to defer the judgment to the charities themselves.

All of which means that the parameters, ethics, and market machinations of charity auctions remain murky even as the competition, prices, and stakes increase.


The Bottom Line

It is no doubt generosity and passion for the cause that drives many artists to donate their beloved works to benefit auctions. But if the cards are played just right, those same artists could also reap the significant rewards of new visibility among a high net worth crowd, a new benchmark for secondary sales, and new justification for higher primary-market prices.

Maybe there really is no such thing as a selfless act in the art market…




Paint Drippings

The latest Wet Paint track Kanye West’s surprise appearance at a Frieze Los Angeles party, and argues that the city of Angels has reversed its opinion on infamous flipper Stefan Simchowitz

Here’s what else made a mark around the industry since last Friday morning…


Art Fairs

  • Check back later today for our Frieze Los Angeles opening-day sales report.
  • Zona Maco opened its 19th edition in Mexico City last week, and sales rolled in steadily with an emphasis on photography and textile works. (Midnight Publishing Group News)
  • The Open Art Fair in London canceled its 2023 edition, stating “that there is not sufficient interest from exhibitors to justify” the event. (Press release)


Auction Houses

  • Hindman’s sale of surrealist paintings more than doubled its presale estimate, netting more than $1.4 million. Better than half that total (about $780,000) came from the sale of five Gertrude Abercrombie paintings. (Press release)
  • Christies Ventures, the auction house’s V.C. arm, is acquiring a non-controlling equity stake in Australian art financier Art Money for an undisclosed amount. (Financial Review)


Galleries and Agencies

  • Peter Doig split with dealer Michael Werner after almost a quarter-century of representation. (Midnight Publishing Group News)
  • Venezuelan–American artist Loriel Beltrán joined Lehmann Maupin and made his debut this week at Frieze Los Angeles, while mythology-informed painter Cassi Namoda signed with 303 Gallery in New York (but will continue working with Goodman Gallery in JohannesburgCape Town, and London). (Press releases)
  • Mendes Wood DM is expanding to Paris, opening a new space in the city’s 3rd arrondissement in the Place des Vosges. (ArtDaily)



  • Tate Britain will unveil the first complete rehang of its free collection displays in 10 years. Half the 800 works on view will be by women artists, including overlooked greats from the 17th, 18th, and 19th (Press release)
  • SFMOMA named Sheila Shin its first-ever chief experience officer, tasking her with taking “strategic priority to enhance its role as an inclusive, community-centered museum.” (ArtDaily)
  • The Blanton Museum of Art in AustinTexas received a gift of 5,650 works of Latinx and Chicanx art donated by collectors Gilberto Cárdenas and Dolores Garcia. (Artnews)


Tech and Legal News

  • LACMA accepted a gift of 22 NFTs by 13 international artists from pseudonymous collector Cozomo de’ Medici, just days after the Centre Pompidou announced its first NFT acquisitions, including a CryptoPunk donated by Yuga Labs. (Midnight Publishing Group News)
  • London art law powerhouse Joseph Hage Aaronson added Jonathan Olsoff and Antonia Serra, the former worldwide and European general counsel (respectively) at Sotheby’s, as well as VAT and customs expert Andrew Hare. Olsoff shuttered his post-Sotheby’s firm, the New York-based Olsoff Cahill Cossu, in January to move overseas. (Financial Times)


*Correction to last week’s edition: We incorrectly stated that Phillips’s London evening sales would be led by two late Willem de Kooning canvases from the collection of Marcel Brient with a combined upper estimate of £24 million ($29.1million). In fact, there will be one late de Kooning and one Gerhard Richter.

[Read More]


“No one sold Jeff Koons for $20 million before me. After me, it was all $20 million.”


Adam Lindemann, pumping up his forthcoming sale of works at Christie’s on March 9 by arguing that his willingness to auction pieces by major living artists improved their markets forever after. Lindemann sold Koons’s Hanging Heart (Magenta/Gold) at Sotheby’s for $23.5 million in 2007, four years after acquiring it for roughly $1.2 million. (New York Times)


Work of the Week

Collin Sekajugo’s Stock Image 40 – Colourful Wedding

Collin Sekajugo, Stock Image 40 - Colourful Wedding (2022). Photo by Aurélien Mole. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nathalie Obadia Paris / Brussels.

Collin Sekajugo, Stock Image 40 – Colourful Wedding (2022). Photo by Aurélien Mole. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nathalie Obadia Paris / Brussels.


Date:                   2022

Seller:                 Galerie Nathalie Obadia

Price:                  €45,000 ($48,012)
Offered at:          1-54 Marrakech
Fairs Dates:         February 9–12


One of the most celebrated aspects of the 2017 Venice Biennale was the inauguration of the Ugandan pavilion. Opening the new national exhibition space was a two-person show by Collin Sekajugo and Acaye Keruneni that earned a special mention (along with the French pavilion) from the biennale’s jury. It also launched Sekajugo onto a new career trajectory that continued at the latest edition of 1–54 Marrakech last week.

Derived from stock photographs, Sekajugo’s compositions call attention to the creeping neo-colonialism enabled by the way Western aesthetics and identity proliferate around the globe. Stock Image 40 – Colourful Wedding riffs on a press image from the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle; it’s part of his latest series of portraits of ambiguous figures of power and influence.

Galerie Nathalie Obadia featured the painting in its booth at 1–54 Marrakech as a complement to the Sekajugo solo exhibition currently on view in its Faubourg Saint Honoré location in Paris. The dealer began working with him in Paris and Brussels after the 2017 biennale’s opening.

Sekajugo also just recently expanded his gallery network by signing with Blum and Poe in territories outside Europe. Expect to see more of his striking work in a major fair booth near you in 2023.


—Naomi Rea


Thanks for joining us in the Back Room. See you next Friday.

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Full Report: How Much Does an Art Dealer Really Make? We Asked a Few Hundred of Them—Here’s What We Found

Valerie Santerli never imagined that she would be running an art gallery, much less two of them. But when her boss and mentor Robin Rule died in 2013, Santerli decided to continue operating the business. Nearly eight years later, she spends upwards of 60 hours per week managing Rule Gallery’s two locations in Denver and Marfa, with only a few employees to share the load. 

Business is good, but not necessarily great. While clients were cutting checks to help keep the gallery’s lights on during the pandemic, Santerli said her salary has remained at around $20,000 with an annual bonus that’s dependent on sales revenue. Given the scale of her operation, she expected that number might shock some readers.

“People have the wrong impression that all gallerists are independently rich and that everyone has a private jet,” Santerli told Midnight Publishing Group News. “If our salaries in the art world were more transparent, it would be eye-opening for most people. We are doing this because we love art, not because it can pay our mortgages.”

Dreams of becoming the next Larry Gagosian are unattainable for most gallerists, crushed by the realities of a field that has historically rewarded masculine bravado, secrecy, and inherited wealth (or proximity to it).

Perhaps for those reasons, demands for salary transparency within the commercial art world have gone largely unrecognized by the trade organizations representing the industry and little data exists on how much money a gallerist can hope to obtain over the course of a career.

Last month, Midnight Publishing Group News surveyed more than 300 gallerists about the economics of their operations: details on their salary ranges, responsibilities, demographics, and personal stories. What emerged from this data, collected via an anonymous survey from professionals in 28 countries, was a portrait of an industry still struggling to define what equality means in a year that has seen both a pandemic slowdown and a market roaring back to life.

Cheim & Read's booth at Art Basel in 2018. Image courtesy of Art Basel.

Cheim & Read’s booth at Art Basel in 2018. Image courtesy of Art Basel.

More than 100 respondents to the survey identified as gallery directors, the majority of whom were making more than $100,000, with a few top earners reaching toward the millions. By comparison, those who identified as gallery assistants hit a ceiling of $35,000—about 30 percent less than what researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology define as a living wage in New York State. Over a 40-hour week, the sum comes in under $17 an hour. 

Only a minority of gallerists said that their employer provided overtime pay (13 percent) or  bonus (30 percent). Benefits like maternity leave (37 percent) and family leave (26 percent) were also rare. 

“The art market is a luxury business and it’s incredibly privileged,” said Sarah Murkett, the founder of art-focused recruiting company Murk & Co. “It can often be a toxic environment and an environment where the basic needs of employees are not met.”

Inconsistent Pay

Despite its status as an established luxury market, commercial galleries lack broad consistency when it comes to executive salaries. An analysis of data from more than 200 respondents who described themselves as owners, directors, and partners found that the average salary was around $90,000.

A closer look at this data suggests that a small number of very high-earning dealers hover at the top of the salary spectrum, while the rest make significantly less. The median salary for those who identified as an owner, director, or partner was about $65,000, while the mode—the number that appeared most often in the data set—was much lower, at $10,000. (Respondents who listed their salaries between zero and $10,000 said that their income was typically linked to sales commission rather than salary.)  

This spread demonstrates the volatility of salaries in the art world. In fact, when it comes to running their own businesses, many gallerists—especially those who are sole proprietors—said they usually invested their income right back into their companies, with the bare minimum going toward living expenses. 

Allegra LaViola, owner and director of Sargent’s Daughters in New York, is among those who does not pay herself a set salary. “If I don’t really have money, I pile everything on a credit card,” she said. “The honest answer is that for a lot of years, it’s a lot of credit card debt, alternating with moments of prosperity and then more credit card debt.”

A visitor to Deli Gallery's booth at the MECA art fair in San Juan. Photo courtesy Discover Puerto Rico.

A visitor to Deli Gallery’s booth at the MECA art fair in San Juan. Photo courtesy Discover Puerto Rico.

When Max Marshall started his career as a New York gallerist in 2011, he was working for what he described as a cartoonishly angry boss who would sometimes throw objects at employees. His job as an assistant to Douglas Baxter, the Pace president who recently stepped down from his position following an investigation into alleged misconduct, was challenging but instructive.

“I learned to have a high tolerance for difficulty and how to work in high-stress situations,” said Marshall, 33, now the owner of Deli Gallery. (He began the business as a side project five years ago while working for Matthew Marks.) “The support staff from my time at Pace later became my network of dealers and curators.”

Working at Pace a decade ago, Marshall said he was making a base salary of $40,000; with overtime, that amount increased to about $65,000. 

Becoming the director of his own gallery hasn’t really changed those numbers, even as revenues double each year. That’s because most of Marshall’s earnings go directly back into the business; he estimated that construction costs for his new Tribeca location, which is due to open this summer, are around $100,000. He described his take-home pay as “whatever my rent is, probably around $40,000 to $50,000.”

“It’s nerve-wracking to know that there isn’t a safety net,” Marshall admitted. But having to build Deli Gallery from scratch has also helped him empathize with the young artists he represents and learn about every aspect of running a gallery. Moreover, it has strengthened his commitment to changing attitudes about how the art world does business.

“I want to stop this cycle of toxic work environments,” he said, “and I foresee that my gallery and those of my peers will break that cycle.”

Murkett, the executive recruiter, hopes to be part of that change. In addition to ongoing art-world recruiting, she also wants to figure out “how to actually expand my business so that I’m helping art businesses to create infrastructure to better support people. Lately I’ve been talking a lot about E.Q.—emotional intelligence—businesses actually need to be more human.” 

Ed Ruscha, Pay Nothing Until April (2003). © Ed Ruscha, courtesy of Tate.

Ed Ruscha, Pay Nothing Until April (2003). © Ed Ruscha, courtesy of Tate.

Is Change Coming?

The historic lack of infrastructure supporting cultural workers has, in recent years, become the source of scandals, unionizations, and change. Museums and some mega-galleries, such as Pace, have leaned on outside consultants to provide solutions, which have thus far involved more sensitivity training than an overhaul of institutional hierarchies. Those hierarchies likely impact pay equity in the commercial art world, which is starkly divided by geography and race. 

In a major art hub like New York, you can expect average executive salaries to hover around $180,000 with a median value of $140,000. Heading outside of cultural destinations like Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and London, those numbers drop by nearly 70 percent. Regional gallerists worldwide make an average salary of around $55,000 with a median response of $50,000, according to our findings. 

Of the 288 respondents to our survey who identified their race, 85 percent identified as white. That ratio increased when looking at executive-level employees, of which nearly 93 percent identified as white. This data correlates to what we hear from professional organizations in the industry. For example, the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA) has nearly 180 members; only two are Black-owned galleries.

Data from the survey also signified a wage gap between men and women in executive positions. The average salary for executives who identified as female was just shy of $80,000, while men reported pay that was 30 percent higher, at $110,000. There was not enough information to sufficiently analyze the disparity in salaries between white and nonwhite dealers.

The numbers from another recent survey of nearly 170 arts workers in Los Angeles, meanwhile, paint an even worse picture. The average annual earnings from all respondents was less than $37,000, below L.A. County’s living wage of about $40,000. Arts administrators of color reported that their earnings were closer to $32,000; white employees earned about 35 percent more than their peers, at $43,000.

With such low numbers, some gallerists have asked why the industry’s trade organizations have not moved to study salaries. The ADAA, for example, said it hasn’t collected any data on salaries, though a spokeswoman pointed to a recent COVID-19 survey that shows U.S. dealers projecting an overall gross revenue loss of 73 percent in the second quarter of 2020 after a previous quarter loss of 31 percent. A follow-up survey is also in the works with more economic insights on galleries, their staffs, and contractors.

Yet grim prospects for financial security continue to plague the industry, convincing some gallerists to quit while they are young—which could lead to a brain drain similar to the one already underway in the museum field.

“This industry is so elitist,” one gallery assistant from Washington, D.C., said. “I am tired of barely being able to afford my rent while working for toxic institutions.”

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