Ready, Set, Bid!

Every two years the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art mounts a stunning exhibition packed with works by some of the biggest names in modern and contemporary art — and it encourages patrons to take the artworks home. This is not your standard museum show, of course. It’s SFMOMA’s biennial Art Auction, a lively one-night-only event—this year slated for May 14 — that gives art enthusiasts a chance to peruse and bid on pieces by modern masters as well as up-and-comers, all while raising money to support the museum’s exhibition and educational programming. Founded and organized by the Modern Art Council, the museum’s chief fundraising auxiliary, the auction generates significant funds (actual amounts are not disclosed) for SFMOMA’s programs, but it also provides a festive night out for both curious spectators and serious collectors.

It’s “an absolutely fun event—I love it!” says Belvedere’s Jill Barnett, one of several Marin residents who help plan and produce the auction. This is the third SFMOMA auction on which Barnett has worked, the culmination of a year of planning that involves soliciting art, securing sponsors, producing a full-color auction catalog, and coordinating details like food and decor. “It’s not a sit-down thing, it’s a very dynamic event,” she adds; guests spend the evening moving around looking at art, enjoying cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, and mingling with friends as well as members of the museum’s curatorial staff. “During the live auction, the auctioneer really gets the crowd involved.”

The event consists of a Benefactor preview reception—open to guests who purchase tickets at the $700 level—and silent and live auctions that feature more than 100 works of art. Among the standouts this year are a charcoal drawing by Philip Guston (valued at $150,000), a photograph by Diane Arbus, and a sculpture by Icelandic wunderkind Olafur Eliasson, whose recent survey exhibition at SFMOMA attracted international attention and much critical acclaim. Other heavy hitters include Vija Celmins, Marc Chagall, Joseph Cornell, Imogen Cunningham, architects Diller + Scofidio, William Kentridge, Bruce Nauman, Martin Puryear, Robert Rauschenberg, Ed Ruscha, Richard Serra, Kiki Smith and James Turrell. Plus, the event features a host of works by emerging artists—including rising stars like Tim Gardner and Emily Jacir—and local favorites such as Robert Bechtle, Squeak Carnwath and Nathan Oliveira.

Barnett notes that while many works in the auction are big-ticket items, the lineup includes a number of pieces under $2,000—and the beauty of an auction is the opportunity to snatch up a masterpiece at a bargain price. “Plus, you get a chance to see really great art.”

The public is invited to preview the auction’s artworks free of charge from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. May 10 and 11 at the museum. Bids will be accepted on silent-auction items during all previews; prospective bidders may also participate in both the live and silent auctions via absentee bidding on the night of the event. Auction catalogs are available for $10. Call 415.618.3263 for information.

Art Auction 2008, May 14, 5–9:45 p.m.; tickets: $700 Benefactor, $350 general; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., San Francisco; 415.618.3263;

Anne Crump Ray is an editorial associate at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and a regular contributor to this magazine.