Annual contemporary art auction raises school funds online


Friends Seminary Communications

American artist Alice Neel, grandmother of a Friends alumna, was featured this spring at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Alice Neel: People Come First,” and her piece “Geoffrey Hendricks and Brian” was featured at the Friends Forever: Benefit 2021 Contemporary Art Auction. The auction was hosted online to raise funds for the school’s increased financial needs due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Abby Hahn and Charlotte Accola

Students, parents, and faculty from the Friends Seminary community participated in the Friends Forever: Benefit 2021 Contemporary Art Auction in early March. For more than 15 years, Friends Seminary has hosted a contemporary art auction, and this year the event raised money for the school’s increased financial needs due to the COVID-19 pandemic by selling art donated by artists within the community. 

Despite the various challenges of organizing an online auction, the Contemporary Art Auction Committee found virtual ways to feature pieces while including student performances, a broader range of price points, and opening up the auction to a greater audience. 

Geny Kimbrell, the Director of the Benefit Auction, said that converting this event from a completely in-person experience to an online environment made it difficult to engage participants. “Overall, the challenge was trying to make it engaging, because everyone has Zoom fatigue,” Kimbrell said. 

In past years bidders were able to view the art in-person and up close, but because large in-person events have been made impossible by the pandemic, organizers showcased the pieces on the website Artsy.

Bellatrix Hubert-Accola, one of the Co-Chairs of the Contemporary Art Auction committee, said that this digital medium has created some difficulties. “It is a challenge to buy art online, still, because you can’t see the surface, you don’t know what it really looks like,” she said. “It’s hard to determine the size–even if we indicate the size in the medium, you don’t always understand exactly what it’s gonna look like.” 

Kimbrell said the auction’s online format made socializing more difficult, posing another hurdle for the committee. “The auction in the past has been a huge event that you pay a ticket price for, and you go and you get dressed up, so how could we change it up this year to make everyone want to come?” she said. 

To enhance the auction during this digital year, the committee asked students to get involved. There were live speeches and videos throughout the event created by students, teachers, and parents. Choir groups such as the Chamber Singers presented the song, “Keep Holding On,” along with soloist Ahron Springer ’23, who performed “You’ve Got a Friend” by Carole King.

Kimbrell said that the event was ultimately rewarding, with current parents, alumni, and overseas community members donating pieces. “[These donors] still come to our committee meetings and donate, I think that’s special,” Kimbrell said.

One of Kimbrell’s favorite pieces was Milton Avery’s Hooded Owl, a print of an owl made in 1953. “He was a grandparent of a Friends alum so that whole family is connected–and the little owl is so cute, I thought it was very Friends-like,” she said. 

The Contemporary Art Auction also featured artists like Marcel Dzama, Alice Neel, Richard Serra, and Mamma Anderson, who are connected to the Friends community through parents and alumni at David Zwirner, a modern art gallery where the auction was hosted last year.

Another art piece was by painter Alice Neel, an artist and grandmother of a Friends Alumna, who is featured in the Met this month for her numerous portraits. Her estate donated a silkscreen print of her painting Geoffrey Hendricks and Brian

In the past, the art at the auction has only been open to the Friends community in New York City, but as an online event, the auction’s audience also expanded to the greater New York Community.

Kimbrell said that making the art available online opened the pieces up to a larger market. “One of the positives has been being able to reach a broader audience– so really being able to take the art and make it accessible to people beyond New York City,” she said. “We worked really hard this year to make sure we had a wide price range so that anybody could afford something.”

Kimbrell said that having so many people involved in the event was especially rewarding.    

“The positive that came out of the whole benefit, including the art, is the fact that we could include everybody,” Kimbrell said.