Friday, March 9, 2012

Can a Secondary Market really be created for Contemporary Canadian Art? Q&A with Concrete Auction's Stephen Ranger at

Last night, one of Canada’s oldest auction houses, founded in 1850, launched what it calls “the first truly contemporary auction of Canadian art ever held for commercial purposes.” On March 8, Waddington’s slick, new, poured-cement space on King Street East hosted the debut gavelling of its latest venture, Concrete Contemporary Auctions and Projects.

Though there is much that is fresh about Concrete Contemporary Auctions and Projects—like its emphasis on post-1980 Canadian artworks, and its creation of an “acquisition fund” program that covers 50% of select public-institution purchases—it is also home to a familiar face on the national auction scene. Waddington’s created Concrete in partnership with Stephen Ranger, a former president of Ritchies who has more than 20 years’ experience in the Canadian auction business.

In an interview posted yesterday before the auction at, Ranger (now president of Concrete and vice-president, business development at Waddington’s) talked with me about current challenges, past scandals, and trying to grow stronger markets for Canadian art.

Here's an excerpt:

Leah Sandals: With this auction, you’re trying to initiate a secondary market for contemporary Canadian art—something regarded by many Canadian arts professionals as nearly impossible, and something that seems particularly daunting given the economic slowdown of the past few years. Why is now the right time to try to develop this market?

Stephen Ranger: The short answer is that there’s never going to be a perfect time. And, although times are tough in a lot of places, the art business has, on many levels, been insulated from that.

As a longer answer, I’ve been thinking about doing this project for at least a couple of years, if not more.

Looking around the world, I saw thriving secondary markets for contemporary work—not just in major markets, like New York and London, which are the obvious ones, but in places like Chicago and Los Angeles, in Amsterdam, in Italy, in Australia, pretty much everywhere.

My longtime involvement in a number of charitable sales, like the Casey House Art with Heart Auction that I’ve been doing for 19 years, was really what tweaked my interest in contemporary work. It seemed to speak to people of my generation and younger.

I care about contemporary art. It’s work that speaks to me. So to be able to put together an auction like this is a real thrill and honour. Having seen so many people come through auction halls and previews through the years, I thought, Why aren’t we doing this here? There’s no good reason. Somebody just had to do it!

LS: On a slightly different timing issue, the Concrete auction is set for March 8, the same day as the opening of the 2012 Armory Show. As a result, most of the serious contemporary Canadian collectors will be in New York on the night of the auction. How are you dealing with that scheduling glitch? Why did it happen?

SR: That was an unfortunate coincidence. We picked our date way back; it just was a date that worked for us here logistically.

Not all the action at auctions happens the night of. In fact, most of the work is done beforehand. That’s why we’ve had lots of preview time—at good auctions you generally have a pretty good idea what’s going to sell before the sale. And I think our community is small enough that we’ve managed to get the word out.

Also, there are some people who don’t like going to galleries, who are intimidated by galleries. Then there are some people who don’t like going to auctions, who are intimidated by auctions. We’re trying to get at least the former in here.

For the full interview, read on at

As the Globe and Mail's James Adams reported this morning, sales last night ended up being disappointing on many counts, though there were some works that sold above their estimates.

In the interview, Ranger says he is in for at least three to five years with this endeavour, so it will be interesting to me to see if results can improve over that time frame. We'll see!

(Image of a visitor at one of the Concrete Auction previews via

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