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The Dallas Contemporary’s eBay Gaffe

After the gallery was caught selling donated artwork on the auction site, director Peter Doroshenko finds himself in a fine-art mess.
Daniel Baum

When Peter Doroshenko became director of the Dallas Contemporary in 2010, he walked in to an institution with its fair share of baggage. Over the nonprofit’s 35-year history, the Contemporary has had six names, and its mission statement has evolved from an artist-run art space to a noncollecting contemporary museum with international aspirations. Doroshenko’s predecessor, Joan Davidow, had done much to broaden the institution’s ambitions, but she had also alienated people with questionable curatorial decisions, occasional slapdash programming, and a tempestuous personality. The hiring of Doroshenko was both symbolic and practical. The new director came with international credentials, he had an aesthetic steeped in a fresh kind of Euro-chic, with an emphasis on street art, and he ran a program that seemed to cater to, and thoughtfully provoke, a Dallas that loves retail, status, society, and shiny things. He reached out to a younger, more diverse demographic. In a phrase, it was out with the old, in with the new.

In January of this year, though, it came to light that Doroshenko’s organization had made a blunder that is hard to understand. For a year, the Contemporary had been selling donated prints on eBay, sometimes for as little as $15. These weren’t posters you might find in museum gift shops. Artists such as Vernon Fisher, Annette Lawrence, and Melissa Miller—all with national reputations, whose works sell for thousands of dollars and have been collected by museums—had created limited-edition series specifically for the Contemporary. Some of the prints had sold at fundraisers during the previous director’s tenure. Others had been given to high-level members. Now the prints that still remained with the Contemporary were floating around on the internet for pennies on the dollar. The cost to Doroshenko and the Contemporary’s reputation won’t be as cheap.

“It was a stupid mistake,” Doroshenko told me shortly after a letter signed by nine artists and five gallerists was sent to him and the board of directors. “The staff went and opened up an eBay shop, not just to sell prints but to sell books. Most recently some of the prints were undervalued. As soon as I found out, we closed that up.”

In the week that followed, Doroshenko announced that he would return to the artists the prints that the Contemporary still owned. He expressed to me frustration with his staff for not understanding the problem with selling art online but later followed up to reiterate, lock step with his board, that he took full responsibility for the gaffe. Then one of the prints wound up listed for sale on the website of Red Arrow Contemporary, a local gallery owned by the father of a Dallas Contemporary employee. Before the Contemporary shut down its eBay shop, you could buy one of the editions of Vernon Fisher’s Dead (2008) for $50. At Red Arrow Contemporary, the print was listed for $1,800.

Eddie Stafford, the owner of Red Arrow Contemporary, says he did not purchase the piece on eBay, claiming instead that he paid $1,000 for it in December 2012 at a Dallas Contemporary pop-up shop sale. That disconnect seems to be the real problem. Any organization that can sell something for $50 in one market and $1,000 in another is surely having managerial oversight problems. Shelby Wagner, president of the Dallas Contemporary’s board, met with Doroshenko and says they are trying to figure out how to make sure this kind of mistake doesn’t happen again.

That offers little consolation to gallerists who believe the records of the eBay sales could affect the value of the artists’ work. For example, the eBay listing of one of the prints made for the Contemporary, Linnea Glatt’s From North to South, East to West, was also referenced on the website WorthPoint.com, which aggregates online sales.

Talley Dunn, who runs a gallery that represents many of the artists whose work wound up on eBay, says when she learned where the artwork was being sold, she tried to buy as much of it as possible, just to get it off the online marketplace. It wasn’t that the work was being offered at prices that drastically undercut the market, she says. It was the market itself. “These artists don’t sell their work on eBay, even at $50,000,” Dunn says. “That’s not what anybody does. And taking it to a public forum on the internet without letting the artist know—there were so many levels of trust broken. There are so many elements of it that are disturbing.”

The sale of the prints by the Contemporary sheds light on the murky world of art donations and fundraising. Artists, unlike patrons who offer cash donations, do not get tax write-offs for donated work, and a poor showing can affect their reputations. Regardless, artists often feel pressured by collectors and patrons to contribute artwork to fundraisers.

“The attitude toward artists is that they give art to nonprofits as if it doesn’t have value,” Dunn says. “If you or I gave $10,000 to the Contemporary, we might get our name on a wall. And there wouldn’t be a chance that we would be associated with something that harmed our careers.”

While fundraising auctions sometimes lead to works being sold for prices above their going market rate, the reverse can also be true. And the sale of the Contemporary’s Vernon Fisher print at Red A rrow Contemporary highlights how the for-charity price of a work of art can be quickly bumped up once it enters the retail marketplace. Even Stafford, the Red Arrow owner, admits that the secondary market can be unforgiving for artists. “To some degree, I think artists should be rewarded in the secondary market, too,” he says. “I would consider putting back some money to [Vernon Fisher on a sale of Fisher’s print]. Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns went through this whole episode. They became famous but didn’t own any of their work anymore. So it has always been a sore spot for artists.”

Fisher says he views the whole situation of finding his work listed on eBay with amusement. “I’ve been around a long time, and nothing much surprises me anymore,” he says. “They look like clowns, let’s face it. The upside is, the guy apologized and promised to return the prints.”

Fisher has experienced worse. There was a time in the 1980s when he showed a piece in Dallas priced at $5,000. The work was purchased by a Dusseldorf gallery. Fisher received $2,500 from the sale. Then the work was repurchased by a collector in the United States and flipped to a museum, which paid $18,000 for the piece. The entire series of transactions transpired in just four months. “This kind of shit happens all the time,” Fisher says. “There are a million artworks out there that are floating around. The secondary market is way bigger than the primary, and I don’t see that changing. As an artist, if you get involved, you’re wasting your time.”

Though Fisher doesn’t sound terribly aggrieved, the fallout from the ordeal is a disaster for Doroshenko. His tenure in Dallas has already drawn mixed reviews, particularly from those turned off by the raucous opening parties (and those local artists now passed over by the Contemporary’s change in taste). Now the eBay debacle gives Doroshenko’s critics reason to complain that the director is too worried about the international art circuit and the society scene to ensure the proper handling of artwork. For his part, Doroshenko insists the Contemporary continues to hold in high esteem the artists it has worked with over the years, pointing to an exhibition that opened the same weekend the eBay mess came to light. It featured videos by Texas artists, the latest in a number of programs designed to place local artists in conversation with the international artists exhibited at the space. Nonetheless, once again the organization has found a director who has helped unearth a nickname the Contemporary board thought it had finally buried: the Dallas Contempt.

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