Charles Passy, Wall Street Journal
May 02, 2019
When Sotheby’s , the venerable auction house, opens its revamped and expanded gallery spaces at its global headquarters in Manhattan’s Upper East Side on Friday, it will be sure to welcome the deep-pocketed buyers of art, antiques and fine wine that have long been associated with its business.
But the 275-year-old company, a publicly traded firm whose auction sales topped $5 billion in 2018, also is aiming to make the spaces ones that New Yorkers of more modest means will visit on a regular basis, in much the same way as the major museums in the city.
To that end, Sotheby’s plans to use the spaces, which are open free to the public, for more than just auction showcases. It has in mind museum-style exhibitions of works not available for sale, officials said.
First up in that vein is a “Treasures from Chatsworth” show, slated to run June 28 to Sept. 18, that features works by Rembrandt, Leonardo da Vinci and others, all from England’s historic Chatsworth House.
“We’re looking for a hook to bring people in,” said Sotheby’s CEO Tad Smith of the company’s approach with the reconceived spaces, which total more than 90,000 square feet and occupy much of the first four floors of the 10-story building at 72nd Street and York Avenue. Shohei Shigematsu of the prestigious OMA architecture firm, founded by Rem Koolhaas, designed the new galleries.
Previously, Sotheby’s exhibition areas totaled 67,000 square feet and were spread throughout the building.
Sotheby’s isn’t alone among auction houses in using its gallery space for nonsale exhibitions, however: Christie’s has done the same at its New York location in Rockefeller Center. In March, it showcased the work of the late Chinese artist Zhu Qizhan.
Sotheby’s also is considering hosting other cultural events, from concerts to lectures, in the new galleries, said Allan Schwartzman, chairman of Sotheby’s fine art division.
The new galleries come with a significant price tag of roughly $55 million. But Sotheby’s officials consider it an investment in the auction house’s future.
The idea, Sotheby’s officials said, is that the increased attendance from the new galleries should result in increased sales. The fact that most visitors likely lack the funds to purchase the multimillion-dollar works of art associated with the blue-chip auction houses doesn’t matter, officials said, since 60% of the items sold by Sotheby’s are priced under $10,000.
Even the wine shop that Sotheby’s operates at its headquarters has several offerings under $30, officials added. A bottle of Prosecco, the Italian sparkling wine that has become increasingly popular in recent years, can be had for $17.
Sotheby’s strategy with the new galleries is in line with the approach often taken by contemporary retailers, said Ray Stochel, an equity analyst with Consumer Edge Research, a New York firm. The idea is to use foot traffic to drive growth, even if it means stepping outside the normal ways of doing business to create that traffic—in Sotheby’s case, by using its exhibition space for more than just auction showcases.
Still, Mark Walhimer, a museum planner and author of “Museums 101,” said there is an inherent problem when an auction house plays the role of museum with its space.
Most art museums are nonprofit institutions that make their mission about showcasing a variety of work for an appreciative public, regardless of the bottom line, Mr. Walhimer said. As a for-profit entity, an auction house may not have the same art-for-art’s-sake calling, he added.
“The role of a museum curator is not to drive traffic,” he said.