Artists and Auction Houses Brace for the U.S. Elections

Liz Catalano
Published on

In the days leading up to a major presidential election in the United States, the art market joined the push to get out the vote. Many creators turned their attention to spreading education and encouraged U.S. citizens to exercise their rights. 

Shepard Fairey broke into the fine art scene with his iconic Hope poster for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Fairey has returned to headlines with an illustration on the cover of TIME’s November 2nd, 2020 edition. For the first time in the magazine’s history, the logo above Fairey’s illustration was changed to simply read “VOTE.” 

The cover shows a masked individual looking into the distance. They are wearing a bandana decorated with a ballot box. “Even though the subject in the portrait knows there are additional challenges to democracy during a pandemic,” Fairey says, they aim to use their “voice and power by voting.”

Shepard Fairey for TIME. Image from TIME.
Shepard Fairey for TIME. Image from TIME.

Other artists have drawn inspiration from American history and culture to comment on current affairs. Twenty artists recently made billboards that referenced George Orwell’s 1984, specifically examining the parallels between the fictional Ministry of Truth and real misinformation campaigns.

Vote.org’s new Plan Your Vote initiative to encourage voter registration has also prompted an influx of election-related art. Dozens of museums across the country partnered with the website to commission pieces by Wangechi Mutu, the Guerrilla Girls, Hank Willis Thomas, and others. Many other organizations followed suit: Michelle Obama’s When We All Vote and grassroots collectives such as Artists Band Together created everything from voting ads to bandanas.

Recent art auctions have taken note of the political climate. Brooklyn-based painter Dana Shutz created Trump Descending an Escalator in 2017, the year that Donald Trump took office. The artist used the piece to process her own reaction to the now-famous announcement of his campaign. “Potentially, you feel this is a real person or a real thing… I never think I’m being nice or mean, only that I’m engaging with this thing,” she said about the work. It sold for GBP 688,000 (USD 711,800) at Phillips on October 20th, 2020, well above its high estimate of GBP 580,000 (USD 750,100).

Amir Khojasteh, Big Brother, 2017. Image from Sotheby’s.
Amir Khojasteh, Big Brother, 2017. Image from Sotheby’s.

That auction result reflects a growing interest in art that explores political issues. Amir Khojasteh’s 27-panel study of Trump reached USD 20,000 at Sotheby’s in June, while Banksy’s $12.1 million auction record was set last year in the wake of another contentious election.

Despite the growing support for political art, many in the auction industry have been hesitant to explicitly highlight the trend. An extremely polarized environment has inspired many auction houses to take caution around Election Day.

Sotheby’s announced its plans to reschedule its marquee fall sales in New York, which traditionally run in mid-November. With the outcome of the election likely to be postponed or contested, the auction house moved many of its November sales to late October and early December. The change has yet to cause an immediate loss in revenue; the first round of marquee auctions reached a total of $284 million.

Jojo Anavim, I Want YOU to Vote!, 2020. Image from Christie’s.
Jojo Anavim, I Want YOU to Vote!, 2020. Image from Christie’s.

Others have chosen to directly address the election. Christie’s released a virtual exhibition to distribute voter information to New York City residents. “We’re excited to collaborate with five artists to harness the power of visual art… to empower citizens to VOTE✔ and to participate in deciding the future of our country,” the auction house wrote on Instagram.

Auction Daily will continue to cover the impact of the U.S. elections on the auction industry as the story develops.