Reimagining the Art Market With Shlomi Rabi of Greenhouse Auctions (Part 1)

Liz Catalano
Published on

Greenhouse Auctions is a primary market auction house actively reimagining traditional models. Before two new collaborative sales, Auction Daily caught up with founder Shlomi Rabi. In part one of our interview, we learned why it’s called Greenhouse Auctions, what events are coming up, and how everything is going one year in. 

Next week, in the second part of this interview, we will discuss recent changes in the auction industry, how to operate in a fully-online space, and Greenhouse Auctions’ future plans.

Image courtesy of Shlomi Rabi.
Image courtesy of Shlomi Rabi.

Auction Daily: Before founding Greenhouse Auctions, you had plenty of experience in the art world. Could you tell our readers about that, and what inspired you to launch Greenhouse?

Shlomi Rabi: I started out working for very small, regional mom-and-pop auction houses in New Orleans and Chicago. I moved to New York 12 years ago, where I worked for Phillips for a number of years as a specialist and Head of Sale. And then I moved to Christie’s, where I was Vice President, Head of the Photographs Department. I got to see how the emerging art market is impacted by the auction house, and it wasn’t always in the artist’s favor. I started seeing works coming up and achieving astronomical numbers, even though the primary market was far more accessibly priced. I knew that the artist wasn’t benefiting from it. I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be nice if there was a primary market auction house? 

I left Christie’s in November of 2019 to join a competitor. During my non-compete period, COVID struck, and my intended position was rescinded. They notified me on a Friday afternoon, so I gave myself the weekend to catch my breath and drink some wine, as one does. On Monday, I said you know what? I’m going to build this primary market auction house that I’ve always been talking about. If there was ever a time to present a disruptive model, to empower small to mid-sized galleries, to give an additional lifeline to the primary market, this is it. 

So, as a result, you have Greenhouse Auctions, which is a hybrid platform that leverages all the structural benefits of an auction house: the price transparency, the democratic participation, the sell-by date, the pay-by date, and the cross-collaboration with artists, all while honoring the primary market. To do that, we limit viewing to registered bidders, we do not publish the auction results, and we connect the buyer and the seller after the auction. If a piece of art does not sell, undersells, or even oversells, it does not have any impact on the primary market or the artist. 

In many ways, we’re different from your typical online auction platform. There’s a reason we’re called Greenhouse Auctions. We’re not called Shlomi’s Auctions, because that would be a terrible name! But besides that, it’s not about me. It’s not about my ego. It’s not about people knowing who the founder is. It’s really about creating a safe space for transparency, longevity, and community. We want to nurture talent from the ground up in a very protective environment that has artists’ best interests at heart.

Ealy Mays, Cleaning Up Picasso’s Studio, 2015. Image from Greenhouse Auctions.
Ealy Mays, Cleaning Up Picasso’s Studio, 2015. Image from Greenhouse Auctions.

Auction Daily: Tell us more about your scholarship program and how it formed. 

Shlomi Rabi: I’m an immigrant. My dad is Syrian, my mom is Turkish, I was born in Israel, and I was raised in Mexico. I’m really a mutt. I moved to the US when I was 18 and lived in New Orleans. When I was studying art history courses back in the 90s, there were no courses on any of my heritage. I didn’t see Pre-Columbian art, I didn’t see African American art, I didn’t see anything that wasn’t White, male, and European. For me, it was such a missed opportunity to be living in an Afro-Caribbean city like New Orleans and not have a single course on African diaspora art. Not surprisingly, there were no kids of color in my class. Why would you want to study something that doesn’t validate your heritage as an equal, does not include it in the canon? 

When it was time to design this scholarship fund for Greenhouse, we wanted to incentivize more kids of color to enter the art world. There have been so many incredible initiatives to support minority artists, and we need more of them, but I haven’t seen as many initiatives around promoting diversity in the entire art ecosystem. We need to have more people of color who are administrators, curators, critics, auction house specialists, and gallery directors. 

This social mission is built into how we do business. We charge a flat 5% seller fee in our auctions. This is fully donated to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which has given over $300 million in scholarships since 1987. This is the very first scholarship they’re administering specifically for art history students in publicly-funded HBCUs. Obviously, scholarships are not going to solve everything, but it’s meant to encourage people to look at the entire art world and what we can do to promote diversity.

Dinosaur Jr. X Crew Nation Brompton bike. Image from Brompton.
Dinosaur Jr. X Crew Nation Brompton bike. Image from Brompton.

Auction Daily: Greenhouse has several upcoming events. Let’s start with Brompton X Crew Nation. How did this collaboration come to be?

Shlomi Rabi: The Brompton X Crew Nation auction is a benefit event. Sales of bikes skyrocketed during the pandemic, and Brompton decided to share its success with others. Because Brompton produces folding bikes, they are very easy to travel with, and they are very popular in the music industry. Brompton wanted to do something for musicians and specifically for crew members. They chose to raise funds for Crew Nation, which is the fundraising arm of Live Nation for music crew members. Brompton engaged musicians and had them design several bikes to potentially raffle off.

Once Brompton learned about Greenhouse, the conversation pivoted to auctioning the bikes. What was originally meant to be a project of five bikes then became a much bigger initiative as more bands signed on. Then it became a global endeavor for Brompton. 13 bands and musicians signed on to create 14 bikes. Foo Fighters, Radiohead, Enrique Iglesias, Phoebe Bridgers, and other huge names in the music industry designed these bikes. And now, 100% of the proceeds will go to Crew Nation. We’re very, very excited about it. The auction appeals to both music and bike lovers while still honoring our mission of protecting and empowering underserved communities, in whatever form. Online bidding will run from May 28th through June 12th. 

Amy Bravo, Queens of Morro Castle, 2019. Image from the artist and Cereus Art.
Amy Bravo, Queens of Morro Castle, 2019. Image from the artist and Cereus Art.

Auction Daily: In early June, Greenhouse will also collaborate with Cereus Art. Tell us more about this auction and how it came about.

Shlomi Rabi: Emma Nuzzo founded Cereus Art during the pandemic. Before that, she had been working as a project manager and curator at For Freedoms with Hank Willis Thomas. She noticed there was a lot of interest in minority artists, but a lot of them were being taken advantage of. Many emerging artists didn’t know which galleries they should have on their radar, what a good commission structure looks like, how to price their pieces, how to create their multiples, or how to file their taxes. Emma created Cereus Art to provide a ground-up business education for artists. In addition to placing their work in great collections, including the Dean Collection, they get the tools to successfully enter the art world. 

I love Cereus’ mission; I love what they stand for. They work exclusively with BIPOC artists, a lot of whom are genderqueer, at a very accessible price point. It was very important to Emma that these artists’ first auction experience is positive. The upcoming Greenhouse and Cereus Art auction is an opportunity to directly support these artists. By competitively bidding in this auction, you help improve the financial situation of these artists and can connect directly with them after the auction. Online bidding runs from June 4th through June 18th.

Image from Greenhouse Auctions.
Image from Greenhouse Auctions.

Auction Daily: Greenhouse just celebrated its one-year anniversary. What has this first year been like? 

Shlomi Rabi: What a whirlwind! I’ll be honest, I didn’t know how much I didn’t know about starting a business. I knew the auction model inside and out; that’s all I’ve been doing for most of my life. It always made sense to me, and I knew what needed to happen to make it work. I didn’t realize just how many unexpected details would fall on me. Still, it was definitely worth every single second. 

Now that we’ve put a really great infrastructure in place, the only way to go is up for Greenhouse. That’s not me being arrogant or giving a pitch! I’m sticking my thumb up in the air and realizing that the winds are changing. There is a genuine desire not just for buying art but buying art in a way that makes you feel good, that gives you the opportunity to empower others along the way. More than ever, people are much more socially conscious of where their money goes, and they want to grab the opportunity of giving back to underserved communities. Greenhouse allows them to experience that. After all, our motto is “good for art; art for good.” 

Visit Greenhouse Auctions for more information about the Brompton X Crew Nation auction and the upcoming collaboration with Cereus Art. Looking for more content? Check out our review of Greenhouse Auctions’ inaugural sale.

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