Charity: not so sweet when you’re an artist who spends a fair whack of your working year fielding requests from fundraisers to donate work. Even the most generous artist can be forgiven for greeting yet another charity auction pitch with the enthusiasm typically reserved for door-to-door doom merchants or solar-panel telemarketers.
That’s something painter Mary Schepisi is keenly aware of as she puts the finishing organisational touches to a fundraising art auction for the Australian Prostate Centre. The donor line-up is stellar: John Kelly, Callum Morton, Lisa Roet, the APY Art Centre Collective, John Wolseley, Joshua Yeldham and Michael Zavros are just a few of 30 top-tier artists and organisations to offer work for the auction, to be held in February next year.
Snaring names such as these is not something Mary takes for granted. Her husband, acclaimed film director Fred Schepisi, observes that artists take a risk when they agree to donate to an auction. “If the work’s not respected, if it goes for a very low price, that can really affect the artist,” he says.
“The aim was to get really good artists so that somebody buying (the work) is not just buying something to be charitable, they’re getting something worth having, as an art collector.”
That hasn’t been the case for Mary’s three previous fundraisers for the Melbourne-based centre. Her auctions have drawn repeat donations from established and up-and-coming artists, and developed a growing following of collectors. This year’s auction will feature works with estimates ranging from $2000 to $25,000.
“We have artists who supported us from the start,” Mary says. “They have seen the results we get. In our auctions so far we have always sold all the works. The quality of work and the amount of money we raise has gone up with every auction. Most people are not giving us old work. Often – for auctions like this –artists give work that’s older but we are getting a lot of their best and current work. That has increased the quality of the works on offer.”
The most recent New Directions auction, in 2017, raised almost $170,000 for the four-year-old Australian Prostate Centre, a clinic where men with “any form of cancer below the waist” can get advice, counselling, diagnosis and treatment, all at no cost to the patient.
The auction owes its existence, in a roundabout way, to a long-ago conversation between a New York medical specialist and Fred Schepisi. In 2005, the Schepisis had recently returned to New York from Maine after a location shoot for the Golden Globe-winning miniseries Empire Falls. Some blood tests, part of a routine check-up for Fred, led to further tests – then to a top New York consultant telling Fred he had prostate cancer. They began to discuss surgery.
“This was said to be the best guy in New York. I told him if that was what I was going to have to do, I would do it in Australia to be with my family. I asked him, ‘do you know anyone?’ He recommended Tony Costello.”
Professor Costello’s record of pioneering robotic surgery in Australia, plus his international experience in training other surgeons in the technique “sounded OK to me”, Fred says. The Schepisis returned to Australia for what proved to be successful surgery. Doctor and patient struck up a rapport during follow-up appointments.
In 2009, the Schepisis invited Professor Costello and his wife, Penny Costello, to a one-off art auction Mary organised to raise funds for juvenile diabetes research.
All works have a reserve, ensuring the artists’ work will not be devalued. There are, therefore, no rock-bottom bargains. But a reserve helps underwrite the calibre of what’s on offer.
Costello was then in the process of working with philanthropist and prostate cancer survivor Bill Guest, and with Damien Marasco of Maben Group builders, to develop and build what has become the Australian Prostate Centre (APC). The centre researches prostate cancer and offers holistic and bulk-billed medical treatment to men who do not have private health insurance – without the sometimes very long waits they would otherwise encounter at public hospitals.
“Tony Costello came to the (juvenile diabetes) auction and he said: ‘you need to do this for me’,” Mary says. “That’s how it started.” Her first fundraising auction for the Australian Prostate Centre was in 2014.
Mary’s forays into charity auctions are only a decade old but she has been painting almost all her life. Trained at the Art Students League of New York and Boston University, and a regular gallery exhibitor in Melbourne and New York, she has brought some home truths from her own experience as an artist to the way she runs the New Directions charity auctions.
“Artists do get asked (to donate) all the time,” she says. She is conscious that incomes are uncertain, and that some artists have been burned by the reputational damage that comes when work is auctioned on the cheap, or doesn’t sell at all.
“One thing I learned early on, when I was talking to galleries, is that the galleries have their own commitments and they are not keen on artists giving away their work for free. I decided to give the artists back 40 per cent of the selling price – many donate their commission back to APC. It became a thing for me to go to the artist directly and ask the artist. It has not only helped bring new people in, it has helped raise the quality of the work.”
The 2019 artists are not any better than in any other year, it’s just the quality of the work has gone up,” Mary Schepisi says.
All works have a reserve, ensuring the artists’ work will not be devalued. There are, therefore, no rock-bottom bargains. But, Fred says, a reserve helps underwrite the calibre of what’s on offer.
“The aim of this was to get really good artists so that somebody buying (the work) is not just buying something to be charitable, they’re getting something really worth having, as an art collector,” Fred says. “Every year the artists get keener because they can see they’re in good company and it’s not going to be something that will lower the value of their work.”
The New Directions auction is held every two years, to allow breathing space for the contributing artists. Mary sends invitations a year ahead of time so that – for artists who place an annual quota on donations – she makes it onto their lists. The long lead time helps improve the odds they’ll offer new pieces. “This year two artists have mentioned to me that this is their favourite auction and they love doing new work for it. That feels very good.”
A personal connection to the cause in question never hurts: Mary says that at least a couple of her artists have experience of prostate cancer, personally or through close family members.
The February 2019 auction is looking like being the biggest yet. “The artists are not any better than in any other year, it’s just the quality of the work has gone up,” Mary says. “We have always had work over $10,000 but this year we have two over $20,000.”
“I have two Indigenous pieces coming in this year from the APY Art Centre Collective, by Wawiriya Burton and the Ken Sisters Collaborative. One is 200 x 240 centimetres. It’s beautiful and it’s our biggest piece. We also have a Fred Williams colour lithograph,” she says.
“I believe there should be a whole (price) range, so I’ve invited people who are not necessarily younger, but who do works on paper. For example, Christina Todesco has done a line drawing that’s really terrific. The prices will start at about $2000. These are only auction estimates; hopefully there will be fierce bidding.”
“After the auction we ask for donations from people who weren’t fortunate enough to get a piece of art. We collect quite a bit of money and all of that goes to the Australian Prostate Centre.”
The artists – and Mary herself, who will also donate a piece to the auction – are not the only ones to contribute. The gallery space, at Gibson’s Auctioneers in Melbourne’s Armadale, is donated. “It takes a lot of people who are willing to pitch in to make this work as well as it has,” says Mary. Gibson’s staff give time to accept advance bids (advance viewing on February 16, 10am–4pm), and to receive phone bids on the night.
Brian Sadgrove, a leading Australian graphic designer, designed the past two New Directions catalogues (the late Alexander Stitt, a longtime Schepisi collaborator whose work will be part of this February’s auction, designed earlier catalogues). Drinks to grease the wheels of fundraising include wine from the Schepisis’ own Mornington Peninsula vineyard, made by internationally acclaimed Paringa Estate. There’s more from nearby award-winning wineries, plus Splitrock supplies soft drinks. “It’s turned out to be a fun night,” says Mary. “And it keeps getting better.”