The Struggle to Sell a $225,000 Pile of Junk at Art Basel Miami

The artist Portia Munson is known for her very bright, very chaotic, more-is-more artworks filled with “ephemera,” which is often a polite way of saying “junk.” Her 1996 piece The Garden, a meditation on feminism and climate change, comprises more than 1,500 objects ranging from plastic flowers to stuffed animals to wall clocks, all of which are assembled in a 15-foot by 15-foot room.

As she planned a booth in Meridians section of Art Basel Miami Beach (Dec. 5-8), Wendy Olsoff, the co-founder of the New York gallery P.P.O.W., decided in a burst of self-described “stupid enthusiasm” that it would be a good idea to showcase The Garden. “We thought it would be fantastic. It talks a lot about the environment, which is obviously in dire straits in Florida, and it also taps into feminism and other topics that we always explore in our program,” she explained at the time. The objects, which Munson calls “the backside of the mall,” are arranged in a way she hopes calls to mind the “idea of artificial beauty, consumerism, and cultural ideas around the feminine aspects of nature.”

Olsoff hoped to sell the work, but wasn’t holding her breath. “I don’t think this is an exercise in futility,” she said. “But we’re not going in thinking that we’re going to sell this. We’re thinking about building her career, because we know this is really popular work.”

And so the gallery committed to showing the installation, which it priced at $225,000. “Maybe if we had done a little homework first and figured out how much it would cost [to install],” Olsoff said, she might not have been so hasty. “We didn’t really realize it.”

Instead, Olsoff, her co-founder Penny Pilkington and their staff had unknowingly kicked off a several-month-long saga that entailed fireproofing clothes for dolls, hiring a six-person installation team, and spending more than $60,000 in related expenses, all of which culminated in a moon shot at a sale in the first few minutes of the fair’s opening.

It’s a story of a lot of effort for a lot of (ahem) ephemera—but it’s also a tutorial in the immense amount of effort that goes into selling work on the international art fair circuit.

Clotheslines Upstate

The Garden was last exhibited at P.P.O.W. two years ago. Since then, its thousands of objects sat in storage at Munson’s house in upstate New York.

The first step was to take every single object, catalogue them all, and, in some cases, restore them. “When you open a box of plastic after three or five years, there’s going to be pieces that are decaying and disgusting,” Olsoff explained. The gallery hired a conservator to go through the objects, create a condition report, and set up guidelines for storage and care, should a collector acquire the work.

Next came preparing the work for installation. Because the Miami Beach Convention Center has stringent fire safety guidelines, every piece of fabric in the installation, no matter how small, has to meet fire codes.

Trey Hollis, the gallery’s director of art fairs, traveled to Munson’s house upstate, brought everything to an open field, strung up the objects on a clothesline, put on a mask, and sprayed everything with fire-retardant coating.

Once everything was coated, catalogued, and conserved, it was loaded into a 20-foot-long box truck and driven to Miami, at which point Hollis, Munson, and a team of four people spent close to two weeks installing the room, piece by piece. (Hollis missed Thanksgiving with his family, and dined at the fried-chicken-centric restaurant Yardbird, instead.)

Finding Collectors

The one thing Olsoff did not do—or at least, did very little of—was collector outreach. Normally, galleries will send emails to a long list of potential art buyers before a fair.

Munson certainly isn’t a household name, but she has name recognition in the art world and a devoted collector base. Theoretically, Olsoff could have contacted those collectors, or institutions that already have Munson’s work, and sent out pictures of The Garden, but she decided it would be a waste of energy.

“We do normal previews,” she said, referring to the PDFs that galleries send out with works they plan to sell at art fairs. “But this is a little different.” Even though the work is indeed social media catnip, it’s not an easy thing to quantify.

“The photographs [of the installation] are beautiful, Hollis explained, “but they still don’t do it justice, to the experience of standing here.”

At the Fair

On Tuesday, the fair’s Meridians section opened to a small group of VIP collectors. (The main fair opens to VIPs on Wednesday, and runs through Dec. 8.) Olsoff, Hollis, Pennington, and a few other gallery staff stood by the booth as people trickled into the convention hall.

About six minutes after the opening, Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, the husband and wife founders of the 21c Museum Hotels, came by the booth.

The 21c chain is known for filling its lobbies, rooms, and restaurants with contemporary art, and Olsoff already knew the couple, having sold them work before. Wilson and Brown looked at the room, and then Wilson, who was wearing a floral-print suit, posed for a photo with the installation. They then joined Olsoff and Hollis outside the booth.

“We own a piece by Munson already, which we bought 12 years ago,” Wilson said, in response to whether or not he was familiar with the artist. “And we just bought this piece.”

Olsoff tried—and failed—to stay casual. “Did you?!” she asked, at which point the three excused themselves to negotiate. (Olsoff told Bloomberg Pursuits the work’s asking price, but not the final settled price.) Two minutes later, they were back.

“It’s a done deal,” Wilson said. “It’s a spectacular piece— one of those things that takes my breath away.”

A little later—still only about 30 minutes into the opening of the fair—Munson, who received 50% of the sale price, came over and was told that the piece had sold, at which point she started to (lightly) hyperventilate. “Oh, my God,” she said, repeatedly.

By then, a significant crowd had gathered, with people posing in front of the room, or at least trying to, as dozens took photographs.

“This is really why we do this, ” Wilson said, gesturing to the crowd. “I love exposing the world to this kind of art, and helping living artists, and putting it all together.”

“See?” Olsoff said. “We’re not as foolish as you’d think.”