Out of the Box by
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Shellbourne Thurber box

Through our years as active art collectors, we attended many art auctions, but rarely bought anything. An exception were the two works we bought from the Mass College of Art in 1994 done by celebrities that we hang in our bathroom, just for fun. We both love Gregory Peck and Steve Martin, so these were “no-brainers” for us. They were not expensive and a great way to support the school.

Purchased to benefit Mass College of Art.

In 1995, with a vibrant committee, I helped start a group called the “Young Patrons of the Rose”. We developed a wonderful three-part program; a tour of the museum followed by dinner, a visit to a collector’s home, and a visit to an artist’s studio in or around the Boston area. We had the formula down and the program was a great success. The Chair of the Rose was deeply involved and suggested we plan a fundraiser – an art auction.

We put together a great committee, headed up by the Chair’s step-daughter. Including the Brandeis Development Officer involved with the arts, there were 11 members of the committee, which began in 1999. I brought on the director of one of the leading galleries in Boston. She connected us with her stable of huge artists.

We met at least monthly, frequently more often. We batted around ideas and quickly came up with a winner – making boxes – 8″ wooden cubes, with the top left off, to give to an invited group of artists to be auctioned off, with the top-tier (10 of them, including Sol LeWitt, Shellbourne Thurber, Michael Mazur, Annette Lemieux, Philip Taaffe, who had just had a solo show at the Rose, and a few other notable local artists) auctioned live, the rest going silent from bid sheets. We put together a wish-list of artists and assignments to committee members to contact the various artists we wanted to make us the boxes to be auctioned off.

We called the event “Out of the Box”. We set the date of the event for Sunday, November 5, 2000. It had to be at a time when the Rose galleries would be empty (there was no Lois Foster wing at the time), as we took over the entire building to display the boxes and bid sheets. We erected a tent on the lawn in front of the museum (where the Chris Burden “Light of Reason” sculpture now resides, erected in 2014) for dining after the silent auction.

I was still an active collector at the time and knew all the top galleries in Boston, so approached many and got some of the top artists in Boston to participate. It was only a short time since the long-time and well-respected Rose director, Carl Belz, had left. I remained in touch with him. Most of the area artists knew him well. I used that relationship to leverage my “ask”. Many of these artists had work in the Rose collection, or I had bought work from the galleries I contacted.

Once we had all the boxes handed out and knew who all the participating artists would be, I was assigned the role of “artist wrangler”. I was in contact with the entire list of artists to make sure they completed and returned their finished works before the auction so we had time to inventory, price and our curator (the current Rose curator at the time) could figure out the installation.

We asked 66 people to make art work (including the president of the university and some of our committee members). I had a spreadsheet of who had picked up the boxes, when were they returned, how often I called them, etc. This was before the days of essential use of email, or even cellphones. I had studio phone numbers, addresses; people came in person to pick up and drop off boxes. I tracked it all (and still have the worksheets to prove it).

Others on the committee worked on catering details (cold food given out in boxes, of course), invitations, lists of people to invite, etc. Putting on any sort of a fundraiser is a huge endeavor. Reaching out to people who will spend money on art boxes is a specific crowd, but our “Young Patrons of the Rose” committee had been together for some years now and we had a built-in audience. And of course, we tapped the broader Rose membership and the Boston-area art world writ large. We had excellent artists doing interesting work. We spent 18 months putting it all together.

The curator put together a fantastic-looking show. Other members of the committee put the bid-sheets together and had the team ready to check out the winning bidders and wrap up the boxes efficiently for the trip home (at least they were relatively small and not too fragile). Through friends in the auction world, a professional auctioneer donated his services for the live auction. Dan and I bought two tables to the event to help ensure good turn out and some interesting people who could talk up what was valuable.

Of course it was a rainy, blustery November night. Inside the museum it didn’t matter. Getting under the tent…well, we all had fun. Just before the event was due to begin, we realized we needed someone to make announcements “hawking” what was available in each room, urging people to buy, and most of all, closing each room (there were three) where the silent auction took place. We looked at each. Yes, I was the theater person who could speak the loudest. I volunteered for the assignment and spent the evening hollering from the center of each room (upstairs and downstairs in the main Rose building, then in over the the Lee wing). We closed each room 15 minutes apart from the next. Much to my delight, Dan got into the spirit of things and bought one box from the silent auction, a lovely Jim Stroud black on black work. He is mostly known for his print making, but this a subtle beauty.

Jim Stroud box

We trudged through the inclement weather to the tent for some food (admittedly, the low point of the evening), libation, and the live auction. Dan got more excited by bidding wars going on for some of the well-know artists. The Sol LeWitt box, which he had de-constructed, was purchased by a Rose Board member and one of the largest contemporary art collectors in the US (he was fondly reminiscing about it to me earlier this year – it remains on his coffee table today). Others went for large sums of money. Dan got excited about the Shellbourne Thurber, a conceptual artist, whose work we followed at the Krakow Gallery in Boston. She had covered her box with pages from Freud and inside, placed a mechanical toy, turned on by a switch underneath the box. When activated, the toy rattled the box and said, “Help me, help me! Will you let me out of here?!” We loved it and paid a goodly sum of money for it. Dan hosted one table, I hosted the other. Our friends cheered us on, as Dan bid for the box. It was a heady experience.

In my file, I find a letter, written the day after the auction, thanking all the artists for their participation in our successful event. Of course, we found as many sponsors as we could to help underwrite it. We charged to attend, but the sale of the boxes was what made us money, as we had lots of expenses associated with the effort. I’m sure just renting the tent was very costly. In all, I believe we made a profit of about $40,000. The proceeds were used to underwrite the first show in the new Lois Foster Gallery, which opened in September, 2001, the Rose’s 40th anniversary year.

On a recent shiva call, I was in the home of one of my fellow committee members. Highlighted on shelves surrounding a fireplace in a condo full of exceptional artwork were two boxes from that evening. Another world-class art collector and I commented on them. She told me she still has her Gerry Bergstein, a box bought during the live auction. It is good to know more than two decades later, these boxes still have pride of place in the world.



Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.

Characterizations: moving, right on!, well written


  1. John Shutkin says:

    Everything about this story is great, Betsy. A brilliant concept that obviously engaged the artists to create delightful — and yet portable and affordable — works of art. And a wonderful event at which to auction them off, despite the weather. Plus, as I noted in my own story, having a professional auctioneering at the helm sure helps to excite the crowd and maximize the bids. Finally, as always, you tell and illustrate your story beautifully.

    Curating must have been truly exciting to do, though I’m sure the whole event was as exhausting as it was exhilarating. One thing I’d love to know, if you remember and feel at liberty to disclose: what were the artists’ takes on the sale of their works? (I’m thinking a percentage, but obviously have no idea.)

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      The artists all donated their work (Carl Belz would never let us do an auction like this because he felt it took advantage of the artists). I didn’t curate; I invited artists to be part of this event, then rode herd on ALL of them to ensure the boxes were turned in on time. The Rose curator set up the show within the confines of the museum.

      I had a delightful discussion with the Rose’s Development Director yesterday, not entirely to discuss Rose business. We are great friends and wanted to get together out of the office, but naturally, our discussion turned to Brandeis and the Rose. I FINALLY found my folder on this topic (I had looked for it when I first met with her some time ago), and brought it along. I hadn’t noticed, but right in the front of it was an envelop with the list of all the artists who turned in work, who purchased the work and what they paid. MANY of the boxes sold for four figures and the two purchased by our Board member, who is also one of the great collectors in the US paid five figures for his two boxes – more than 20 years ago! So don’t make assumptions about pricing. I can’t remember if we set minimums (perhaps we did), but for the most famous artists, their value was known throughout the art community and bidding wars ensued.

  2. Kudos Betsy on organizing and running that fundraising auction and raising $40,000 for the Rose!

    I was wondering how big the boxes are but now I see they fit on the coffee table.

    And fun to hear you hang art in your bathroom, one of our Danielle Mailers I wrote about hangs in a bathroom too!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      The boxes were 18″ cubes, Dana – not too large. The one done by Sol LeWitt was deconstructed, so no longer a cube at all. That was pretty cool. Those “self-portraits” by celebrities are just fun, not great art, so it’s fun to hang them in the bathroom. We don’t worry that moisture will ruin them. And we look at them and enjoy them all the time, as I’m sure you do with your Danielle Mailer.

  3. Suzy says:

    I love your Steve Martin and Gregory Peck drawings! It must have been exciting to bid on them. Did you have a lot of competition? I also love the idea of having famous artists decorate boxes, and that you were the “artist wrangler” to make sure they all got them done. Thanks for showing us two of the boxes. It would have been fun to see them all, especially the deconstructed Sol LeWitt one. What a great event, bad weather and all!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      The celebrity sketches had fixed prices as part of the silent auction, so no bidding war at all. We just put our name on the sheet and they were ours. Simple.

      I have only seen the deconstructed Sol LeWitt once since it was sold and that was several years ago, so can’t share it with you now, but that would be fun. The entire event was a lot of work, but also very rewarding.

  4. Marian says:

    Betsy, how cool an auction was this! Love your photos and descriptions of the works. The celebrity art adds a touch of whimsy to your bathroom, and I bet is a good conversation starter.

  5. Khati Hendry says:

    I am really impressed with what a big undertaking the project was, but it clearly paid off in enjoyment and ability to raise money for the arts. I was also impressed with your networking ability–it is all about who you know (and how you leverage that). It must have been a challenge working with so many different artists and getting everything organized, a challenge well-met.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, Khati. Everyone working on this project looks back on it fondly. We all became good friends and thought we worked well together and certainly had great results. It was a big endeavor, but well worth it. In discussing it yesterday with the current Rose development officer, she asked if we could do something like this again, but I don’t think we have the infrastructure in place to pull it off any longer (unfortunately, our membership program and the “Young Patrons” program were disbanded years ago…those are stories unto themselves).

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    What an ambitious undertaking, Betsy, especially in the pre-computer, email, smart phone era. Brava for a job well done!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, Laurie. I just added up the total for what was spent on the boxes…we brought in am impressive sum! But they truly were works of art by well-known local (and in some cases – nationally known artists), so acquiring them for the prices paid was still a great deal and a wonderful way to support a fantastic museum. And I got to know most of the artists pretty well (obviously not the “big name” artists; we dealt with their studio assistants). Now it would all be done via email – much less personal. We did have some computer support for word processing, just not email addresses and certainly not cellphones.

  7. Dave Ventre says:

    Long ago I bought a lovely sketch of a New York City street scene from an artist who was selling his drawings off of a blanket in mid-town. Still waiting for him to get famous….

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      As long as you like, Dave. We learned long ago that in most cases, there is no secondary market for the art we buy and we have to love it and want to live with it a long time. That’s the only thing that matters.

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