No one seems to recall exactly when the University of Nevada, Reno’s art department held its first Valentine Auction—but Professor Howard Rosenberg, who arrived at UNR in 1967, remembers why.
“It started as a fundraiser for the gallery—and a way of getting local artists and people who liked to dabble in art together,” Rosenberg said.
“Years ago, it was a silent auction kind of a thing,” Rosenberg said. But the silence only lasted until bidding closed, then things got a little raucous. “I would stand up on a ladder and ring bells and announce the winners,” he said. “I’ve got a big voice, and we didn’t have microphones.”
“It’s our way of giving back to the art department,” said artist Joan Arrizabalaga. She graduated from the department in the 1960s and still donates pieces to the auction. This year she’s contributed some ceramic pigeons with hearts on them.
Arrizabalaga sees the event as an incubator for community spirit.
“There’s that whole camaraderie when you’re going to school, doing new things, doing things you love,” she said. That dynamic has sparked a lot of long-term loyalty to the art department, and many art department graduates have contributed their work to the event over the years.
“Sometimes, things sold for much more than we thought they would possibly bring,” Arrizabalaga recalled. “There were other times when things sold for less than we thought they would.”
A few things about the Valentine Auction have changed over the years. Rosenberg no longer stands on a ladder. The event moved from the Sheppard Gallery to Student Galleries South, which can accommodate a larger crowd. And when curator Paul Baker Prindle took the helm of University Galleries in 2013, the valentine theme became optional. Professional artists get asked to donate artwork to various fundraising causes fairly often, he said, so he wanted them to be able to contribute work that already existed, as opposed to obligating them to make a specific kind of work just for this event—though some artists do have nostalgia for the days when hearts and lace were required, and several continue to take on the challenge of meshing their own styles with the holiday theme.
Amid the changes, many things about the auction have remained the same. It’s still anyone’s guess how much a piece will sell for. In recent years, prices have ranged from about $40 to $3,000. But you never know.
“There are auction estimates, but really, sometimes a price comes down to—you have two fervent bidders,” said Parker Stremmel from Stremmel Gallery, which has donated works by several artists including Tuscarora’s Ron Arthaud and late Reno artists Ingrid Evans and Jim McCormick.
The event is still seen as an important fundraiser. Last year’s auction grossed about $45,000, according to Baker Prindle, and a windfall like that helps seed additional fundraising efforts. The department depends heavily on government grants, which require that non-government matching funds also be raised.
Many in the art community still see the auction as an opportunity for artists from different backgrounds and different generations to mingle. This year’s event features work by art-world veterans such as Larry Williamson and Edw Martinez; instructors such as Ahren Hertel and Richard Jackson; and several current students.