A private jet. Around 1,000 Canadian dollars ($731). And a series of painting lessons. In response to his offer proposing “more or less an identity swap,” these are the offers Darren Bader has received since putting his art practice up for sale.
Bader, a conceptual artist known for pushing the boundaries of value and ownership through his work, revealed earlier this year that he is looking for an exodus from the art world after two decades. His proposal, detailed in a contract by lawyer and artist Alfie David Steiner, was published in September, along with a video of artists and curators eulogizing Bader’s career and the implications of his project. The artist is seeking a seven-figure sum in return for signing over his artistic identity. The exact price? “Depends on the potential buyer,” Bader told Observer. Despite the 45-year-old’s impressive career, which has included participating in the Venice Biennale and receiving the Calder Prize, no one is biting.
Given the experimental nature of his work, which includes injecting lasagna with heroin, presenting live goats as sculptures and hiring an anonymous Art Basel attendee, it’s easy to take Bader’s proposal with a grain of salt. That was David Levine’s first impression. The artist and theater professor at Harvard University reflected on Bader’s offer during a panel hosted earlier this week by Triple Canopy. “I thought it was beneath him, I thought it was really stupid,” Levine said, describing the project as the sort of idea that “every first-year budding conceptual artist comes up with.”
But Levine has since come to view the art practice sale not as a gesture but a “very sincere expression of some kind of despair.” As a performance artist himself, he has borne witness to the difficulties of succeeding in an art market where the financial potential of conceptual works pale in comparison to tangible paintings and sculptures—in the early 2010s, he was dropped by several galleries in Berlin after a few years of representation. “You can’t really make a living forever being that way, it turns out,” he said at the panel. “So I don’t look at this as cute.”
Others in the art world have echoed the less forgiving path of conceptual artwork, especially after the 2008 crash. “Paintings were really foregrounded for very obvious reasons. They are the market that keeps the lights on,” said artist Anicka Yi in Triple Canopy’s video. Meanwhile, curator Kelly Taxter noted the potential “sense of exhaustion or built-in entropy to the project of being a young artist that then becomes a mid-career artist and sort of plateaus.”
How exactly does one sell an art practice?
Bader has been thinking about selling his artistic identity since May 2022, an idea that was triggered by “desultory trains of thought,” he told Observer. Although he isn’t sure what career he will pursue if the contract sells, it still allows for him to operate as an artist in the future—albeit under a different name. Pseudonyms including Aaron Bader, Moses Hosiery and Mined Oud are all on the table, according to the contract.
The legal document additionally stipulates that a buyer cannot reproduce Bader’s existing works, although they will be allowed to refer to them in new projects, according to Steiner, who told Observer that his legal work with Bader is among the strangest projects he’s undertaken. The hardest part was “making sure Darren wasn’t giving up more rights and that he was insulated from liability,” he said.
While Bader’s contract has made headlines, the artist initially considered bringing his sale to a larger stage by auctioning it off at Christie’s or Sotheby's. He’s previously used auction houses in his art practice, having fundraised £10,211 ($12,495) in cash to sell at Christie’s for £12,500 ($15,296) in 2015. But the auction idea didn’t get too far. “I suppose the auction houses not getting back to me was a welcome sign to think of less gimmicky venues,” said Bader. There’s still a chance that larger institutional players could be involved, according to Levine. “Realistically, the only interested parties with a million dollars lying around might actually be Gagosian or a gallery,” said the professor.
But as of now, Bader has received zero serious monetary offers. And the chances of receiving any in the future are low, according to Steiner. “It’s been the market for a while,” he said, adding that the public nature of the contract might be deterring potential buyers interested in assuming a new artistic identity. “I’m stuck with myself. No sale of practice likely to occur,” wrote Bader in a recent Instagram post. His project thus far has been “slightly disappointing” in its lack of surprises, he told Observer. “I think I just like to imagine life being more enchanted than life is.”