Sotheby’s Is Nixing Its Three-Year-Old Museum Prize Program, Which Honored Inventive Exhibitions, as It Looks to Cut Costs

The auction house said it would still honor all existing grant pledges.

The Sotheby's Prize jury, from left: Allan Schwartzman, Connie Butler, Emelie Gordenker, Sir Nicholas Serota, and Donna De Salvo. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Sotheby’s is ending its popular Sotheby’s Prize program, which supported museum shows focused on overlooked or underrepresented areas of art history, after three years, Artnet News has learned.

The program was initiated in late 2016 by former Sotheby’s CEO Tad Smith and executive vice president Allan Schwartzman, who left the company in May. Smith stepped down this past fall and was replaced by Charles Stewart four months after the auction house was acquired by French-Israeli telecom magnate Patrick Drahi for $3.7 billion.

The prize appears to have been a casualty of Drahi’s widely known penchant for cost-cutting—not to mention the cash crunch the business is experiencing as in-person auctions remain suspended in many parts of the world. The initiative awarded more than $750,000 during its run.

Sotheby’s says it will honor its existing commitments to shows that are still in formation. The most recent $250,000 annual prize was split between two exhibitions in São Paulo, Brazil, focused on indigenous art, as well as several $10,000 commendations for other shows chosen by the jury.

It has been an honor and a privilege to encourage and support the ideas and aspirations of so many institutions around the world these last three years,” a Sotheby’s spokesperson told Artnet News. “Moving forward, although we will no longer offer our encouragement in the form of the Sotheby’s Prize, we nonetheless plan to continue to support the important work of arts institutions as we have done through the Sotheby’s Preferred Program, sponsorships, benefit auctions, and other programs for many years.”

Over the years, the program has funded an exhibition at the Nasher Museum of Art on Latino and Latin American Pop art, a show outlining the ties between contemporary artists in the Middle East and South Asia at the MCA Chicago, and an exhibition about the history of Black cinema at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.

The jury that awarded the prize reads like a who’s who of the museum world: it included longtime Whitney Museum curator Donna De Salvo, chair of Arts Council, England Sir Nicholas Serota, Van Gogh Museum director Emilie Gordenker, and Hammer Museum chief curator Connie Butler. Schwartzman and celebrated curator Okwui Enwezor, who died in 2019, also served on the jury.

Joe Dunning, a former Sotheby’s executive who worked on the program and recently launched his own museum-sponsorship advisory firm, Dunning & Partners, hopes the prize will serve as a model for other companies looking for innovative ways to support boundary-breaking art-historical scholarship. “When the need is as great as it is,” he said, “there is a lot of opportunity to take up that torch and support museums in ambitious and generous ways.”

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.
  • Access the data behind the headlines with the artnet Price Database.