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Art Celebrates Life: “Expect Art Auction” at Sean Kelley Gallery

There is a very old (and recently revived) proverb about the sharing of knowledge: the gift of food, it says, feeds the recipient for a day, but teaching him to grow his own is sustenance for a lifetime. That is the kind of empowering vision behind a recent art auction to help low-income parents have healthier babies. “Expect Art” was mounted to benefit the What to Expect Foundation, an unusual group that promotes prenatal health through education of low-income mothers-to-be. One of its founders, Heidi Murkoff, is also co-author of What to Expect When You’re Expecting, a bestseller many times over and hailed as a pregnancy bible. Ms. Murkoff was motivated to write it when she looked for helpful information during her own first pregnancy and instead found books that only increased her fears; she says that she and her husband Erik—then her “inspiration” and now a board member of the foundation—“worried themselves through the entire nine months.”

In response, What to Expect (WTE) gave expectant mothers a frame of reference for their physical and emotional changes, along with advice and reassurance for one of life’s most challenging times. To adapt that tool for mothers of limited means, Murkoff and the foundation created Baby Basics, a guidebook that offers a warm and engaging accessibility, while confronting the realities faced by low-income parents. Given this country’s disproportionately high infant mortality rate, such a guide is urgently needed. The foundation publishes and distributes the book free of charge through clinics and health-care providers with the first prenatal visit. Eyeing its goal of reaching every disadvantaged mother, WTE selected May 12th (Mother’s Day) as an auspicious date for fund-raising through a stellar benefit auction at Sean Kelly Gallery.

On the subject of expectations, Ms. Murkoff’s sphere of activity fractures one’s preconceptions of a bestselling author, art collector, and mother of two. Murkoff has gone to Rikers Island and given seminars to pregnant inmates, where she hears “the same concerns and questions (she) encounters at a mall in Ohio or a bookstore on the Upper East Side.” Further, she researched her audience by holding focus groups in inner-city areas and talking to urban health care providers to find out what would work and what wouldn’t. Looking back on her first book (a resource that is as much counselor as reference), Murkoff says that despite its help to 20 million parents, “it wasn’t enough.” She and her co-authors always knew that low-income mothers were not likely to be among their readership. “We were missing an entire segment of the pregnant population… women who are poor and can’t afford books. Or women who can’t read well. The women who need the information and support the most, but who are least likely to receive it.” The WTE Foundation arose to bridge this gap, addressing the needs of low-income mothers by giving them information that supports healthy pregnancies and healthy babies.

The idea for “Expect Art,” Sean Kelly explains, emerged from a dinner conversation between himself and his friends of many years, the Murkoffs. In talking about the foundation’s work that evening, Kelly expressed his admiration and the fact that he would love to do something to help—perhaps even bring it to the art world. The three then concocted a plan for a benefit art auction, and from that point on, Kelly and his gallery were feverishly involved in engineering the event. Kelly says that he found the Murkoffs to be remarkable people even before their work with the foundation, citing Heidi’s books, which helped an entire generation of parents. The couple felt lucky, he said, for the success of their undertakings and wanted to give something back. The result was the WTE Foundation, which, as Kelly remarks, is especially noteworthy for its respectful view of the people it assists—its underlying premise is that people are smart, and if given access to the information they need, will use it to make wise choices. Its philosophy is non-judgmental and simply pro-information. Kelly said that this is an extraordinary achievement with the potential for profound results—and that it is a pleasure to be participating in an “event that honors their work.”

The event was indeed stunning on multiple levels. As an exhibition, it scintillated with numerous handsome works, like Samuel Fosso’s arrestingly fresh portrait of third-world urban youth and Seydou Keita’s radiant and queenly double madonnas. Additionally, as a sale of artworks, the selection was as eclectic a mix as one could wish for, ranging from Wes Mills’ ineffable graphite drawing to Lorna Simpson’s “Jumbo” handbag, and from Joel Shapiro’s constructivist woodcut to Laurie Anderson’s brick with attached audio wiring (appropriately titled “Singing Brick”). The appeal of this accommodating variety was not lost on the crowd, as evidenced by the accumulation of bids on every piece in the silent auction within 30 minutes of the doors’ opening. An hour later the live auction roared into high gear, with a continual barrage of bids like a hail of gunfire. Numerous pieces were especially hotly contested, like Ann Hamilton’s soft-focus video and Louise Bourgeois’s small enigmatic bronze. At the same time, conviviality ran high in this gathering of collectors, artists, celebrities, and representatives from major museums—with the added glow of everyone knowing it was all for a wonderful cause.

Looking ahead, the creators of “Expect Art” have other projects in mind. Having completed the Spanish version of Baby Basics, they are now contemplating other translations. In addition, the foundation is working on a series of prenatal videos for those in their audience still resistant to text; they will feature the style of hip-hop and the energy of dance. By the end of 2002, the Foundation projects its distribution at 200,000 copies in English and 100,00 in Spanish. With the million or so births every year that occur below the poverty level, the foundation faces an imposing task. However, the Murkoffs have made substantial progress through this event, in terms of spreading the word about this work, as well as raising over $300,000 to sustain it. With this influx of funding, it seems clear that many more low-income mothers will receive the support they need for their greatest labor of love, and they may even acquire a love of reading in the process. In the meantime, fans of WTE (and their efforts to give all babies a healthy start) should keep a weather eye out for similar evenings, like “Expect Music” and “Expect Film.” The next opportunity to impart knowledge may come sooner than you think.


Deborah Everett


The Brooklyn Rail


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