With works by both students and established artists, in a variety of media and every price range, the annual event offers treasures for all
The students at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts are intensely focused on creating new work for the critiques in their classes. Few take time to step back and appreciate how much they are achieving.
“They don’t even know how amazing their artwork is yet,” says Paul Kotakis, BFA06, organizer of the annual SMFA Art Sale, which opens later this week. “That’s a big part of what makes the art sale truly phenomenal.”
It isn’t just the artists and art dealers who benefit from this opportunity to preview, sell and buy work by a fresh generation of emerging artists. The SMFA Art Sale is free and open to the public, and proceeds support student scholarships at the SMFA. The sale runs this Thursday through Sunday, Nov. 17-20, at the SMFA, 230 the Fenway, Boston. Now in its 36th year, the sale takes up almost the entire first floor of the SMFA building, located across from the Museum of Fine Arts.
“We have many works in the sale by well-known, even renowned artists,” says Kotakis, who’s also associate director of development for the SMFA at Tufts. “But there is always the moment when a collector or gallery owner comes in, connects with a student’s work and starts to engage with the student. We have artists who have just graduated who, through this sale, have started selling thousands of dollars’ worth of artwork, and they don’t even have gallery representation yet.”
The art for sale encompasses all media. It hangs on the wall and stands on pedestals and in display cases. There are works on paper organized alphabetically by the artist’s name in V-shaped bins. As soon as a piece is sold, it comes down to make room for another. More than 100 storage spaces hold inventory waiting for a spot in the four-day sale, and there are dozens of SMFA staff and student art handlers working to refresh the work offered for sale.
Along with current student work, this year’s show includes more than 3,700 pieces by 700 alumni, faculty, staff and other artists associated with the SMFA, including visiting artists and those whose works have been consigned from top New York galleries or donated from the private collections of Tufts-affiliated donors, notably SMFA Medici members.
Prices range from $12 to $30,000, and the artists receive 50 percent of each sale. “An important aspect of the show is to teach emerging artists how to market their work,” Kotakis says.
“We try to represent the diverse range of work that is coming out of the SMFA,” he says, “so we have paintings, drawings, photographs, video, sculpture, works in fine metals, jewelry and even performance art, because our performance art department is very well respected in the art community.”
One of the two performance artists showing pieces this year, Liz Maelane, BFA19, has created a sculpture out of wire, wood and teacups called It. and she. The performance aspect, she says, “consists of me having a dialog with the sculpture. The first half is a kind of dance, and in the second half, I wear the piece and serve myself tea and biscuits.”
Maelane’s piece speaks to a recent incident in Johannesburg, South Africa, where she grew up, in which a 13-year-old girl in a private school was put in detention because her natural African hair did not conform to the dress code, and she refused to straighten it. After the incident was shared on social media, “it opened up a dialog for all of us girls who went to private schools that were predominately white,” Maelane says. The piece, she says, is a discussion about where and when traditional culture intersects with the process of assimilation.
“I identify with assimilated aspects of myself,” she says. “Etiquette and courtesy are values that I hold and practices I carry out that are dear to my heart, but at the same time, they symbolize oppression.”
Coming to a new school in a new country has been challenging, Maelane admits. “We have a certain way of speaking about race in South Africa,” she says. “Things are a lot more PC here. At first I was very concerned about not offending people, not making them feel uncomfortable, but I was recently reminded that that’s not going to get anybody anywhere. I’m nervous, but these are important conversations that people should have, and we can do that through art. The art sale is helping me regain my confidence.”
“I love the art sale,” says Greg Lookerse, MFA14, who’s showing 11 large wall hangings. “I call them drawings, but they’re actually low-relief paper cuts that stick out about an eighth of an inch,” he says. For each, Lookerse has folded and arranged book pages in the patterns of stained-glass windows. His favorite is called The Living Rose, inspired by pages from Annie Dillard’s The Living, from which it was literally created. He is also bringing several smaller pieces created from The Complete Works of Flannery O’Connor.
The SMFA Art Sale is the school’s largest fundraiser of the year; sales reach nearly $1 million annually. It is also a major alumni reunion and community-building event. “In addition to alumni bringing art or coming to see new work, we attract a huge audience because we lower the boundaries: our sale is not intimidating to walk into,” Kotakis says. “People love to dig through the bins and see what they can find.”
Rob Phelps is a freelance writer in Quincy, Massachusetts.
The SMFA Art Sale is being held at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts, 230 the Fenway, Boston, Nov. 17-20. Hours are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday (Nov. 17-19), and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday (Nov. 20). For more information, visit www.smfa.edu/art-sale.