The Art of the Matter

The SMFA annual art sale, with works by both students and established artists, opens November 16

SMFA art sale space before it opens

Ten years ago, real estate developer Juan Prieto looked at the bland lobby of a Cambridge office building and knew it cried out for art. But he wanted real art—not the mass-produced kind “that offends no one and looks pretty, but really isn’t art,” he said. Next door, the Royal Sonesta Hotel’s display of original works was impressive, but well beyond his modest budget.

“I thought, why not try to find student artists?” said Prieto. Fortunately, that question coincided with the annual art sale at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts—now SMFA at Tufts University. There he found an astounding array of original—and affordable—art. He bought about 20 photographs, framed them, and put them in the lobby in the style of a gallery exhibition.

“I was surprised by the response,” said Prieto. “I would get calls from our tenants: Where did you get that art? Where I can buy it? They were curious, and that was my goal, to give original art the exposure it deserves.”

That encounter did more than introduce him to the sale; it opened up a volunteer role he’s carrying on today as co-chair of the SMFA Art Sale Committee. These days he’s busy raising awareness about the annual art sale, now in its 35th year. The sale at the school starts Thursday, November 16, at 10 a.m., followed by a public reception from 5 to 8 p.m. that evening. The sale ends on Sunday, November 19 at 5 p.m. Admission is free.

"Connected," a mixed media collage by Edie Bowers, hangs in the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University, in preparation for the annual upcoming art sale. Photo: Anna Miller"Connected," a mixed media collage by Edie Bowers, hangs in the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University, in preparation for the annual upcoming art sale. Photo: Anna Miller
The largest contemporary art sale in New England, it is billed by organizers as a “destination for art collectors and for those who simply love art.” It will feature nearly 3,000 works by almost 600 SMFA students, alumni, faculty, and other affiliated artists. The sale also includes a pop-up jewelry shop in the SMFA’s Barbara and Steven Grossman Gallery, and an assortment of unframed works. 

“You will see more art than you could ever imagine in one setting and in every media,” said Prieto, including paintings, drawings, photographs, sculpture, prints, video, ceramics, jewelry, and outdoor art. “There is something for everybody, and for any budget.” For many people, “the sale has become a personal and fun alternative to the frenzy of holiday gift-buying,” he notes. He advises visiting more than once, as the selection is constantly being refreshed as pieces are sold.

The sale is also an opportunity for students to learn how to display and sell their work, exhibiting alongside internationally known alumni and faculty members. It is also the school’s largest fundraiser—the biggest year to date raised more than $1 million. Proceeds from each sale are split 50-50, with half going directly to the artist and the other half to financial aid and other resources for students. Prieto said he is pleased to report a steady, upward trajectory in attendance and in dollars raised. Last year, more than 4,000 patrons visited the sale.

It’s inspiring, too, said Prieto, seeing the extraordinary caliber of work created by students and alumni. Some of school’s famous graduates support the benefit; Prieto, who gravitates toward contemporary photography, mentions emerging photographer Lalla Essaydi, who received her B.F.A. in 1999 and M.F.A. in 2003. But equally exciting, he said, are the students. “They are fearless,” he said.   

Prieto invites to the sale his network of architects, developers, interior designers—professionals who are always keen to enliven, as he is, offices and homes with original art.

That enthusiasm and outreach, he said, is generously shared by all those involved in organizing the sale, starting in the early fall. “All of us in the school community come together to make this a success,” he said. “We all hope to engage as many different people as we can around the excitement of the sale and to get original art in the hands of more people.”

The SMFA Art Sale is held at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts, 230 the Fenway, Boston, November 16 to 19. Hours are Thursday, November 16 to Saturday, November 18, 10 a.m.–8 p.m. (opening reception, November 16, 5–8 p.m.); and Sunday, November 19, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Admission is free.

Laura Ferguson can be reached at

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