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Imagine an art sale featuring thousands of world-class pieces from hundreds of world-class artists where no piece is priced above $1,500. Now: Why imagine? It happens annually—in your own backyard.

This year’s MCAD Art Sale takes place the weekend before Thanksgiving, as it has every year for the last 25 years. The crowd starts to gather around 5 pm for the official kickoff at 6 pm. Many in the bubbling buyers’ crowd behind the velvet ropes crane necks to spot the right painting, the right print mounted on the wall, edge to edge salon-style. There are big names in there, at a bargain. There’s the shock of the new in there, at a bargain. Maybe you could get a piece from the next Julie Buffalohead, who, before her work was exhibited nationally and globally, was an MCAD student herself.

“MCAD prepares the passionate students who become our community’s makers, thinkers, and collaborators,” explains Cindy Theis, MCAD’s VP of institutional advancement. “The sale is a chance for the community to come inside and say: I support you. Did you know the Target bullseye was done by an MCAD alum? The bridge at the Japanese garden at Lake Harriet? Who designed your Room and Board coatrack? Do you know Greg Hoffman, the big creative director at Nike? Did you see Lizzo on the Grammys? That’s design work by Quinn Wilson, an amazing [MCAD alum] creative director. In my opinion, most people in Minneapolis or St. Paul interact with something that came out of MCAD every other day and just don’t know it,” says Theis.

Buyers with assistants and apartments to decorate fly in from New York for the sale. It’s a must-attend for everyone from local gallery owners to glam gals from Edina carrying photos of the living room sofa and the measurements of the blank space above it to art school students themselves.

Each student and alum that has graduated within the last five years can have 25 pieces in the sale. If they have more work, they can restock. This year, the art show will also showcase work from alumni who have graduated in the past 25 years, who can display up to 10 pieces total. MCAD helps prepare students for this moment by helping them learn how to price work, how to size work for sale, and how to think about this as a career-founding marketing and branding opportunity.

“When I was a student, I’d stand near my paintings and schmooze,” recalls Sarah Wieben, an abstract painter and MCAD alum who now operates out of a studio in the Northrup King Building and also teaches at MCAD. “I think I was the second-highest earner one year, and it made all the difference in the world to me and my debt. You can meet the various gallerists and designers who shop the sale, and people I met there became how I made a living going forward. Sometimes I want to say, ‘Artists are generous by nature, but we get tapped so much for donations—we’re the poorest people, and we need to sell work, not donate it!’ That’s why I love the MCAD student art sale. You’ll see people after at Rainbow Chinese or Black Forest, Little Tijuana, celebrating, ‘I just sold $5,000 worth of work! Now I can eat; now I can buy more canvas!’”

For the event, MCAD takes 20 percent for the costs of running the event and puts anything left over into the scholarship fund. The artists take home 80 percent.

“I was teaching when I was a student, and I made as much as half of my salary in that weekend,” recalls Gregory Euclide, one of 150 past alumni participants that graduated in the past 25 years who were invited to this year’s sale. “I’d hear about who actually bought it from the framers: ‘Oh, this one’s going to the Dayton boys; this is going to the Cargill estate in Palm Springs.’ It’s kind of funny, because the legend among Minneapolis artists is if someone here has $20,000 to spend on art, they fly to New York or Los Angeles or wherever and purchase work there. Because they think they’re buying more important or relevant art because they’re out of town. Inside that dynamic, the MCAD Art Sale kind of breaks the rules because, since people think they’re getting work at a bargain, they think they can buy it here.”

It’s a tradition with deep roots. The Minneapolis College of Art and Design was originally established as part of the Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts with Mia in 1886. In 1988, after more than 100 years of partnering history, the sister organizations split, making MCAD one of only a handful of art and design schools in the country, alongside Rhode Island School of Design and Parsons School of Design in New York City. Today, MCAD feeds the local furniture design and advertising and marketing communities many of their employees—Room and Board and Target are particularly full of MCAD alumni.

“MCAD prepares the passionate students who become our community’s makers, thinkers, and collaborators.”

Cindy Theis

[MCAD has] a multidisciplinary approach,” says Euclide, who now lives in St. Peter and whose work has appeared in galleries in Paris, New York, Los Angeles, and many other cities. “You can learn welding anywhere—but only the kind of welding I wanted to do from an artist. Vacuum forming. Aluminum casting. Acrylic jigsawing. What’s unique about MCAD is that they never want you to say, ‘I’m a painter,’ and ignore everything else. I teach now, and I’ll ask my students, ‘OK, you decided to draw a person or a flower. But why on a square of paper? Because squares fit in boxes, fit in shipping containers? What if you didn’t want a square?’ MCAD would say, ‘What if you made your own paper? What if the best way to say what you want about that flower is performance, so maybe take out a video camera?’ Understanding art as a force, and having the skills to express it, that’s the big stuff, and that’s what MCAD makes happen.”

Last year, about 6,000 pieces of art informed by MCAD’s teachings sold at the sale, which was virtual due to the pandemic. This year’s event is a return to the in-person sale. The VIP opening night is November 17, which comes with a $150 price tag but gets you first pick of the sale. The second night is the most popular, with a $25 ticket, DJs, and the biggest crowd. On the third day, for true bargain hunters, admission is free.

“Don’t forget to tell everyone how powerful it is to walk in, with this visual overload—an absolute ocean of artwork,” says Wieben. “It’s such a powerful moment. Every time, it instantly puts a broad smile on my face. That’s the art of now!”

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