Inside’ the SMFA: student work goes up for sale

Just next to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) is a humble, brick building which houses the studios of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA). It’s a structure almost overshadowed by the monumental MFA, but it still serves an important role, pumping fresh blood into the established art world. Beside the location of Van Goghs, Warhols and ancient treasures, SMFA students roll up their sleeves to create the next generations’ masterpieces.

Celebrating this spirit of creation is InsideOut: The Museum School Art Sale, which began yesterday evening and lasts until Nov. 23. Boasting some 4,000 works and media ranging from ceramics to video installations, the event can safely call itself the largest public art sale in New England, having sold over $1.1 million worth of artwork in 2007 alone. Artworks swap as visitors shop

Squeezing more than 4,000 works under one roof is a massive undertaking; the space only allows for between 400 and 500 pieces to be shown at any given time. The solution: a body of artwork which rotates paintings, photography and sculptures as they are purchased. The process of orchestrating a successful switching of pieces throughout the sale falls on the shoulders of SMFA curator Joanna Soltan. “It’s like curating every 10 minutes,” she said. Soltan aims to have only one piece by any particular artist on display at one time in order to represent as many contributors as possible. Two-dimensional media generally allow for only two framed submissions from any given artist and a few in shrink wrap, while smaller works such as jewelry and pottery may come in larger collections.

Another challenge Soltan faces in curating the sale is the immense diversity of media and styles. “Sometimes it’s not just an issue of the temptation to simply rotate so that all the pieces will be shown at all times,” she explained, “also [sometimes] the piece doesn’t like the location it’s in … I can say this piece is really happy where it is, or no, it isn’t.”

The disposition of a piece, according to Soltan, depends on the other works around it. Bright, contemporary prints must mix with flower photography and elegantly balanced pottery in a way that appears coherent, but still retains the originality and impact of each individual work. Professionals and students share space

Over 800 artists pulled from a variety of age groups and experience levels are represented in the sale. SMFA faculty, students and internationally-praised alumni mingle across the walls and floor space of the first floor. Established SMFA alumni such as Jim Dine, Mike and Doug Starn and Ellsworth Kelly have contributed several works. Passing one of Kelly’s minimalist black-and-white paintings, with a simple form which almost bends the space of the canvas, one reaches a room full of famous artists affiliated with the SMFA. Kiki Smith’s print on yellow silk charmeuse called “Sitting with a Snake,” commands attention and has already sold one of its five copies.

It is undeniable that the works submitted by the SMFA students are polished and professional. Stand-out pieces include the masterful oil painting by Soo Jin Kim entitled “Arranged Oreos,” a piece which depicts exactly what its name suggests. SMFA Press Coordinator Brooke Witkowski expressed her delight with the piece most accurately when she said, “I didn’t even realize it wasn’t a photograph until Soo Jin Kim won an award for painting!”

BFA candidate Brandon Andrew brings a different skill to the show. His installation made of balloons and lights, a piece which represents the ephemeral quality of several events in a life, showcases his ability to come up with daringly different concepts. Soltan praised Andrews’ innovation. “This is a really talented artist with an incredibly broad range of ideas,” she said. “Every idea of his is different from the other, bold and often site-specific as well.”

Each year, Soltan and her colleagues hold a preliminary meeting for the InsideOut show in order to discuss who should submit work for the sale, and they never fail to be impressed by the results. “When students do bring work it’s really when they’re ready, when their work is really strong,” she said. It is no wonder, then, that the works of SMFA students in the show this year are incredibly sophisticated and of professional quality. The collectors and the prices

InsideOut not only displays student work of gallery quality, it also offers an opportunity for SMFA artists to make important connections with collectors, which may be their gateway into the gallery arena.

Soltan spoke of SMFA alumni whose admirers now regret not buying their works from the beginning. Now-renowned alumna Lalla Essaydi, for example, graces one wall with her magnificent print of a Moroccan woman covered in cloth and Arabic script, part of her exploration of the objectification of women. The piece has a hefty price tag of over $18,000, but during her undergraduate years at the SMFA, Essaydi’s work could have been purchased for just a few hundred dollars.

Prices on the works can be as low as $5, but most are upwards of $100. The proceeds go toward SMFA student scholarships and financial aid, hoping to further to cultivation of upcoming artists’ work. Sale mission moves forward with a backward step in the calendar

The SMFA sale has formerly been called the “December Sale,” emphasizing the opportunity for holiday shopping, but was moved to November and renamed in order to bring the event back to its original purpose. “While we certainly embrace people coming in to shop for the holidays and buy gifts,” Witkowski said, “we’re just trying to bring it back to a year-round collecting. There’s always work happening here, as opposed to a kind of holiday-time sale.”

After serving nine years as a curator, Soltan believes that it is the discovery of fabulous works by those who surround her in the little brick building that makes InsideOut so rewarding. As she stood in front of an intriguing student photograph and beside the construction of Andrews’ balloon installation, Soltan said, “I think I always really look most forward to the adventure of new work by students. What changes is that some years one medium is stronger than another, but always repeatedly that is the exciting part.”

The InsideOut Sale is open today from 12-8 p.m. and continues Friday through Sunday from 12-6 p.m. at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, 230 The Fenway in Boston. Admission is free.