The Art of Not Knowing
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The Art of Not Knowing

Rows and rows of art in the “Whodunit?” mystery art sale.

For the past eight years, the Ontario College of Art and Design has been asking potential art buyers to put pretense aside and trust their gut in support of the school. “Whodunit?,” OCAD’s signature annual fundraiser, is a mystery art sale in which the name of the artist remains a secret until after you purchase the piece. It’s a refreshing concept in a creative marketplace so often dogged by an atmosphere of manufactured buzz and the dreaded art star.
In fact, it’s not only the authorship that’s removed from the selection equation, as the variables are even further diminished. Each work of art is the same size, 5.5” by 7.5”, and the same price, $75. With this militant simplicity, the criteria for selection is reduced to what the buyer actually likes. Unless, of course, you’re there to roll the dice. “Whodunit?” walks on both sides of the line between anonymity and celebrity. On one hand, the event offers you the chance to choose affordable art with your eyes and heart, and on the other, the possibility of walking away with a work by a big name.

Artworks on display in the public preview.

The scores of artworks for this year’s sale have been collected and displayed at OCAD since Wednesday. They can be previewed online or in person until 8 p.m. this evening, and the public sale begins tomorrow at 10 a.m. Attendees will receive a number as they arrive at the sale, and this is the order in which purchasers are called upon to make their selection. In the past, some people have lined up the night before to secure their place in the queue.
The fundraiser features over one thousand works of art, and to receive this many submissions, OCAD makes participating verge on fun for those, like me, who contribute. They even mail each person that requests one an artist package consisting of two pre-cut pieces of art paper to use for your creations, should you choose. Unfortunately, they inevitably arrived pre-creased by what could be inferred as Canada Post’s blanket “fold and bend” policy, which instantly rendered the unconventional 5.5” by 7.5” size even more of a hurdle. (The logic of a format just slightly larger than standard remains one of “Whodunit?’s” more profound mysteries.) After cutting pieces of wood to size, I produced two paintings, signed the back of the works (rather than the front), and sent them in.

A DJ performs at the gala event.

“Whodunit?” also has a ticketed gala event, which took place on Wednesday. It featured a silent auction of mystery works selected from among the submissions, and a live auction of larger-scale works obtained from emerging artists. We spoke to Wil Kucey, the chair of the “Whodunit?” Curatorial Committee to find out how the silent auction works are chosen. “We aim to choose works that offer a nice balance between recognizable artists’ works and works that are strong in their own right but are created by perhaps some lesser known artists.” Proving that “lesser known artists” are indeed represented in this group, one of my paintings went into the silent auction. It certainly adds a dynamic element to the experience—hovering inconspicuously near an auction sign-up sheet, trying to will people to bid on your piece with your mind.

A gala attendee considers the silent auction works.

The stress of the auction over, it was time for the best part—viewing the hundreds of mystery artworks at the preview, and finding your own amongst them. It’s hard to say just why wandering the shelves and musing about who might have made certain pieces is so enjoyable. It might be the dramatically different outputs that people manage to produce within the same, small rectangles. It could just be the sheer volume of works in one space. The small-scale, high-volume formula seems to strike a chord—AWOL gallery’s annual “Square Foot” show had a lineup down the street for its opening night this year. As a participant, it’s interesting to see how your work either fits in with or stands out from the masses. I’ll have to decide if I can brave the sale tomorrow to find out if and when my work gets chosen.

Visitors take in the larger, live auction artworks.

We asked Wil Kucey few more questions to get an organizer’s perspective on “Whodunit?”
Torontoist: How did the concept of a mystery art sale come about?
Kucey: The event is based loosely on a similar fundraising event in the UK, called “RCA Secret,” originated by the Royal College of Art. The idea of being able to highlight great art in a fun and engaging way speaks to the spirit of the OCAD community.

Who is the most unexpected or unusual contributor you’ve had to the sale?
One of our annual donors who might be a bit unexpected as a visual artist is author Margaret Atwood. In the past we’ve had works donated by David Blackwood, Bobbie Burgers, Ian Carr-Harris, James Lahey, Christopher Pratt, John Scott, Floria Sigismondi, Tom Cochrane, Bruce Cockburn, Burton Kramer, Jesus Mora, Charles Pachter, Andy Fabo, Reinhard Reitzenstein, Gary Taxali, and Atom Egoyan.
How much do you think the chance of acquiring a piece by a notable name influences people’s decision to participate in the sale?
It’s definitely a factor; we have some real keeners who line up very early to get first dibs. We’ve had people line up as early as 4 p.m. the night before and camp out (in November!). We open our doors and give out numbers to people who have lined up as early as 6 a.m. so that allows those who have waited in the cold to take a break and get a hot coffee or some breakfast. But there many more people who enjoy buying art in the event because it puts all the work on a level playing field, and they are forced to choose art simply because it speaks to them, rather than worrying about buying art they think is valuable based on the name of an artist. That’s really where the appeal lies in this event, for most of our supporters. But the fact that you could walk away with a treasure you love that also just happens to be created by an a-list artist is the icing on the cake! 

The “Whodunit?” public preview takes place at the OCAD main building at 100 McCaul Street, and ends today at 8 p.m. The sale opens at 10 a.m. tomorrow.
All photos by Michael Chrisman/Torontoist (who also has pieces in the show this year).