Priceless postcards in the Whodunit? preview gallery.
“Can I get eight hundred, eight hundred. Nine hundred. One thousand, thank you.”
At an auction, it takes seconds for a painting to go from one artist’s personal vision to a collector’s item.
“Eight hundred… Eight hundred… It feels great to bid sir, it feels great to bid. Don’t ask anyone, just go with your gut my friend. Eight hundred…”
It can also drag on for what feels like years.
The risks are high for young artists. A badly received show can be devastating, emotionally and financially. But before they fully dive into the deep waters of the professional art world, their school can provide a useful life preserver until they can swim with the big fish, offering criticism, advice, and exposure. The thinking is that from this guidance, a long, prosperous career will bloom that will allow the artist to someday repay the favour. And for many OCAD University students and graduates, that day comes with the Whodunit? Mystery Art Sale.
“Four thousand, going for five thousand. I’ve got all day, people. Four thousand, can I get five? Four thousand, final warning. Sold for four thousand dollars.”
And it’s working.
In its ninth year, the Whodunit? Mystery Art Sale has routinely raised almost one million dollars for the recently renamed OCADU, mainly garnered from the sale of donated works by former and current students and their contemporaries. At the Gala Preview on Wednesday night, professors, grads, artists, and art lovers were art-school-chic in OCADU’s Great Hall, itself a piece of art with pristine white walls and bold red tables and bars⎯the perfect backdrop for the exciting and innovative works that decorated its walls.
The creators of the works in the Emerging Artists Live Auction weren’t anonymous; their names were even splayed across the walls.
It was a night of “instant gratification for the art aficionado,” as the auctioneer for the Emerging Artists Live Auction put it. All eyes were on the major collectors as they scoped out the works from the school’s best up-and-comers. With an empty drink glass as a gavel, the auctioneer rattled off increments of hundreds in seconds, with final bids reaching anywhere from eight hundred to four thousand dollars, considered “bargain bin” prices by interior designer and OCADU alumnus and gala attendee Caroline Robbie. But with bids starting between three hundred and eight hundred dollars, these aren’t exactly Honest Ed’s deals. To the budding collector, they’re a little intimidating. That’s where the mystery sale comes in.
Wednesday also saw the launch of a preview of 1,538 postcard-sized original paintings donated by current students, graduates, and iconic artistic names such as Margaret Atwood, Charles Pachter, and Will Alsop (previous contributions have also included David Blackwood, Christopher Pratt, Bruce Cockburn, and Atom Egoyan). Shelf after shelf showed off the miniature masterpieces of all sorts of materials: paints, chalk, photographs, paper, fur, even plaster. The only things that weren’t proudly displayed were the artists’ signatures, so all remain anonymous until they go on sale for a mere $75 this Saturday.
“It democratizes the buying of art. It’s a great way to get people buying art,” said Robbie. “You’re gambling that you’re going to get a big name, but really, who cares?”
“Tonight is your night,” Catherine Bray, Chair of the Whodunit? Steering Committee, told the 550 gala guests, wooing them into opening their eyes (and wallets) to new talent. It was a night for the students, too, even though most were relegated to watching the party from the balconies overhead⎯not many art students can afford the $150 ticket.
Recent photography graduate Meryl McMaster did get to attend, however. She was invited since her photo “Viage” was auctioned off in front of her eyes—well, in front of her hands, which were in front of her eyes.
“It’s an awful feeling watching your work up there! You’re just like, somebody bid, somebody bid. My friends and I were like ‘Tell me when it’s over,'” she gushed, relieved that her submission raked in an impressive $3,800.
“I don’t know what to think about it. I feel privileged, honoured…” she giggled, clearly feeling the rush of the sell that was only slightly enhanced by the free wine. “I’m trying to live in the moment. You remember these moments.”
Art-goers try to guess Whodunit.
The low prices, anonymity, and size of the Whodunit? Mystery Art Sale really do provide an excellent gateway for blossoming buyers to begin their collection, and make it one of the not-to-miss art events of the year. That, alone, speaks volumes about its significance to Toronto’s art world, considering the event hasn’t even reached a decade as part of OCADU’s century-long history. But the real charm in the fundraiser is how it serves as the great equalizer between young, perhaps insecure artists and those of more celebrated status. They can all witness their work being appreciated for what it is, not who it’s by.
“It’s one of the best events. It’s inspirational. It brings attention to the artists, and it allows people to buy because they love it and not get caught up in the labels that happens so often,” said Robbie’s friend Deborah Noble, who finished her Environmental Design program two whole letters ago, when it was known as the Ontario College of Art. At the end of the night, she leaves clutching an original Katie Pretti stunner she got for $2,400. “I saw it, I loved it. I had to have it.”
More must-haves can be found this Saturday, November 20 at 10 a.m., when the Whodunit? Mystery Art Sale begins. It’s first-come-first-served, and it’s not uncommon for the first keen collector to start the lineup at noon on Friday to make sure no one else gets the first pick. The ups and downs of the buy can heat up art lovers even in the middle of November.
Photos by Joel Charlebois/Torontoist.