Samantha French remembers the first time one of her paintings sold at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design auction.
"There was so much emotion in the room that I just stood there with my mouth open as the bidding went from $6,000 to almost double that amount," she said.
She again has donated one of her pieces for this year's event, which features works from about 50 emerging artists. The live auction on Friday also has another distinction: It will be hosted by Christie's.
The partnership with the world renowned auction house is the latest sign of a strengthening Twin Cities art scene, with bigger attendance and sales at local art crawls and multiple gallery openings in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
The MCAD auction has local art enthusiasts buzzing about what it's like to be at a Christie's auction and artists energized by the spotlight placed upon them. "It puts MCAD on a bigger stage, on par with the East Coast schools," French said. "The Midwest gets overlooked too often."
Some are hoping the auction will be a boost to the larger Twin Cities visual arts community. "The door is opened a crack, and we want the local market to regain the traction we lost in the early '90s," said Miles Fiterman, an MCAD trustee and co-chair of the art auction.
The Warehouse District in Minneapolis was home to a thriving arts market in the 1980s, but by 1992 most of the galleries were closed — or moved — and did not return. During the most recent recession, even more gallery owners quit the business.
"The Twin Cities gallery scene struggles," said Greg Hennes, an art consultant with 29 years of experience. "Too often the shows and open houses are an excuse to party, not to buy art."
But hopeful signs have sprung up in the past several years. Hennes and several other art insiders are trying to resurrect the Twin Cities Fine Arts Organization, a group of galleries, colleges and museums that advocated for visual arts.
Several newer galleries dot the metro landscape, including Instinct and Gamut in downtown Minneapolis, Veronique Wantz in the North Loop and Flow Art Space in St. Paul's Lowertown.
"The Twin Cities' strong point is that we're known for high-quality art that's affordable compared to the East or West coasts," said Sally Johnson, director at Groveland Gallery near the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
In addition to MCAD's auction, now in its third year, pop-up exhibitions are gaining popularity. "Renting a space for 30 to 45 days avoids costly overhead and inventory," Fiterman said.
One proven method gaining momentum is the success of art crawls, from Lowertown's semiannual events and first Fridays to first Thursdays of the month in northeast Minneapolis.
Alejandra Pelinka, executive director of the Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association, said the success of events such as Art-a-Whirl held earlier this month in northeast Minneapolis are now bringing in residual sales year round.
"The majority of artists are reporting higher art sales and new buyers at this year's event," she said. "But they've also noticed customers who are returning to the galleries at other parts of the year."
The buzzy North Loop neighborhood in Minneapolis — with an amazing coterie of new restaurants, boutiques and home furnishings stores — is hoping the crowds will stop in the art galleries on June 18 during its first art crawl. Teresa Engeltjes, director at Circa Gallery in North Loop, feels that Circa sits in a luxurious position.
"We've been in this location for nine years, and the neighborhood is really coming together," she said. "We're not just eking by. The gallery is doing better every year, selling pieces from $1,000 to $20,000."
Groveland Gallery also is seeing an uptick in business. It has taken hits during its 30-year history, Johnson said, "but people are comfortable spending money on art again, from a $200 etching to a $20,000 painting."
French, a 2005 MCAD grad who grew up on the lakes of northern Minnesota, now lives and works in New York City. Her pieces of tranquil bodies swimming, sinking and floating easily command $10,000 now. But during MCAD's popular student art sales held in November, she developed a strong local following for work she sold for less than $1,000. She realizes that she's one of the lucky artists whose work allows her a comfortable income.
While many might find it difficult to believe that an "emerging" artist could command $10,000 for a 4-foot-square painting, French's success is proof that MCAD as an institution is maturing.
"MCAD's auction is an opportunity to see a newer artist who's been given a great seal of approval," said Steven Zick, vice president and director of Christie's Chicago and the auctioneer for Friday's event. "It allows the passionate collector to find artists who've been given the thumbs up at a moderate price point."
Lars Mason, retired director of academic services at MCAD, hopes the Christie's name will bring serious Twin Cities collectors to the auction.
"There's a long tradition of Twin Cities collectors looking online or in New York or Berlin, but not here," he said.
By Christie's standards, emerging artists sell in the $5,000 to $20,000 range, but only a handful of galleries in the Twin Cities regularly sell consistently in that niche. Most try to accommodate nearly all buyers with price points from $100. The 74 works to be auctioned at MCAD have estimated values of $500 to $18,000.
"We don't want to be intimidating or exclusive," said Johnson. "We want people to know that it's fun to look at art. And we give them more choices than they'll find at Pottery Barn or Crate & Barrel."