The math is simple; the job is not.

For the annual art sale at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, the goal is to sell out. That means moving at least 6,000 pieces of art in 14 hours, which breaks down to seven sales per minute.

It could happen.

Billed as the nation's largest student art sale, the event opens with a gala party Thursday. What started 15 years ago as a low-key event has evolved into a hot-ticket shindig at which sharp-elbowed collectors snap up new talent and canny artists launch careers.

"I had a few years where I did 40 pieces and they sold in the first half-hour," said Samantha French, a 2005 MCAD graduate. She began working the sale her freshman year and continued for five years after graduation, the maximum that alumni are allowed to participate.

At her peak, French earned enough to cover the cost of a year of college with sales of her colorful images of swimmers cavorting in sunny pools or splashing in the shimmering waters of Gull Lake near Nisswa, where she grew up. After graduation she moved to Brooklyn. Now she has just opened a show in Manhattan, sells her work on the Internet, does commissions for private collectors and exhibits regularly in Palm Springs, Calif., and Provincetown, Mass.

Her current prices top out at about $10,000 for an original oil painting, considerably more than in her college days.

The MCAD show "really propelled my career," French said, "but I wouldn't be able to live if I were still charging the prices I did as a freshman."

That kind of success is exactly what the MCAD event is designed to foster.

"The sale is about helping students cultivate their entrepreneurial drive and develop as professional artists," said MCAD spokesman Rob Davis.

Unlike many college art sales, it is not a fundraiser for the school. Students keep 80 percent of what their art earns. The other 20 percent goes into staging the event -- paying more than 150 students to install and package art, design advertising and run the gallery during the show. "What little is left over goes into a scholarship fund," Davis said.

As many as 400 artists participate, about equally divided between students and alumni. Much of the art sells for under $100. Prices top out at $1,000 for student work, $1,500 for alumni art.

Over 15 years, the school has paid out more than $1.8 million to the artists. "This year we're hoping to break that $2 million threshold," David said.

As always, there is something for every taste: paintings, prints, photos, pop art, landscapes, comics, esoteric stuff, toys, furniture, jewelry, DVDs.

Will there be leftovers when the sale ends Saturday night?

"There are always a couple of people who don't sell anything," Davis admitted. "It's always students, but they learn. We tell them again and again: Don't put assignments in the art sale because people can tell if it's just another life drawing. Or if it's so big only a few people have walls that size. But if you stay in the 3-by-4-foot size, so it can fit above a sofa or hang in the dining room, it will probably sell. "

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431