Springs Mystery Art Sale: The Most Exciting Fundraiser of the Year

Springs Mystery Art Sale at Ashawagh Hall
Springs Mystery Art Sale at Ashawagh Hall, Photo: Richard Lewin

The old wooden one-room school in the hamlet of Springs sits on a triangular green in the center of that place, now used, after more than a hundred years as the school, as a tiny community center called Ashawagh Hall.

Its service as a school ended in the 1930s when the community built a bigger school on the other side of Pussy’s Pond, and Ashawagh has since often been the scene of art exhibits for many of the famous artists who live in that community or in the surrounding area. Springs was at one time the center of the Abstract Expressionist movement. Jackson Pollock lived and worked here. Willem de Kooning. Max Ernst. Paul Klee.

About 700 students attend the Springs School today. The school goes from pre-K to eighth grade. And often over the years, the students from the school would hold art shows at Ashawagh Hall. It was a nice thing to do. But few people would come. Often you could also see the art the kids drew pasted in the windows of the school as you drove by.

Last Wednesday at 4 p.m., however, a show of the work from the kids at the school went on display at Ashawagh Hall. By 2 p.m. the early birds showed up with lawn chairs and set up in a line from the front door out onto the green to wait. By 4 p.m., this line extended entirely across the green. And it stayed that way after the doors opened, because it took time for each gallery goer to stop at the door and buy works in advance for $20 each, up to a maximum of five each.

The show was letting in approximately 85 people at a time. “Each paid $20 for a red dot with their number on it—at most, five dots. They’d take the time to choose paintings and put dots on their frames. Then they’d have to go back out and get to the back of the line if they wanted more,” Sue Ellen O’Connor, the Academic Enrichment Director at the school, later told me.

The gang at the Springs Mystery Art Sale
The gang at the Springs Mystery Art Sale, Photo: Richard Lewin

The line remained for several hours out there. New arrivals got on at the end. Those seeking re-entry got on at the end. There was an incredible melee of people inside, finding docents to help put their numbered red dots on paintings for quite some time. And this continued on for the next three days. It was only on Saturday at 8 p.m., with a huge crowd jamming Ashawagh, that the whole thing reached its climax. In the end, every piece in the show sold, raising money for the school’s Visiting Artist Program. With this program, established artists who live in the community are paid to teach a course at the school to create, with their students, a collaborative work of art to be put on permanent display there.

How could this incredible four-day art show create such excitement and raise so much money for this program? How it was done should be known by other fundraisers, not just for programs at other schools, but for other fundraising causes.

Three months earlier, the students at the school, in longhand, wrote letters to all the artists in this community asking them to submit a work for the show. If agreeable, each artist would create an original work to be put on sale along with the student art. A piece of paper 5”x7” was enclosed in the letter. All works of art would be that size. Indeed, to get over 1,200 up on the walls in that one schoolhouse room at the same time, they’d have to be small. The names of who did the paintings, all the paintings, would not be visible to the gallery goer. All paintings would be sold for $20. Therefore, at this Springs Mystery Art Sale, a gallery goer, over these four days, could not know if for $20 he’d get a student painting or a work of art from an established painter.

They chose exclusively by what they saw. And it would only be on Saturday at 8 p.m., at the end of the show, that it would be revealed who was who. Who wouldn’t want to buy a painting for that price by, for example, Eric Fischl (see below) or Sheila Isham or Hillary Knight or Mike Landi, just to name a few of the well known artists who participated in this exhibit?

My wife, Chris, and I went to Ashawagh Hall for this exhibit twice. We went on Friday afternoon around 4 p.m. The paintings were arranged in groups of 32–38 on every wall. There were 32 groupings, and above each was the name of a famous artist — Van Gogh, Renoir, Pollock, Klee, Cezanne, Picasso, Rothko — not because works of these artists were in the show, but because you could easily identify the paintings from the names.

Van Gogh wall at the Springs Mystery Art Sale
Van Gogh wall at the Springs Mystery Art Sale, Photo: Richard Lewin

My wife and I chose painting Cezanne 26 and found a docent who showed us where the little red dot (number 400) we had bought for $20 for that purpose went.

We arrived again on Saturday at 7:30 p.m., half an hour before what would be “the big reveal” was announced, to enjoy the show and the wine and cheese and hear local resident (and Town Trustee) Job Potter and band entertain. Who did the painting we’d bought? Ashawagh was festooned outside with huge red banners, each bearing an enormous white question mark. The docents wore red T-shirts with the question mark. There was more food and drink, kids from the school, their friends, locals, summer people, parents and gallery goers. There was also an auctioneer, Lucas Hunt, a young man with a suit, black bow tie, tousled hair and a microphone, vigorously conducting a live auction for 20 artworks submitted that “didn’t fit”—that is to say, were entered but were not five by seven. He stood in the middle of the room and coaxed the crowd up to $300, $400, even up to $1,400, for these oversized pieces. What a time! And then, exactly at 8 p.m., the docents came out with the long lists of who painted all the paintings and put them up on the walls adjacent to where they were, and the place went wild.

“Did you see mine?” a seven-year-old asked a friend. “Did you see mine?” asked painter Mike Landi. His painting had a red dot with the number 1 on it. The very first dot issued had been placed on his painting. A savvy gallery goer had thought perhaps he knew. And he did.

Well, the event broke up around 9 p.m., and all who bought paintings would be back Sunday morning to pick them up.

Besides the Mystery Art Show event, the Springs School has a program for fourth graders who make up and perform their own opera. They write the story, do the music, make the costumes and perform the opera at the John Drew Theater in town, beginning on the second Wednesday in January and then the next two days. Parents, teachers and staff also participate. A DVD of the opera is made and sold. Then the kids go by bus to see an opera in Manhattan.

In another program, the students, all of them, participate in the making of films. These are also publicly presented.

All praise to the Springs School, and particularly to parent Sara Faulkner, who came up with this idea, and to art teacher Colleen McGowan, who led the team that put it all together.

All four of my kids went to the Springs School. There are a lot of great public schools in the Hamptons. And this surely is one.

A valuable Eric Fischl work at the Springs Mystery Art Sale
Eric Fischl’s work at the Mystery Sale, Photo: Dan Rattiner

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