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Art Dealers Pack It Up, Head North

July 19, 1986|ROBERT McDONALD

LA JOLLA — After 23 years of dealing in art in the area, Sigmund and Muriel Wenger are moving to Los Angeles.

It is a remarkable move, not only because of the couple's long identification with the San Diego art scene, but also because they are both in their 70s. The expectation would be that they would retire after having made a significant contribution to San Diego's art history.

But the Wengers have always been an adventurous pair. After World War II they moved to Mexico City, where they became involved in the art community as collectors.

In 1963 they opened a gallery in Tijuana, where, for a decade, they dealt in contemporary Mexican art with an unusual emphasis on younger artists rather than on the older, prominent figures such as Orozco and Siquerios. Along the way they also opened a gallery in San Franisco in 1969. After closing that space in 1975, they conducted business with dealer Charles Casat on La Jolla Boulevard in the Bird Rock area. Then in September, 1979, they opened their own gallery on Cass Street in Pacific Beach adjacent to the independently owned Fine Art Store.

The Wengers claim the distinction of having been the first dealers to bring contemporary Mexican art, other than that of the heroic, older generation, to the United States. They expanded their vision, however, to include California and New York artists and, later, Europeans.

"We're moving to L.A. because that's where our market is," said Sig Wenger. "We've been spending more and more time there, so we feel we might as well live there. We love San Diego. But L.A. is exciting now, and we feel it's worth living there. It's a trade-off, like New York. Who wants to live in New York?

"We also feel that we can't do justice here to the artists we represent. Many of them want to have exhibitions in Southern California, but it isn't meaningful for them to have shows in San Diego."

The problem, confirmed by many other art dealers, is the absence of serious collectors of contemporary art in San Diego.

The Wengers' anticipation that a significant interest in contemporary art would develop in the area has not, from their perspective, been realized, despite the opening of galleries like Thomas Babeor, Mark Quint and Patty Aande, and the presence of new direction at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art. Their optimism has dissipated and they closed their Pacific Beach gallery a year ago with an exhibition of works by Helen and Newton Harrison.

"The Harrisons," Sig Wenger said, "are two of the country's major artists, along with Manny Farber, Patricia Patterson, Italo Scanga and Eleanor Antin. They all teach at UCSD but are unknown in San Diego. Are these artists in local collections?"

The long-range result of the absence of serious collectors for the community, he said, is that, "Museums won't receive gifts of contemporary art. Their collections won't grow. And the feeling is, who's going to see the art here anyway?"

He added, discouragedly, "People think of San Diego as a laid-back beach community, not as an art center. And now it has the embarrassment of being the city that rejected Ellsworth Kelly." (Kelly was commissioned to design a sculpture for Embarcadero Park, but he eventually backed out after a public outcry over the design.)

Downtown art dealer Mark Quint (formerly located in La Jolla) said, "I'm sorry to see (the Wengers) go. But it's such a struggle here. I guess I'm surprised that they didn't move earlier. They have some really world-class artists, but San Diego doesn't have world-class collectors. It's a shame when San Diego loses any part of its art community."

Jose Tasende, who deals in art internationally from his La Jolla gallery, observed from a different perspective: "I very much respect their love of art, their romantic attitude. But I can't understand that they'd trade the paradise of San Diego for the craziness of L.A. It has a bigger market only because it has a bigger population, not because it is more cultured than San Diego.

"But it's true you can't make a living selling art here. There are unfortunately very few collectors."

The Wengers will open their new 4,000-square-foot space in the heart of Los Angeles' new, booming art quarter at 828 N. La Brea Ave. in late September, with an exhibition of paintings, drawings and prints by Spanish artist Antoni Tapies. They plan to represent an international roster of no more than 15 artists, including, in addition to Tapies, Europeans Jan Vanriet, Arman and Bernard Venet, and Americans Elaine de Kooning and Alice Aycock.

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