SAN DIEGO — At 36, Doug Simay is one of the city's youngest and most ambitious art collectors. A physician who splits his time between family practice in La Jolla and work in the Paradise Valley Hospital emergency room in National City, Simay also bankrolls a coffee house, called Java, that he opened last year in downtown San Diego's emerging art district.
When not otherwise occupied, he prowls studios and a select number of galleries in San Diego and Los Angeles, in the endless search for the next good buy. Part of the artistic results of his forays decorate the walls of his simple two-bedroom condo.
But much of Simay's art collection is stored. He just does not have the wall space to hang it all.
Simay raves about the quality of the contemporary art scene in San Diego and Southern California, which he says "absolutely can hold its own with contemporary work in New York and Europe."
"You can take take any piece of art here, and just by taking it across the country, treble the price."
He says most San Diegans are unaware of the local art market because they are "too wound up with their ranch-style houses and Mercedeses. Their status is in their houses and cars."
"It just doesn't make any sense to buy designer labels and templated objects--a Mercedes--when you could purchase an art object that someone has put his soul into," he said. "I wish plumbers and carpenters were that cheap."
Simay acknowledges that anyone who wants to collect art does need "discretionary money," but he says that as long as it is still easy to buy excellent pieces of art in San Diego and Los Angeles for between $1,000 and $5,000, he'll be in the market.
"Five hundred dollars is a lot of money that you can blow in so many ways," Simay said. "For $500, you can buy a small work of art that will absolutely turn your life around. I've never seen anyone dissatisfied with an art purchase. And I've never seen anyone squeeze more mileage out of a buck than an artist."
Simay's collection includes works by San Diegans Pat Patterson, Ernest Silva, Martha Alf and Raul Guerrero, and Los Angeles painters Roger Herman, Victor Henderson, Karla Klarin and Sarah Mendelsohn. He is also an avid collector of the works of Manny Farber.
His favorite San Diego galleries: Mark Quint, Patti Aande, Natalie Bush and Anuska.
Until he was in college, Simay, who took a double major in biology and art, thought he would some day be a sculptor. But he discovered through one of his professors, artist Newton Harrison, that his scientific side took precedence.
One day, Harrison turned a piece that Simay had produced on its side and said, "I think it looks better that way."
"I realized I was too analytic and too structured to be an avant-garde artist," Simay said. "I was too tight."
Simay grew up in Indio and bought his first piece of art in his second year of residency at UC San Diego Medical Center. It was a drawing by realist artist Robert Bechtel and cost him "two months of my gross pay." He also had to wheel and deal with a museum director, a lesson that taught him art collecting can be incredibly complex.
In one instance, deals kept falling through across the country for one painting that he eventually bought after two years of trying.
Simay, whose collection focuses on figurative, rather than abstract, art, says that people are unwilling to take risks.
"You can go to Seaport Village and buy a painting for $100 or $200 or double that, that is as derivative as hell," he said. "For a little more, you can buy someone who is innovative. People don't trust their own eye.
"Art is treated as sacrosanct. They don't realize it's just an object. It's the communication that comes from it, not the money."
One of the ways Simay has been able to acquire the best paintings available is that he gets to know the artists. He regularly visits their studios.
"You have to be out looking way ahead of the shows," he said. That way, he knows what pieces will be shown and can buy the piece through the gallery director before others see it.
Another key is not to buy inferior work, even by a world-class artist. "A bad painting by a good artist is still a bad painting," Simay said.
The down side of collecting is that it can be addicting. Simay once took a second mortgage on his condo to buy an artwork. "I'm so goddamned hooked, I can't say no," he said. "I'm thinking of joining collectors anonymous." For the beginning collector, Simay recommends getting to know the gallery dealers.
"They'll bend over backward, maybe let you take home a painting to hang it on the wall and see how you like it," he said. "Sometimes, they will allow a collector to buy on time."
Simay must rotate his paintings to see them all every year. Now, he faces some hard decisions. His collection is growing, but his home isn't.
"Either I'm going to have to stop collecting or store them or do trades," he said. Trading doesn't appeal to him because that means breaking up a collection that is all about his "curatorial choices." More than likely, Simay says, he will continue to buy, store and rotate new pieces in his collection.
The centerpiece in his snug living room is not an artwork but a pool table that almost takes up the whole room. He loves to have guests over to shoot a game of pool as a counterpoint to conversation. Simay enjoys people with interests other than their business.
"When people get involved in the primary arts--music, literature, art--you can talk with them. You can find out what's going through their heads."