SAN DIEGO — Making a snap decision cost him around $4,000. But Robert Nugent was happy with the result. It was at a tour of Los Angeles art galleries last year. Nugent, who describes himself as a conservative business executive, was working his way through one gallery and was on his way to another when he glimpsed a head-sized, black, elliptical shape, hidden in a nook he had missed.
"I just immediately knew I wanted it," Nugent said.
Today "No Face," Peter Shelton's red-flecked resin sculpture, adorns a wall in Nugent's living room. As much as anything, it calls to mind a stretched bowling ball with a section removed where a person's chin would be.
Depending on one's point of view, "No Face" also resembles a minimalist's conception of (A) a football helmet, (B) an ancient mask, or (C) Darth Vader. Regardless, it is an arresting sculpture by a contemporary Southern California artist.
Nugent and his wife, Anne, both in their early 40s, are just getting comfortable as new collectors of contemporary art. They have been at it only about two years and estimate they have maybe a dozen pieces.
Among their artworks are several of the almost surreal wooden tables by San Diego artist Roy McMakin. "No Face" represents by far the most they have spent on a work. Generally, they have paid less than $1,500 apiece.
"People do tend to think it's purely an elitist activity, but's it's not," Anne said. "There are ways of buying a great piece of art by putting a few hundred dollars down. There are wonderful pieces out there in the $500 range."
The collecting bug bit the Nugents after she became a docent for the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art six years ago. The more she learned as a volunteer at the museum, the better the Nugents felt about buying the kind of abstract art that attracts them.
Educating themselves about contemporary art and "feeling comfortable with your choices" are keys to successful art collecting, Anne said.
"I don't necessarily have to have someone else's stamp of approval," she said. "If people could realize they could buy a piece of art by a Southern California artist for what they pay to have a poster framed, I think they would.
"Most of the time, they don't feel comfortable with their ability to make the choice. I know many Los Angeles collectors who have wonderful collections, but somebody else makes the choices."
Not so the Nugents. Though relative neophytes at collecting, they make the decisions about what art goes in their home.
As members of Contemporary Collectors, an organization of the La Jolla museum, they attend several educational events each year, including an annual trip to galleries and the homes of Los Angeles collectors.
Robert acknowledges that he has picked up much of his knowledge of contemporary art from his wife through "osmosis."
"I'll tell her what I like," he said. "But I like to get her stamp of approval." He says there is "a bit of a dichotomy" in his conservative background--"Our values were established with a Midwestern culture"--and their penchant for acquiring abstract art.
Anne agrees. Robert was raised in a conservative Catholic family, and she grew up as a French Canadian outside Calgary.
"We're not talking conservative. We're talking poor," she said. "If you go by priorities in life, art was not one of them. It was pretty much a struggle for survival. I always had a love for the abstract, but I didn't even think about the fact that I could do this someday when I was younger."
Her interest stems from a love of beautiful objects that she mingles with paintings throughout their home. She began collecting handmade pottery--bowls, plates, pitchers--when they lived in Louisville, Ky.
The same appreciation for a vase drives her art collecting.
"I like the abstract because I've always been drawn to the shapes of things that are much more minimal," she said. "I view objects the same way I view a painting on the wall."
Whenever possible, she avoids hanging paintings. Instead, she prefers to lean them against the wall. "It kind of takes away that connotation of preciousness," she said. "I prop things up all over the place. They're not there forever. They're changeable."
(Landscaped by Ron Wigginton, their home, which is a mixture of the modern and traditional, was a collaboration between her and architect John Nalevanko. It received the 1987 home of the year award from San Diego Home and Garden magazine.)
Anne said beginning collectors should not be afraid to show their ignorance: "Adults are so hesitant. Children ask all these great questions."
Besides beauty, Anne said, art offers the collector other payoffs. "By buying art from artists in your community, you can increase your awareness of your environment," she said. "San Diego is wonderful. There are so many issues here--land issues, the border issue. Lots of art is being made that tells stories of our time."
But as a relatively new collector, hasn't she ever had reservations?
"I don't think I could ever say I've made a bad decision," she said. "I enjoy living with it now a lot. Every day, I get up and walk out here, and it gives me a lot of pleasure. I really like what I'm looking at.
"And I think it's there for everybody to do."