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Taking an Art Holiday for Health Care

May 20, 1997|BILL HIGGINS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As an 18-year-old cultural institution, the Venice Art Walk is younger than LACMA, older than MOCA and more mobile than both.

The annual fund-raiser benefits the Venice Family Clinic (now the largest free clinic in the country) through the clever device of a $45 self-guided walking tour into dozens of Venice art studios. There are ancillary events over the weekend, such as auctions and food fairs, which together raise more than $500,000. It culminates with a celebration dinner for artists and major donors at the Museum of Flying.

Though the dinner crowd was predominately Westside liberal--if the proverbial bomb had dropped, Bob Dornan would be a viable Santa Monica congressional candidate--the cause is innately nonpartisan. "We're doing what the Republicans want us to do," said dinner chairwoman Irma Colen. "This is the private sector taking care of poor people's health care."

When the Art Walk was first conceived, artist Billy Al Bengston said he wanted nothing to do with it. He didn't want strangers stomping through his studio. "I told them I would personally pay for a bus to take people to the Beverly Hills free clinic." Now he's a big supporter and has watched the touring audience become more sophisticated.

"It's not a funky dog anymore," he said. "In fact, Venice isn't a funky dog anymore."

Laddie John Dill called the event "the best cheap date in town."

Sculptor John Okulick mentioned that a side benefit of the tour is that the public gets a realistic view of artists' lives at a time when art institutions like the National Endowment for the Arts are under attack. "They see the truth in the arts. How artists exist, how they communicate--hopefully this enriches people."

As an art world civilian, Patsy Neu said the weekend-long experience was like taking an art holiday. "They give you history, water, lectures, lunch, conversation. You go to these places you wouldn't normally go. It opened up a side of Los Angeles I'd never seen before."

The 500 dinner guests dined beneath a 1924 Douglas "Round the World Cruiser" biplane that hung from the ceiling like a monumental piece of aviation art. Over a dinner of Chilean sea bass, there were short speeches in which Dr. Thomas Early, and Carol and Karl Keener were honored for their service to the clinic.

"One of the things that ties all this together," said Karen Carson, who created the Art Walk poster, "is that most artists can't afford health insurance. One of the scariest things in life is to be sick and not be able to get help."

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