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Real Souvenirs, Fake Party

April 06, 1999|MARK BORDEN

Every April Fools' Day, Side Street Projects kicks off a party that does not happen. The Santa Monica-based nonprofit gallery and project space charges $75 for tickets to its annual Phantom Ball, and instead of a black-tie evening among art world elite, "attendees" receive a signed, limited-edition photograph, one of 300 created especially for the ball.

The idea for a make-believe ball sprang from a brainstorming session six years ago when SSP was just starting out. While fund-raisers like the Phantom Ball are not new to nonprofits who are often strapped for cash, they are usually just a gimmick to get donors to reach for their checkbooks. What is unique to SSP's party is that participants get a piece of art to commemorate the event.

SSP selects emerging artists who may not be well-known, even to art enthusiasts, but they are definitely on the radar of the art cognoscenti. This year's ball, which continues until all tickets are sold, features L.A.-based Martin Kersels, a multimedia artist whose photography draws ideas from his experience in performance. His work is in the permanent collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art, and was included in the last Whitney Biennial in New York City.

Still an underground phenomenon, the ball has featured past guest lists with the names of many curators and museum members, as well as artists, like conceptualist John Baldessari, and collectors, such as computer tycoon-turned-art-aficianado Peter Norton. There is, of course, a catch: Buyers don't get to see the image before the purchase.

"It's not about buying for investment," Side Street director Karen Atkinson says. "And you don't see it ahead of time, so you're not buying it because you love the actual image. It's like a nice surprise present in the mail."

SSP purposefully keeps the ticket price down so that even starving artists can participate.

"We actually take installment payments from artoists so they can acquire their peers' work, which otherwise is almost impossible," Atkinson says.

There is also an element of art roulette to the Phantom Ball, and what Atkinson calls the "surprise present" can boost your net worth. Previous works by artists Kiki Smith (1996) and Carrie Mae Weems (1995) are worth an estimated $1,000 to $1,500 each.

SSP's influence went bicoastal when a piece from the 1998 ball became part of the world's premiere photographic collection at New York City's Museum of Modern Art. Dan Redmon, president of the Print Club of New York, bought several copies of Catherine Opie's photograph and donated one to the institution.

"I was surprised that they didn't have anything by her," Redmon says. "Once I mentioned it to them, they jumped at the offer."

Who wouldn't? People who have participated in all five of the past balls now decorate their homes with an eclectic collection of contemporary photography.

Proceeds from the Phantom Ball support artist projects and scholarships as well as maintain SSP operating costs. But not everyone gets to go to the ball. Once the 300 prints are gone, the party's over.

To secure an invitation, go to http://www.sidestreet.org or call Side Street at (310) 829-0779.

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