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Put Yourself in the Picture

Collecting art isn't just for the rich and famous. All it takes to get started is a bit of cash and a lot of gallery browsing.

January 31, 2002|HILLARY JOHNSON

Next time you're at some bleak outlet mall in Camarillo, about to splurge $200 on a pair of gleaming faux-croc Ferragamo loafers, stop and think to yourself: For this same amount of money--this same substantial yet measly $200--I could own an original work by a contemporary artist of unlimited potential. I could contribute to the culture, impress my boss, annoy my mother and, in the process, finally replace that old yellowed poster of the Van Gogh sunflowers that hangs over the Ikea sofa in the den.

Then get back in your car and head for the art world. But where, exactly, do you go?

Emerging artists and emerging collectors are pulled together at gallery openings--entertaining rituals that take place all over the city and are easy to slip into unnoticed. The art schools here do their own bit nurturing the next artistic generation, showcasing work with student sales where genius is remarkably affordable. There are classes and special museum symposia that are one part information, one part social scene. And there are definite rules to negotiating with dealers.

But first, put your $200 into a CD or money market account, because everyone in the business, from collectors to art dealers, will tell you to start by looking at art for a good six months--some say as long as two years--before you buy so much as an etching.

A good place to start your elementary education is Bergamot Station, the arts complex in Santa Monica where nearly 30 galleries share space with the Santa Monica Museum of Art. Bergamot Station provides an easy point of entry: It attracts a wide cross section of visitors, making for an egalitarian atmosphere, while the quality of the art ranges from cutting-edge to indifferent.

Strolling the station on a Saturday afternoon is a little like visiting an extremely exotic, uncrowded shopping mall. Small groups of people wander about, tourists, locals, artists: a couple of women in sweaters and gold earrings who look like prosperous Brentwood matrons; a guy in a polo shirt with a blond Pamela Anderson clone on his arm; a few conscripts on furlough from the Westside Armani army; some young professionals taking their out-of-town relatives for a spin; a pair of young men who must be artists, with their black T-shirts and paint under their fingernails.

Track 16 is one of the complex's anchor galleries (think of it as the Gap for art). You can walk into Track 16 without feeling the least bit self-conscious about how un-cool you are, because it is owned by the guy who co-created the '80s sitcom "Alf" (you know, the one with the nerdy nuclear family and that alien that looked like a velveteen anteater), Tom Patchett. Patchett, who cut his teeth as a stand-up comedian and writer for Carol Burnett and "The Bob Newhart Show," has a vast collection of pretty great contemporary art, but he also collects things like lunch boxes and neon signs.

He began collecting in the late 1980s, working with an art consultant at first, then on his own. He found his niche as a collector one day in 1991, when he walked into a gallery and bought Sherrie Levine's "Fountain (After Marcel Duchamp)." A brass sculpture of a urinal, Levine's work was a reference to Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain," an actual urinal the artist signed and submitted to an exhibition in 1917, a gesture that shook the humorless art world.

Incredibly, Patchett didn't know a thing about Duchamp when he bought Levine's sculpture. "I was happy to learn later that I had appreciated it on the level Duchamp intended," he says wryly. But after that decisive purchase, his seriocomic collection was off and running. He now owns several works by Duchamp himself, including "L.H.O.O.Q.," a reproduction of Leonardo's "Mona Lisa" with a mustache and goatee doodled in--definitely not in the $200 range.

In February, Track 16 will resume its series of entertainment events--opening up on a Tuesday or Friday evening with music or performance. And while you're there, you can dip your toes into some of the other Bergamot galleries, which recently offered everything from cardboard armchairs at the Gallery of Functional Art to 3-D optical-illusion paintings by Patrick Hughes at Flowers West. The latter works are so mind-bending, you'd be ill-advised to try to drive immediately after viewing them, and they could tempt you to liquidate the 401(k) at $25,000 a pop. On the other hand, if you'd like to start your collection off for $150 with a Jacquelyn Tough drawing of a cherub smoking a cigarette and leaning on a giant Prozac capsule, you can do so at Richard Heller Gallery.

This seems so easy. So why don't we all have art? We should live in a world where the neighborhood manicurist can't decide whether to give her daughter the Beuys in the foyer or the early Charles Ray for a wedding present. But we don't. For most of us, the first exposure to art is in a "look but don't touch" museum--where it seems unapproachable and unattainable.

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