Simon Baker was readying himself Saturday night to use his powers of acute observation to try and solve the mystery. It wasn’t an episode of The Mentalist, the acclaimed TV show Baker stars in, but Incognito, the Santa Monica Museum of Art’s annual benefit show, in which artists anonymously donate works and patrons have to guess which artist they’re purchasing for the bargain-basement price of $350 a pop.
Baker described the sale as an “art orgy,” as he waited in the VIP room for what easily could be compared to a Black Friday sale’s stampede into a gallery lined wall-to-wall with 8” x 10” artworks. Peppered into the mix were works by mega-artists Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, Judy Chicago, Raymond Pettibon, Laura Owens and Thomas Hirschhorn, each of which, for $350, would be an outright steal.
“There’s so much love and so much art,” said SMMoA director Elsa Longhauser of the more than 700 works. “Of course I’m excited.”
The way the whole evening is conceived lends itself nicely to an electric atmosphere. Standing in line just before the opening of the museum to the throng of buyer-benefactors, the film directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (Ruby Sparks, Little Miss Sunshine) were shaking out like sprinters prepping for a race. “You can’t talk to Jonathan once they open the doors, because he is a bat out of hell,” said Faris.
“We’ve been coming five years,” she continued, “and we try to encourage friends to come as an introduction to the museum, because it draws attention to the way this museum thinks,” referring to the fact that the museum -- celebrating its 25th anniversary this year -- doesn’t have a permanent collection, thriving on energetic shows by young artists.
Faris and Dayton were on the hunt for a particular work, having been able to browse the works a few nights earlier at the exclusive Precognito dinner, where they dined on an Alice Waters-designed menu (catered by Lucques) with HBO’s Sue Naegle, Baker’s actress wife Rebecca Rigg, as well as artists Barbara Kruger, Bill Viola, John Baldessari, Larry Bell, and honored guests gallerist Margo Leavin and opera and theater director Peter Sellars.
Said Dayton: “There’s something we like, and we think we know the artist. It’s not a big score, but we like this artist’s work.”
After the line was released, the scene was akin to the running of the bulls out on the floor, with potential collectors running around pulling tags off the pieces to indicate a buy. There’s a whole lot of impulse buying and more than a bit of speculation. The patent Baldessaris and Pettibons often are snatched up quickly by savvy buyers, though artists are known to play a bit of trickery and make uncharacteristic work, while other artists have imitated more famous artists in the past.
Later, Dayton disappointedly admitted that he’d lost out on the piece he coveted to a friend. “At least it’s still in the family,” he said, shrugging.
Baker explained that everyone has different approaches. “Some people are focused on what kind of stuff they’re looking for. I get a lot of adrenaline going before I get in the door. That’s why I need the drinks before, because otherwise I find everyone’s competition very annoying.”
Baker, Rigg, Dayton and Faris were all honorary committee co-chairs of the Precognito event. “They approached us, probably because we bought too much last year,” quipped Baker. Also spotted: producer Gail Katz and Elisabeth Shue and her husband, filmmaker Davis Guggenheim.
At the exit, buyers awaited their works, at which point they finally found out the identity of the artist they purchased. A woman brought up her receipt and immediately was swarmed by cameras. “What’s with the cameras?” she asked. “I just bought this piece for my mom for Mother’s Day.”
Someone from the museum said, “You won the big prize.”
The woman opened up the package and inside sat a seemingly unassuming sketch of a tree -- perfect for a nice gift for Mom. The woman turned the artwork over to reveal the signature of Ed Ruscha.
That’s the grab bag, democratic nature of the evening. Even someone who isn’t a mentalist can happen upon one of the most collected artists in the world for a pittance.
SMMoA -- located at Santa Monica’s Bergamot Station at 2525 Michigan Avenue -- next opens June 1 with three shows featuring works by artists Joyce Pensato, Gil Le Bon Delapointe and Francois Perrin with local high school students, and Marco Rios.