Santa Monica Museum of Art Kicks Off Benefit Weekend

Sue Naegle and David Kramer Museum Benefit - H 2013
Courtesy SMMoA, photo by Vince Bucci

The intimate museum drew HBO's Sue Naegle, artist John Baldessari and more at its annual Precognito gala Thursday night, leading up to Saturday's Incognito art sale where the identities of the artists are a secret.

Every spring, the Santa Monica Museum of Art presents Incognito, one of the most unique fundraisers in the art world. Now in its ninth year, it’s a masked ball of sorts -- but it’s not the identity of the guests that’s masked, but the creators behind more than 700 donated artworks.

Each piece in the benefit art sale costs a flat $350 (plus tax), each measures a handy 8” x 10” and the names of the artists aren't revealed. Some are by up-and-coming artists, some by mid-career artists and some by highly collectible art icons. The night of Incognito, a scrum ensues as art lovers and museum supporters are unleashed inside the museum, as some try to find the odd Ed Ruscha or John Baldessari in the mix or simply grab something they cherish. Everyone learns the identity of the artist only after purchase. Among the artists who’ve contributed works this year in support of SMMoA are Baldessari, Edgar Arceneaux, Mark Bradford, Lynda Benglis, Marco Brambilla, Judy Chicago, Sharon Lockhart, Catherine Opie, Raymond Pettibon, Betye Saar and Ruscha. “You have to pretend you are at the white sale at Macy’s,” is how one participant described the scene of excited chaos in years past. After the Saturday night event, a second opportunity to purchase unsold works happens on Sunday. One year, a Ruscha didn’t get sold until the very end. This year, one text-based work promised: “This Work Will Go Up in Value.”

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On Thursday night, the museum – celebrating its 25th anniversary – and director Elsa Longhauser held its second annual Precognito, a kick-off gala dinner where patrons got a first look at the pieces lining the walls of the museum. Husband and wife directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Ruby Sparks, Little Miss Sunshine) were already checking out what they might buy when they returned on Saturday. Some artists, said Faris, deliberately “don’t do work that looks like their own pieces.” On the other hand, added Dayton, “some artists imitate celebrated artists. There are a lot of playful games that happen. We only buy stuff we like we don’t try to find anything of value.”

Guests enjoyed a dinner of roasted chicken with meyer lemon salsa, fattoush salad and grilled vegetables with cumin conceived by Alice Waters and catered by Lucques restaurant, which was served on organic banana leaves and not plates. A live auction included the sale, for $40,000, of a chance to have Waters come to a private home and personally cook for a dozen guests.

Later in the evening, veteran Robertson Boulevard gallerist Margo Leavin and opera/theater director Peter Sellars were honored for their contributions to the cultural life of the city. Baldessari, who’s done 14 exhibitions with Leavin, introduced her, saying that “we’ve been so lucky all these years that L.A.’s had Margo and not New York” and commenting that the beauty of her gallery spaces helped push him to make better art. “You want it look good. You don’t want the gallery to look better than your work.”

Artist Bill Viola intro’d Sellars, whose speech drew applause and beaming smiles as he toasted the museum for its human scale, the fact that the Exposition Line rail line will have a stop nearby (“It will be the station of illumination”), artists who stick to their path (“If no money is available, you are on the right track”) and  the event itself (“You are looking at a community here in every one of these artworks. That is incredibly thrilling.”)

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Entertainment industry supporters in the crowd included producer and museum board member Gail Katz, HBO entertainment president Sue Naegle, actress Rebecca Rigg with producer Lizzie Friedman, while artists spotted included Bradford, Barbara Kruger, Lari Pittman and Larry Bell. Faris said she’s a fan of the museum because of its kunsthalle approach. “There’s no other museum that doesn’t have a permanent collection and that just does shows. It’s really about the art and the ideas behind the art,” said Faris.

The night ended with desserts garnished with sugared rose petals picked in Waters’ garden and plenty of attendees making notes on what to buy at the Saturday event, which runs from 7 to 10 pm. Patrons who pay $1,000 each get the earliest access, followed by those who show up and buy tickets at the door for $250. Tickets to Sunday’s follow-up event cost $10.

SMMoA -- located at Santa Monica’s Bergamot Station at 2525 Michigan Avenue – next shows open June 1 with works by artists Joyce Pensato, Gil Le Bon Delapointe and Francois Perrin with local high school students, and Marco Rios.