It was a balmy night at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Hundreds of Angelenos were gathered on the roof deck of LACMA West after a debate about the changing role of art museums. Comedian Steve Martin was there, too: no arrow through his head, no dancing like King Tut, just one of the crowd. Now he was waiting, and waiting, to talk to his friend Adam Gopnik, an intense, erudite New Yorker writer who'd been one of the night's featured speakers. Gopnik was surrounded by fans, some there to praise his book "Paris to the Moon." He was talking, waving, shaking hands as if he were running for office.

His tweed-jacketed debate partner, Kirk Varnedoe, a former New York Museum of Modern Art curator whose manner is as country club cool as Gopnik's is jumpy, was mobbed as well. No one, on the other hand, was bothering Martin, who stood by patiently and silently, eventually pumping Gopnik's hand, politely apologizing for not having more time and taking off.

The evening, an installment of LACMA's more-or-less monthly Institute for Arts and Cultures, captured a kind of counter-L.A., a subculture in which professors, curators and out-of-town writers are the celebrities. Along with Writers Bloc, a Westside author-interview series, and the literary events at the Richard J. Riordan Central Library, these evenings can become a kind of intellectual Beatlemania, with restless lines of fans, tickets selling out early and speakers sneaking in and out through adoring crowds.

While these events might seem populated by a coterie -- LACMA's tend to be packed with the sort of high-minded crowd that devours the New York Review of Books -- they're open to whoever calls or shows up first. Intellectual life, after all, is too important to be left to professional intellectuals.

There's a niche for almost everyone. Writers Bloc tends to draw a younger audience, one more attuned to Hollywood, detective fiction and the series' heavily British roster of writers, while Beyond Baroque, the storied Venice literary hall, often draws the graying members of the Beat and punk generations to its poetry-heavy program. This is, after all, where the nucleus of the band X met. (Bookstore readings, private salons and writing workshops are well represented in town, but that we'll leave for another story.)

The Southland's venues for public debate are as wide-ranging and fragmented as the region itself. Over the next week, there will be several high-profile discussions and lectures, including one led by Gore Vidal, exploring issues related to the situation in Iraq. Or consider the Hustler Hollywood monthly series at which topics such as censorship and politics, how to be -- or how to surrender to -- a dominatrix and readings by erotic novelists attract a diverse crowd leaning toward women and club-goers. These would probably not be the same people who go to Irvine to hear libertarian and heartily pro-capitalist lectures on "Why Christmas Should Be More Commercial" at the Ayn Rand Institute. Or those who went to Caltech recently for a speech on "The Physics of Star Trek." But they might be.

Los Angeles has no shortage of ideas. But there's a special excitement, in a city defined by its private life, when they bump into one another in a public venue.

On a cool day last month, about 60 people crowded into a small gallery dominated by Jeff Wall's enormous illuminated photograph, "After 'Invisible Man' by Ralph Ellison, the Preface." The photograph, which re-creates a scene from the novel, showed a black man in a cluttered apartment, his ceiling wired with hundreds of lightbulbs.

Surely the briefest, and among the most accessible, events around the city are these Lunchtime Art Talks at the UCLA Hammer Museum, breezy 15-minute lectures on a single work of art. Besides the usual museum-goers, on this day three men in business suits were taking part of their lunch break from Smith Barney brokerage firm to listen to chief curator Russell Ferguson describe Wall's piece. In a thick Scottish burr, Ferguson located the piece in history -- both photography's and the artist's career.

"It's a gas," Roger Hall, a young financial planner in tortoise-shell glasses, said of the series. "I would never look at that photograph if it had not been for a talk like this." After the lecture, they introduced themselves to the curator, praised his speech and headed back to the office.

"It really surprised us," says museum director Ann Philbin, who has increased the public offerings at the Hammer since arriving from New York in 1999. "We didn't think of the people in these surrounding towers as our audience. But boy, did they catch on." The Hammer offers several series, including a Conversations series, which pairs thinkers or artists from different worlds.

"I've found people here enjoy openings more than they enjoy being in quiet rooms with art," says Philbin. "People in Los Angeles really need the opportunity to be around people interested in the same things they are. Constantly in New York you're in a pedestrian situation, or on a subway. Here, you're alone in a car. So here people go looking for activities where they can be with other people."

Lunchtime Art Talks aren't the only ones linked to an exhibit or a cultural offering. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, which typically offers free pre-concert lectures, has been working on a series of events around Latin American themes. The Museum of Contemporary Art, like most museums, regularly schedules art talks, at which art historians and curators lecture on current shows. Similarly, the Skirball Cultural Center -- which also hosts non-Jewish writers and thinkers -- recently completed a batch of lectures and films related to its exhibit on Jewish life in the American South. And the Getty has something, exhibit related or otherwise, going on almost every day.

Other series exist to right political wrongs. Yaron Brook, director of Irvine's Ayn Rand Institute, recently launched a lecture series that draws as many as 600 people and differs from the usual left-liberal tone of Southland intellectual life. "The idea is to bring our perspective to current events -- a perspective that is not being heard in the culture," Brook says. "On multiculturalism and environmentalism, the mainstream party line is usually very politically correct, even the Republicans. But we're very anti-multiculturalism and very anti-environmentalist."

A recent lecture looked at the crisis of corporations like Enron, arguing that the nation needs less, not more, corporate regulation; upcoming speeches will consider the dangers of postmodernism in academia and how contemporary art has lost its way. The Atheneum series at Claremont McKenna College also offers an important forum for conservative thought, with speakers ranging from journalist David Brooks to left-leaning theorist bell hooks.

Author Jonathan Franzen ("Corrections") was in town not long ago reading from his new book of essays. Louis Menand spent an evening describing how American pragmatism was forged on Civil War battlefields. James Carroll dropped by to discuss the strained relationship between the Catholic Church and European Jews. They were all part of perhaps the city's most well-rounded venue

-- the Central Library's author series in which writers come to town, on the publisher's ticket, to promote and sign a book on a weeknight. There is also a moderated series on Sunday afternoons, "Words in the World," at which writers and thinkers discuss larger issues than their latest book.

The audience often factors in strongly. Nancy Milford went to the Central Library to discuss her acclaimed biography of libertine poet Edna St. Vincent Millay in late 2001. But the biographer was caught in traffic and reached downtown L.A. an hour late. While waiting, members of the audience went onstage to recite Millay's poetry, many from memory, and two offered a short reading of one of her plays.

At another Central Library event, Patti Smith appeared to read from a book of song lyrics. Besides reading from the book, she brought a friend armed with an acoustic guitar and performed some of the songs that made her the Rimbaud of punk rock. Louise Steinman, cultural programs director at the Central Library, laments that as the city's offerings have gotten better, traffic has gotten worse. "Transportation is such a factor," she says. "There are wonderful things on the Westside that I would love to go to, but I can't figure out how. A lot of the places people hear intellectuals and writers have their own [neighborhood] following because people get it into the rhythm of their lives."