The Monterey Look on Melrose : Art Expert Betty Gold Covers a Lot of Her Territory With Old Indian Blankets

Betty Gold doesn't look like a power figure. She's a jolly person who chuckles a lot. But two years ago, when Gold walked into New York art galleries, the assistants sprang to attention. For she was the buyer of all art for the Atlantic Richfield Co.--not only for the Arco Center for Visual Art, of which she was director, but for more than 5 million square feet of the company's offices all over the world. Without approval, she could spend up to $5,000 to buy any work of art, and she purchased paintings with prices in six figures with the enthusiastic support of Robert O. Anderson, the company's former chairman.

Today, life is very different for Betty Gold. She no longer works for Arco. She sells Monterey furniture--California folk-style furniture of the 1920s and '30s--and old Indian blankets at Territory, a modest shop on Melrose Avenue. She does not regard this as a rise-and-fall story but as a rise-and-fall-and-rise story.

For a start, she is now working for herself. Second, she is selling the things that interest her most, though she admits that the furniture and blankets appeal to her not merely because of their quality "but also through a certain amount of burnout from contemporary art." Then there are her customers: "a lot of movie people, architects, art collectors and top decorators who are doing something that is not cliche. My job at Arco was always conceived as jetting about and having everybody drop dead on 57th Street in Manhattan, but in real life I was working with 50,000 geologists and engineers; and, after that, to have . . . well, everyone who comes in here loves the furniture and blankets, else they don't come in."

Gold acquired both her curatorial instincts and her taste for Monterey furniture during her childhood in San Francisco. Her family lived in Jordan Park, near Presidio Heights. "The streetcar went right past our house," she recalls, "and my parents, who were somewhat strict with me, wouldn't let me out of the house to go just anywhere. But I learned when I was very young that if I said I was going to the museum, it would be OK. So I would take the No. 2 streetcar to the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. If there had been some other safe place, I might be doing something else now. I can remember, almost like it was yesterday, being in the museum and seeing the curators. I looked at them, and I was star-struck. I thought: 'Wouldn't that be wonderful, to work in a place like this, and to know so much about all these pictures?' "

In 1935, Gold's mother bought a Monterey-style bar decorated with hammered brass at Gump's in San Francisco for $55. "My father was a young lawyer then, and $55 was not nothing," Gold says. Growing up with this piece of furniture gave her an early taste for the folksy Monterey style.

On leaving high school, Gold studied art history at UC Berkeley but broke off her studies to marry Philip Gold, a young Air Force sergeant, later an attorney. (The couple, who were divorced 19 years ago, have two daughters.) They moved to Newport Beach, where Betty Gold was involved in the formation of the Newport Harbor Art Museum. In 1970 she set up an art gallery on La Cienega Boulevard, where she was among the first in Los Angeles to exhibit contemporary drawings and photographs. One Sunday afternoon in 1975, an East Coast museum director whom she knew telephoned. He told her there was a large corporation that was interested in opening a center for visual art. Would she be interested in running it? No, Gold said.

"As soon as he asked the question," she remembers, "I got a picture in my mind of industrial Los Angeles and some sort of Quonset hut warehouse situation with a canvas director's chair; and I thought, 'Oh, I don't want to do that.' "

The museum director said: "I think you have a lot to learn, Betty. There's a great number of enlightened corporations in America, and this is one of the most enlightened. And I think you'd be terrific."

Gold asked what the job would pay. "Whatever's fair."

She said: "Well, have them call me."

She thought they wouldn't call for a few weeks, but they called the next day. She went downtown that day and met John Connell, then a vice president of Arco. She was also interviewed by Herbert Bayer, a Bauhaus alumnus who was the company's outside architecture consultant and a friend of Robert O. Anderson. Gold was offered the job as director of the center and she took it.

She was asked to pick out what space she wanted. "I have a terrible sense of direction. When I check into a hotel, I have to ask for a room near the elevator. So at Arco I chose a space near the bottom of the escalator. But I think one reason I was hired was that I asked a very smart question for a girl to ask: 'Where is the loading dock?' Sentences that change your life! And the space I wanted was near the loading dock."

Gold divided the space into two galleries and kicked off with two shows that would give a sense of place: a show of artists living downtown and an exhibition of photographs of downtown that she had commissioned from seven photographers. "I think I did those shows because I thought they would be good for the (Arco) employees who I stupidly thought would come in to look at them, a real error on my part--to let them know that there were artists in their neighborhood." Soon she graduated to buying art for Arco offices all over the world. She furnished a six-story building in Jakarta, Indonesia, with Indonesian textiles, and a 21-story building in Anchorage, Alaska, with Eskimo and American Indian art. She bought contemporary oil paintings, lithographs and photographs, but seldom sculpture. "Sculpture is hard to deal with in a corporation. You don't really have space for it, except in a lobby, and it gets knocked over by the cleaning people."

Arco was not concerned about the investment potential of what Gold bought. "It interested me a lot," she says. "I like the idea of buying for investment. I think it's marvelous when I've bought something for a couple of hundred dollars and now it's worth five figures. That's a sort of emotional payoff. Once in a while I would buy a painting simply because I knew it was smart to buy it, just to play my game--thinking that perhaps 10 years from then they would like it."

Then the oil market crashed, or, as Gold more diplomatically puts it, "softened." Her role softened too. The company was restructured, as a consequence of which Arco's art acquisition program was terminated, and many offices were closed. "There was a building in Chicago that I had put my all into." The company was generous in offering "enhanced goodby packages," and in 1986 Gold thought the time had come to accept one.

Failing to find work as a consultant for other big corporations, she started her own business. She remembered the bar that her parents had bought and decided to specialize in Monterey furniture--beds with painted headboards, chunky tables, chests of drawers with wrought-iron handles. The style incorporates elements of the Arts and Crafts movement and of the Spanish Colonial revival. In the 1930s, Barker Bros. sold a Monterey range; Gold has their 1931 catalogue, which refers to "the warm colors, the sturdy lines, the crude hand-wrought feeling and the quaint peasant designs . . . ." Gold also has in stock a floor lamp illustrated in the 1931 catalogue, then $35, now priced at $1,500. Monterey chests of drawers range from $750 to $950--"essentially the price of rather ordinary new furniture," Gold points out. The beds are priced at about $675. "Every time I buy one I have to pay more for it," she says.

Profits are unsensational, but the turnover is brisk. One day recently, a woman bought an entire bedroom set for her 7-year-old son--bed, chest of drawers, nightstand, dresser, chair, ornaments and a splendid blanket decorated with flowering cactus and with a cowboy on a horse.

But Monterey furniture, Gold emphasizes, is not kids' stuff. And she gets irritated if people suggest it is in the "Santa Fe" style. "I try to control my Irish temper and say, 'No, that's not exactly what it is.' This is not reproduction furniture. It is original and Californian and has a history to it--and, God knows, we've little enough of that here."

Territory is at 6907 1/2 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles 90038.

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