Nineteenth-century Paris it's not, but San Diego is about to play host to a series of salons, a mingling of the minds for arts professionals and cultural enthusiasts. Launching these intellectual melting pots is art gallery owner Linda Moore. Hers is but the latest, most formal effort among local galleries to bridge the gap between art and audience and, more generally, to enhance San Diego's cultural climate.
Galleries here are feeling greater and greater responsibility to educate the public--a role traditionally held by the nonprofit museum more than the commercial gallery. Such extracurricular programs as lectures, readings and performances are not only beneficial to the intellectual health of the community, gallery owners say, they are also becoming valuable tools to ensure the galleries' own economic survival.
"If you talk to any gallery director in town, the top problem is that there is too small a pool of people here who are interested in contemporary art," Moore said. "That's true for us as for anyone else. Our way of dealing with that is a very long-term way that's very altruistic."
It's difficult to say whether a gallery's educational offerings will translate into the eventual sale of art, but most local gallery owners feel their programs provide an immediate intellectual, even spiritual payoff that is at least as valuable. Their efforts to nourish the community are based on a recognition of mutual dependence: Galleries need public support, but so does the public need the kind of opportunities for personal growth that galleries can provide.
"There's a hunger right now to grow, intellectually," Moore said. "There are some opportunities, but I think people are anxious to do it in a way that shares with other people, that has a human dimension. They really want the interaction."
To this end, many galleries have gone beyond the staple of hosting artists' talks to stage multidisciplinary events and performances, both public and private. Lectures, art demonstrations, tours for schoolchildren and university students, meetings of museum groups and films have all complemented the regular exhibition schedules of local galleries in recent years.
La Jolla's Porter Randall Gallery has maintained a particularly ambitious schedule of literary readings and musical performances since it opened last fall. Margaret Porter Troupe, co-director of the gallery, has been producing such events since the early 1980s, when she lived in New York, as a way of providing exposure to artists in various fields, expanding the gallery's audience and giving that audience more than a solely visual experience.
"We had a writer here recently who did the text for an artist's book, and in the same program we had an improvisational trombonist play as the writer read," Troupe said. "It was really an exciting, improvisational kind of evening. Some people had never been to the gallery before, and they got to see a great show, hear great music and hear a reading, all for free. It's a great kind of experience that takes you to a new spiritual plane. You leave like you're walking on air."
Such programs bring new traffic through the gallery, traffic that is more diverse than the traditional gallery-going audience.
"We attract a very mixed racial group, people who are students, artists and just lovers of art and culture," Troupe said. "New audiences are brought in by lectures, readings or performances that don't connect with the show (on view in the gallery). Then the audiences have a more complete cultural experience."
Public programs also help make difficult works of art more approachable and make the galleries themselves more inviting.
"People who don't ordinarily go to galleries are very intimidated," said David Zapf, owner of David Zapf Gallery. "They don't know what to wear, if there is an admission fee." Lectures, demonstrations and other events open to the public, such as the ones Zapf holds in the gallery, "help demystify that whole process."
A serious intimidation factor does exist, Moore agrees. Her idea of an informal salon-like gathering in the offices upstairs from the gallery was conceived to help dissolve some of those barriers.
"Galleries have set up an environment where it's hard to take the first step, where it's hard to learn about art. So people fall back on buying names. It's not as personal or spiritual as buying something for the love of it, or even appreciating it for the love of it. Part of what we want to give people is the joy of what this is all about and the ability to believe in what they love. That may be art or some other art form that we don't have anything to do with."
The first salon, scheduled for August, although no date has been set, will be by invitation only, but Moore encourages anyone interested to contact the gallery.
"The ticket in is sincerity, a desire to learn and know. It's not money or social status. To anyone who is sincere and wants to get to know us, the door is open."
Participants will set their own agenda, but activities will probably include discussions of books, local exhibitions, conversations with artists and authors and perhaps visits to artists' studios or international art fairs.
"We want people to be able to come and experience art in a way that is not didactic education," Moore said. "It's more of a personal journey. There's lots of great didactic information available in the museums and through adult education. This has a more human, ongoing dimension."
"One of the ground rules is that everyone's equal," she said. "We're not deferring to anyone as an expert. We're hungry, too. We want to share with people who talk about ideas, feelings, the soul of what's happening. We're not going to lecture people about 20th-Century art. Everyone here is a member. No one's a leader." Firm in her altruism, Moore insists that the salons' focus will not always be on the art her gallery is showing.
"That art is our passion, but that's a fundamental problem with access in the contemporary art scene," she said. "People think that stepping across the threshold is making themselves vulnerable to a sales pitch. We do have to make sales--we're not a museum or a philanthropy. But we want to create an atmosphere that says come and learn. Enjoy the journey."
That educational journey may lead members of the salon back to the Linda Moore Gallery when they decide to purchase a work of art, but it may not. It may lead them somewhere completely different, but that seems fine with Moore and the other gallery owners who offer public programs. Whatever enhances the general cultural climate in San Diego, better known for its strong bodies than its fertile minds, will ultimately help their galleries thrive.
"My art is not what will satisfy everyone's taste," said Scott White, director of the new Soma Gallery downtown. "But people will be able to come here and learn about art and apply that wherever they go. They will have a larger window with which to accept and understand art."
Though art is bought and sold in galleries, buyers and sellers alike are trading in passions as much as commodities. The bottom line for these businesses, then, is not just economic but a matter of personal and communal enrichment.
"I like the way artists and creative people think and look at the world," Troupe said. "They have something very important to say, and I try to do whatever I can to be sure other people have access to this. I would do this whether I had a gallery or not. We're here to enhance life for others around us, whatever field of life we're in. That's something we owe to others, and this is my way of doing it."