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Drought of Interest Kills Art Garden : Ramona: Head of Chicago gasket company is closing his outdoor sculpture gallery because of poor sales. ‘It’s the death of one man’s dream.’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He built it, and they didn’t come.

A dozen years ago Lewis Weinberg, a Chicago millionaire who made his money manufacturing gaskets for automobiles, was visiting a sparsely populated part of northern San Diego County and was seized by a vision while playing tennis.

In his mind’s eye, he saw an outdoor sculpture garden. A spacious outdoor sculpture garden for artists to sell their works on consignment.

Sculptors would display their large-scale works of steel and marble and travertine and onyx and bronze. Art buyers could stroll through the greenery and appreciate the sculpture. Weinberg, as the artistic middleman, would break even, maybe even make a small profit.

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Being of sufficient means, Weinberg bought some virgin acreage outside the hamlet of Ramona, about 50 miles northeast of San Diego. He teamed up with Frank Koge, master designer of Japanese gardens.

They cleared the mesquite brush, chased away the snakes, planted 30,000 miniature Japanese pine trees and, using the Japanese name for pine garden, called it the Sho-En Outdoor Sculpture Center.

There was to be nothing quite like it anywhere in California: a 50-acre mingling of human art and natural beauty. Art would marry commerce and all would be happy.

Prices ranged from a few hundred dollars to $30,000 and more. The artists--such as David Shapiro with his whimsical “Blowing Bubbles” and Juan and Patricia Navarrete with their steel pieces “Transcending Legends” and “Desert Forces"--brought their wares willingly and waited for buyers.

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Indeed, a few corporations, some private collectors and two cities (Palm Desert and Carlsbad) bought sculpture pieces to spruce up their open spaces, but mostly the sculptures just sat there.

The art-loving tourists didn’t come. The big city art critics didn’t come. Even the residents of Ramona, population 29,500, stayed away. Art is eternal, but artistic businesses come and go. Sho-En went.

One San Diego arts leader, who asked not to be identified, said: “They were decorative art at best, not museum quality, not very exciting to collectors. We should not equate the end of Sho-En with the death of culture as we know it.”

Now the dream is dead, and Sho-En closes to the public today. Weinberg, 79, is looking for buyers who are interested in running a nursery or a farm or maybe subdividing the property for homes.

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“Nobody is buying sculpture this year,” Weinberg said. “The artists are all starving. I could persist but it doesn’t make any sense.”

Weinberg concedes he did not do any of the market research you might expect of a street-savvy businessman before starting a commercial venture, even an artistic one. “Maybe I’m better at making gaskets,” he sighed.

Ramona is set in a lovely valley of low-rolling hills. By all accounts it’s a friendly town, with a low crime rate and active service clubs, and is a good place to raise children.

Even its boosters agree that Ramona is a quart shy on artistic ferment. Sho-En, which sponsored shows by Japanese and African artists, never really caught on.

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“I don’t even think most people in Ramona even know it’s here,” said Julie Walker, publisher of the Ramona Sentinel newspaper. “It’s so far off the beaten track, it’s one of those hidden treasures.”

“It’s sad,” said Oakland sculptor Luigi Testa, whose steel and stone “I Hear America Shrieking” is on sale at Sho-En for $15,000. “It’s the death of one man’s dream. But Lewis is resilient, and experience is the mother of wisdom.”

At first Sho-En was for art buyers only. Then four years ago it welcomed the browsing public. School tours were arranged, lectures were given on bonsai arrangement and music fests were held with classical and Celtic music. Weinberg and his wife moved to Ramona to oversee Sho-En, although he continues to commute frequently to Chicago to oversee the gasket business.

Nothing worked. “It’s a fantastic idea, and maybe under a better economic climate or in a more receptive community, it could have worked,” Weinberg said.

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Like a going-out-of-business sale at a furniture store, prices were slashed on Sho-En’s sculpture in its final weeks. Works left unsold will have to be shipped home at the artists’ expense. If they can’t afford it, it may be junk-pile time.

“Oh well,” Testa said. “Modigliani threw his stone sculptures off the bridge. I guess if I drop some pieces, it isn’t that bad.”

Weinberg said he does not regret the Sho-En experience. He is an amateur sculptor himself.

The death of Sho-En has caught few by surprise, given Sho-En’s remoteness and the weak local economy. “The gallery scene in San Diego is struggling,” said Steven L. Brezzo, director of the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park.

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The market for sculpture is even more problem-laden, said Jose Tasende, whose Tasende Gallery in La Jolla carries works by Henry Moore and other renowned artists. Selling sculpture requires specialized expertise in selecting the right art, pricing and marketing the art, and then cultivating the appropriate clientele, he said.

“It is not an easy business.”

Danah Fayman, a major patron of the arts in San Diego, never visited Sho-En but is nevertheless saddened by its demise.

“It’s a good thing we have dreamers,” Fayman said of Weinberg. “Even if their dreams don’t work out, they show us something new. Dreamers make the world a more fun place to live in.”

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Weinberg declines to say how much money his dream cost him. But he is emphatic when asked if he would ever launch another art gallery.

“If I live to be 105,” he said, “no.”


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