Did ‘Alf’ Save L.A. Art?

Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

The first obstacle Tom Patchett had to overcome in his quest to carve out a niche for himself in the L.A. art community was getting people to forget he was the co-creator of the 1987 hit TV series “Alf.” For all its talk of the merging of high and low culture, much of the art world still looks askance at the world of prime-time television, and that was precisely the world that made Patchett a rich man.

Reluctant to grant credibility to newcomers of any stripe, the art world is willing to be flexible when it comes to money, however, and in the early ‘90s it was so financially crippled it was basically up for grabs. So money was the first card Patchett played.

“Tom came on the scene as a collector in the early ‘90s in a very dramatic way,” MOCA curator Paul Schimmel recalls. “The market was crashing and he moved in and began acquiring intensely challenging, world-class pieces by artists like Chris Burden and Paul McCarthy. He was a very special collector, and at a critical moment he really made a difference.”

Earning his stripes as a collector was just the beginning for Patchett. In 1994 he provided completion funds for Bergamot Station, the Santa Monica art complex conceived by art dealer Wayne Blank, and a short time later opened the Track 16 Gallery, an unorthodox enterprise that’s equal parts commercial gallery and personal museum. Last year, for instance, Track 16 mounted a museum-quality exhibition on the L.A. activities of seminal Surrealist Man Ray; in September Patchett unveils a similarly ambitious retrospective of work by L.A. artist Manuel Ocampo.

In 1995, Patchett launched Smart Art Press, and in less than two years he’s published 32 books, several of which were catalogs for exhibitions in museums and galleries run by other dealers. From 1989-96 he provided approximately $200,000 in funding to an L.A. theater company, Playwrights Kitchen Ensemble, and he’s amassed a huge collection of Americana focusing on restaurant china, neon signs, advertising graphics and artifacts of industrial design from 1939 to 1960. He’s also writing a book on restaurant china due out later this year.


He continues to develop his contemporary collection that presently comprises 300 major pieces, and includes sizable holdings in work by Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Beuys and the Fluxus artists. Later this year the collection begins a tour that will take it to two museums in Spain, along with venues in Germany, Mexico and the United States.

“Tom’s eccentric and he doesn’t fit into the regular mold,” dealer Rosamund Felsen says. “For instance, I can’t think of a precedent of a dealer publishing catalogs for exhibitions at other dealers’ galleries--it’s extraordinary that he does that, and several of his publications have been quite good.”

Though most observers applaud Patchett’s efforts as a publisher, opinion is mixed when it comes to his penchant for mounting exhibitions that pair fine art with selections from his Americana collection.

Though Felsen declines to comment on Track 16’s exhibition program, which is directed by Pilar Perez, she will concede “many people found it offensive when Tom exhibited his Americana with fine art. Tom is quite sincere about everything he does though, so I decided to try to keep an open mind.”

“When Tom got involved with Bergamot Station in 1994, business in the art world was terrible and had been since 1989,” dealer Patricia Faure says. “Lots of galleries were closing, but Tom believed that by combining art with his collections of Americana he could make art accessible to a broader range of people. That idea offended some people, but I think if the art is up to snuff it can withstand Tom’s Fiestaware.”

Though dealers may find Patchett’s mixing genres problematic, the artists who are supposedly sullied by his approach say they have no quarrel with it.

“It doesn’t bother me that he shows fine art with Americana,” says Manuel Ocampo, speaking by phone from Seville, Spain, where he now lives. “In fact, I think it would be great if he showed some of his neon with my paintings--it might make the paintings look better,” he says with a laugh.

“It’s silly for people to be upset about this,” concurs artist Llyn Foulkes, who has several works in Patchett’s collection, “and there shouldn’t be any bellyaching about Tom because he’s doing a lot more than Wayne Blank is to bring life to Bergamot Station. Wayne doesn’t want Tom putting his neon signs up because he wants to maintain a high-class gallery ambience and is worried they might attract the ‘wrong’ people to Bergamot. After the crash of the art market, you’d think people would realize art needs to open its doors, rather than require people to battle their way in.”

Though it was Blank’s vision that conceived Bergamot Station, Patchett’s money brought it to completion. By the end of 1995, however, the partnership had soured, and last June Patchett initiated legal proceedings against Blank.

Of the battle of wills currently taking place at Bergamot, Blank says: “This conflict is about power, not money. Once Bergamot became successful, Tom wanted to split our partnership so he could be the boss, but he doesn’t have the option of doing that. He’s a limited partner and if he has a problem with my management style he should go away. I have no doubt we will prevail. We went to court in December, and the court said there was no merit to the first part of his lawsuit, so we’re moving for a dismissal, which I think we have a good shot at getting. He lost the last session in court, he’s gonna lose the whole thing, he’ll make a public apology and that will be the end of it.”

Counters Patchett: “This isn’t about money or power, and when the case comes to trial on June 30 some interesting information is going to be made public.”

Born in 1940 in Lansing, Mich., the second in a Protestant family of three children, Patchett says, “My dad was an accountant who made $100 a week and my mother didn’t work, so we were poor.”

Moving with his family from Michigan to Ohio to Illinois, Patchett finished high school, then enrolled at Albion College in Michigan where he met his first wife, Karel, whom he married in 1962. Transferring to Michigan State, where he earned a degree in communications, Patchett landed a job writing advertising for a Detroit department store, fathered a daughter in 1966 and a son in 1969, then relocated to Pennsylvania for another job in advertising. It was there Patchett met Jay Tarses, who was also an aspiring entertainer. They worked together as a comedy team for five years, then, finally realizing their material was too esoteric for stand-up, moved to L.A. in 1971 to write for other people.

“The first two years here were pretty desperate,” recalls Patchett, whose marriage unraveled after three years in L.A. “Then, in 1972, Jay and I started writing for ‘The Carol Burnett Show’ and that launched us on 11 years of lucrative, high-pressure work in television.

“Jay and I stopped working together in 1983, and I did solo projects until 1986 when I collaborated with [puppeteer] Paul Fusco on ‘Alf.’ ”

Patchett married his second wife, Lynn, in 1977 and fathered a son in 1980 and a daughter in 1984, prior to divorcing again in 1991.

“In 1988 I formed PKE with Ken Kaufman, planning to do TV sitcoms, movies and miniseries,” he says, “but by the following year I was becoming obsessed with art.”

“By 1990 Tom’s interest in television was disappearing fast--when Tom gets interested in something he pursues it whole hog, and he’d become very interested in art,” Kaufman recalls. “He hasn’t had any direct involvement with PKE for several years, and at this point he’s mostly a financial partner. I think he got burned out on television because working in that medium forces you to fight a war all the time. I don’t expect him to burn out on art, however, because his interest goes very deep.”

Of his midlife career change, Patchett says: “Art never even crossed my mind until 1989 when my son Brian, who’s now 16, showed an aptitude for it. I started taking him to galleries and was fascinated by what I was seeing, so I hired an art consultant [Cynthia Drennon], who worked with me from 1989 to ’90, and I jumped in with both feet.

“I admit I’m obsessive and tend to over-acquire, but time is a big factor for me,” he adds. “I’m 57 years old so I came to art late, and I’ve had to learn a lot in a short time. I’m impulsive, so there are things in all my collections that were mistakes, but when time is short, validation becomes less important--you have to make your choices swiftly and live with the results.

“From 1991 to ’92 I worked with art consultant Cynthia Plehn, and she introduced me to artists like Robert Gober, Kiki Smith, John Baldessari and Duchamp, who appealed to the rebellious part of my personality. I like art that upsets the apple cart and Duchamp sort of gave the finger to the art establishment.

“Seeing Duchamp’s ‘Urinal’ also enabled me to look at everyday things differently, and in 1991 I began collecting Americana, which I felt had a connection with the art I gravitated toward. The connection goes back to advertising and text, and is reflected in the fact that all my collections are idea-driven. I’m sure the art community takes me less seriously because of my interest in Americana, but I feel I’m preserving artworks that are at risk of disappearing. I don’t consider the Americana to be ready-mades, however, and I understand that Duchamp made a more valuable contribution to the culture than the guy who invented Bauerware did.”

The reverence for history that’s at the heart of Patchett’s collections is also the driving force behind Smart Art Press, which he initially conceived as “a way to document our shows. That changed a few months later when Jim Shaw asked if we were interested in publishing a book of his dream drawings--which we ended up doing--then in August of 1995 I hired Susan Martin, who’d published several photography books for G. Ray Hawkins’ Graystone Books. Because she knew about book production she became editor of Smart Art Press, and with Susan on board our rate of production accelerated, and people began to approach us with projects more frequently.”

“Tom has wide-ranging interests and if the art interests us it doesn’t matter whether the project is commercial,” explains Martin of the agenda of Smart Art, which publishes in editions of 2,000 to 4,000, with production budgets that range from $1,500-$30,000 per volume.

Distributed by D.A.P. and RAM, upcoming books from Smart Art include “The Great American Pop Art Store: Multiples of the ‘60s,” which will accompany an exhibition at Cal State Long Beach; catalogs for Track 16’s summer show on protest graphics, “Blood, Sweat & Tears”; the fall exhibition of Manuel Ocampo; a five-year roundup of the best of art periodical Coagula; and a second edition of John Moffitt’s 1988 book, “Occultism in Avant-Garde Art: The Case of Joseph Beuys.”

“The role model here is [New York artist-theorist] Dick Higgins’ Something Else Press, which operated from 1964-74 and was one of the most important disseminators of experimental activity of the ‘60s and ‘70s,” Patchett explains. “They published a mixture of analysis and original work relating to Happenings, poetry, Dada, music and literature, some of which was quite ephemeral. It was all over the place, but today it stands as a great encapsulation of a particular period in art. Similarly, we hope to develop a Smart Art library that might eventually stand on its own as a significant body of work.

“Several dealers have been very helpful to me in this, but others seem to think I’m out to steal something from them. After I’d published a few catalogs for shows in one gallery, the dealer said, ‘You certainly like my artists, don’t you?’ My answer was, ‘Yes, I like your artists, but I don’t plan to steal them because I have no interest in developing a stable of artists to represent.’

“I feel a bit guilty that I don’t represent artists in the traditional way, because artists need that kind of support, but I have too much going on to give that job the attention it demands. Moreover, there are many dealers in this town with a talent for selling things, but that’s something I’ve never been good at. As a kid I got a job going door to door selling magazine subscriptions, but I couldn’t take the rejection so I got a paper route,” he says with a laugh. “I’ll leave the selling to others, because I have plenty of other projects that I love.”

The unabashed pleasure Patchett takes in all his projects is another thing that sets him apart from the crowd. It’s not often you hear art dealers slinging the word “fun” around, but to hear Patchett tell it, the prospect of having fun is central to every professional commitment he takes on.

“There’s a naivete to Tom’s activities and a willingness to explore which I find endearing, and I think people are beginning to appreciate the contribution he’s making,” Patricia Faure says. “Putting lots of money into Bergamot Station when it was still an unknown quantity was quite a leap of faith, and I admire the way Tom operates with his heart. He gets smitten with artists and projects, he wants to get involved and he does, and anybody with his enthusiasm is a commodity the art world doesn’t have enough of.”