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It was art that stole her heart

Times Staff Writer

Jan Baum is closing her La Brea Avenue gallery on the last day of 2007.

Thirty years after staging the first of hundreds of exhibitions for artists such as Betye Saar, Peter Plagens, Chris Burden and Roberto Gil de Montes, it’s time for Baum, who’s now in her 70s, to travel and pursue her art passions at a more leisurely pace. With her master lease on a multi-gallery building running out and her exhibition space at Jan Baum Gallery already relinquished to dealer Merry Karnowsky, it’s also time to reflect on an unexpected career.

Like a dozen other veteran L.A. dealers, Baum has been an integral part of the local art scene during a period of astonishing growth and change. But she couldn’t have imagined all that in the mid-1970s, when her best friend, Iris Silverman, came to call.

Baum, then a docent at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, had taken on the responsibility of selecting contemporary artworks for the museum’s rental gallery. Silverman was a private dealer in African art, but she had a better idea.

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“Iris said, ‘I would love to have a gallery, and I would love to do it with you,” Baum says, recalling a conversation that transpired when Silverman dropped by to exchange some theater tickets. “She said, ‘You do the contemporary art. I’ll do the African.’ I told her if we did this, there was one place it should be -- on Santa Monica Boulevard between Nick Wilder’s and Jim Corcoran’s galleries.

“When we drove there the next morning, there was a ‘For Lease’ sign in the window of that space. We walked to the closest pay phone and tied up the property” -- a former dress shop flanked by L.A.'s two most prestigious contemporary art galleries. Elapsed time between idea and reality: 22 hours.

The Baum-Silverman Gallery opened in March 1977 with an installation by Natalie Bieser.

“Had I had more time and given it more consideration and thought, I may not have done this,” says Baum, who was born in Newark, N.J., was educated at the University of Wisconsin and studied dance with Martha Graham in New York before moving to Los Angeles. “I had no idea about all the pitfalls in the art world and problems with landlords. But it was destiny. And for two years, it was just wonderful. It was a slow beginning but enough to give us both confidence.”

Although African art was a well-known source of inspiration for European Modernists, Baum-Silverman’s combination of traditional African and contemporary American art was unusual. “If people didn’t quite understand,” Baum says, “I would say, ‘Remember Picasso?’ Picasso, Vlaminck, Matisse, Cezanne, all of them. For many early 20th century artists, it was another way to deal with the figure, an abstracted way.”

With Saar’s assemblages, Plagens’ and Claude Kent’s abstract paintings and Burden’s “Full Financial Disclosure” -- a series of collages composed of his canceled personal checks for an entire year -- Baum-Silverman quickly joined L.A.'s regularly visited and reviewed exhibition circuit. Silverman expanded her knowledge of contemporary art as Baum and her husband, internist Richard Baum, started what would become a serious collection of African art.

But two months before the gallery’s second anniversary, Silverman was diagnosed with lung cancer.

“At first, I thought we should close the gallery,” Baum says, “but it really defined her life. Iris loved the gallery and did everything she could to be here every day.” Informed that she could expect to live about six weeks, Silverman persevered for 20 months and died in September 1980.

“When she passed on, I felt that I had to leave that space,” Baum says. But she didn’t want to be completely alone. After Baum-Silverman had joined Wilder and Corcoran on the ground floor of the Santa Monica Boulevard building, Asher-Faure gallery and Art Catalogues, owned by Dagny Corcoran, moved into upstairs spaces.

“When Richard and I found this building on La Brea, we thought we could re-create something like that. Which we did, and it was just grand,” Baum says. She opened her new gallery with a Saar show in May 1981 and rented additional spaces in the two-story building to other galleries and art-related businesses. As tenants changed and Baum expanded into the entire ground floor, the building at 170 S. La Brea Ave. became a fixture, generally known as “the 170 complex.”

Baum has provided a showcase for a variety of contemporary artistic sensibilities and maintained a presence for African art. She introduced Betye Saar’s daughter, Alison, fresh out of graduate school, and later showed the work of Alison’s sister, Lezley. Other exhibitions have included paintings by Takako Yamaguchi, Jim Morphesis, Darren Waterston and Mel Rubin; sculptures by Bruce Houston, Italo Scanga and Bella Feldman; and an installation by Terry Allen -- whatever “grabs my heart,” she says.

“One reason the gallery was mostly a joy to me is that I never thought of myself as a merchant,” Baum says. “Selling work was important, of course, but it was mostly a pursuit of the pleasures and knowledge that art brings.”

As for retiring, “it’s the right time to do it,” she says. “I’m looking forward to staying involved in the art world.”

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suzanne.muchnic@latimes.com


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