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Strategies for 'Incognito' at the Santa Monica Museum: Pick Your Favorite or Find the Ruscha?

Strategies for 'Incognito' at the Santa Monica Museum: Pick Your Favorite or Find the Ruscha?
Gabriel Cifarelli

"Incognito," which was held Saturday night in its seventh year as an exhibition and fundraiser for the Santa Monica Museum of Art, offers an enjoyable blind taste test of contemporary art. Well-known artists displayed side-by-side with emerging artists -- equally sized, equally priced -- can be purchased to support the museum. Not until the work is rung up and handed to the buyer is the identity of the artist revealed.

Buyers must rely (ostensibly) on their taste alone, un-dissuaded by an artist's lofty reputation. Once the identity is disclosed (and this can be a dramatic moment), patrons either prove to themselves that they can identify that rare vintage, or, conversely, demonstrate that a $10 bottle of wine is just as good (and let's face it, it usually is) as even the most celebrated vintner's.

Oenology aside, the public took it as good fun, all in support the museum, as evidenced by the six hundred plus who gamely lined up for their chance to purchase. These buyers tended to have one of two goals in mind: either the determination to snag a piece by one of those most famous artists (an Ed Ruscha for example, or a John Baldessari), or they were content to simply follow their taste and buy whatever appealed to them.

The strategy and goals for attendees were in inverse proportion to their position in line. Those at the front of the line tended to be quite specific: they knew who they wanted, and they had a plan to get it. Those at the back of the line had a go-with-the-flow attitude. As one patron, Maria Fernandez, said, "We got cheap tickets, so by the time we get to see anything it is gone." As third-time visitor, Fernandez was not too concerned with who made the work she bought -- only that she liked it. "It would be nice if it was a Baldessari, but I don't care. It would not deter me from coming again."

There are tiered donor levels, and higher-level donors move to the front of the line. They also get to preview the exhibition, which enables them to survey and map out desired works.

Joy Simmons was one of those people. During the preview, she tried to locate the works by artists she collects. Most of the artists' identities are betrayed by their signature style and each savvy buyer is looking for a work of art's "tells." But still, Simmons said, "You do not know for sure until you buy. That is part of the fun."

Inside the gallery, Ruscha's work put on a pretty good poker face, as most patrons seemed unable tell which work was his. Plus, there's always the possibility of being fooled by a disguise. As one attendee said, "If I were an artist, I would make a fake Ed Ruscha."

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