Benefit at Santa Monica Museum of Art puts guesswork into artworks

The Santa Monica Museum of Art's annual Incognito benefit may be the most democratic of all Los Angeles art world soirees: 700 works for sale by emerging and famous artists alike, all 10 by 10 inches and exactly $350 — with the artists' identities hidden from view until after purchase.

But that doesn't mean strategy isn't involved.

The event, which turns 10 this year, has become a touchstone for collectors looking to find valuable works by the likes of Barbara Kruger, Raymond Pettibon and Ed Ruscha. The more serious among them often attend the museum's annual Precognito gala, at which guests can preview the anonymous artworks and the gallery floor layout. When the doors swing open later in the week on Incognito night and several hundred people race inside, Precognito attendees have the advantage of knowing exactly what they want and where to find it.

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All the advance mulling, Googling and plotting, however, could be in vain.

"There's no way to tell what work is by whom," museum Executive Director Elsa Longhauser said. "But there certainly is a way to tell what you think is beautiful."

Which, of course, is the real point of Incognito — to have fun and buy what you love.

"The tagline is trust your instincts," Longhauser said. "Look and look and look, then buy what speaks to you visually; because value is measured in many ways."

This year's artists include John Baldessari, Catherine Opie, Oscar Murillo, Betye Saar, Laura Owens, Gronk, Sam Durant, Mark Bradford, Ed Moses and Ruscha. Emerging artists from around the world — South Africa, Germany, Israel, Japan — and even some of the museum's staff have contributed pieces.

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We asked past attendees for five tips on navigating the beautiful chaos that is Incognito:

Bring a friend. That's what "Little Miss Sunshine" directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris did in 2013. "We did and she had to leave early," Dayton said of the friend. "She described this piece she wanted for her daughter's bedroom — a whimsical piece of mice. We got it for her and it turned out to be a William Wegman. It's fun to see how someone else responds, and their response might give you the confidence to grab that tag. Just do it fast and don't dilly-dally before someone else reaches over your shoulder."

Relax, stay focused. Nancy Klein, graphic designer and museum board member, bought a Mickalene Thomas in 2012. "Don't worry about the people who came for Precognito," she said. "Overall, there's a lot of really quality work and you'd be surprised by some of the art that's left on the walls at the end of the night. So I'd suggest not getting intimidated or pressured by what's going on around you."

Research — but then let go. V. Joy Simmons, chairwoman of the event, bought a Charles Gaines and a Todd Gray in 2013. "If you see the list, and you know certain artists you're interested in, look them up to see what kind of work they do. I've been collecting over 35 years; most times the artists do what they do, so if you pay attention you can figure it out. But sometimes the artists aren't used to working in that small of a scale, so they'll do something different — you just never know. So be willing to explore."

Go with your heart — and run fast. Designer Santiago Ortiz bought a Pettibon in 2013. "We're not serious collectors but we do love art," he said. "We go and try to find what really touches us. My first Incognito I got a beautiful aluminum piece. I didn't recognize the artist or care, but it actually turned out to be a very well known artist, Laddie John Dill. Just buy what you like and what really talks to you. But it doesn't hurt to run as fast as you can."

Show up early — in sneakers. Said Longhauser. "Buy a VIP ticket so you can reserve a place at the front of the line early in the day; if you buy a regular ticket, come early. Also, come wearing sneakers so you can be comfortable and agile; bring a relaxed attitude and a good spirit."


Precognito and Incognito


What: The gala at which guests can preview the anonymous artworks and the gallery floor layout

When: 6:30-10 p.m. Wednesday

Tickets: $1,300


What: The sale night

When: 7 to 10 p.m. Saturday

Tickets: General admission is $100, VIP admission $250, purchase of an artwork is an additional $350

Where: Santa Monica Museum of Art

Information: (310) 586-6488 or


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