Gail Katz previewing the Incognito artwork and mapping her strategy at the Precognito Gala and Preview on Thursday. (photo by Monica Orozco)

BERGAMOT STATION — Incognito, now in its eighth year at Santa Monica Museum of Art (SMMOA), is recognized as one of the most innovative and successful museum fundraiser/art sales anywhere in the art world.

The concept — show the art without artist’s signature, so people make decisions based on their taste, not an artist’s name — was imported from London’s Royal College of Art by SMMOA director Elsa Longhauser. Over the years Longhauser has honed and refined the concept, and Incognito 2012 tops all previous incarnations, with a record number of 697 artworks donated by 500 artists.

Incognito starts at 7 p.m. sharp on Saturday, March 17. Don’t be late — there’s always a line and people rush to get in. 

On Thursday night, SMMOA introduced the PreCognito Gala, a new awards dinner honoring Bergamot Station founder Wayne Blank (Shoshana Wayne Gallery) and art collector/patron Eileen Norton. The museum’s top donors dined in the gallery where they were privileged to preview the artworks.

The room was filled end to end with tables with seats assigned by name, printed on small covered paint cans containing pencils and a blank map of the room’s layout, the 500 artists’ names printed on the other side. The 300 collectors, artists, patrons and celebrities crowded along the gallery’s edges, cocktails and maps in hand, marking an X on the spots where the unsigned and unnumbered works they want are located along the walls.

This will help guide their buying. But like everyone else, they’ll have to wait until Saturday night.

Each work of art is no larger than 8-by-10 inches. For the price of admission plus $350 per artwork, anyone fast enough to stake their claim could walk away with a mini-masterpiece by living legends like Ed Moses and Ed Ruscha, or new talents such as emerging artist Jake Kean Mayman or mid-career Tofer Chin.

“It’s the most democratic way imaginable to buy art,” Blank said. “I mean, I’m the landlord here, but I’ve got the same chance as anyone else of getting one of these artworks.”

Moving to Bergamot Station and bringing in Longhauser as SMMOA’s director has proven the winning combination for a museum whose roots are in conceptual art. How do you exhibit temporal art in a permanent space and make it interesting? Under Longhauser’s aegis, the museum’s mission has expanded, with important exhibits, educational outreach and smart programming contributing to SMMOA’s staying power and its value to southern California and beyond.

Robert Berman of Santa Monica Art Auctions, who has operated galleries in Santa Monica since 1979 and was one of Bergamot’s first tenants in 1994, said: “The museum is an anchor. It’s a cutting edge cultural and community destination marked by a deep intelligence, especially in a multi-gallery setting like Bergamot. I could have a show at my gallery for six weeks and not sell a single piece, then another that sells out. But SMMOA is never about selling. It’s about enriching the art experience for the public.”

Incognito art is packed edge to edge along three long, narrow shelves — the width of a yard from top to bottom — that line the length of the gallery’s walls. Each row is filled with a deliriously giddy array of works in countless artistic styles enveloping the room. 

To keep artists’ identities secret, signatures are placed on the backs of the paintings. Numbered tags hang below, and once you grab one, you own that piece. Decide fast or someone will beat you to it! Then cashiers tally up the tags, send them off to their matching numbered artworks, and only after they’ve paid will buyers discover whose work he or she has purchased.

It’s as close to a level playing field as the art world can offer. With Incognito 2012, Santa Monica Museum of Art has demonstrated that it has perfected the art of fundraising.

Tickets are still available, visit www.smmoa.org for details.

Sarah Spitz is a former freelance arts producer for National Public Radio and a producer for public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica. She reviews theatre for LAOpeningNights.com.

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