Art for a critical cause

Image: Mark x Farina, The New Normal, 2020

Originally published in The Argonaut – April 29, 2020
View The Argonaut print edition here

By Christina Campodonico

Buying art may seem like a luxury right now, but it could actually save lives.

The Venice Family Clinic Art Walk & Auction, also known as the Venice Art Walk for short, launches this Sunday, May 3, on the online auction platform Artsy. Through May 19, art lovers can bid on works by the likes of master text artist Ed Ruscha, Incubus vocalist Brandon Boyd and celebrity photographer Sid Avery to benefit the community health care center, which serves 28,000 low-income, uninsured and homeless individuals across Los Angeles and celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

While an online auction component has been a part of the Venice Art Walk for a number of years, this is the first time in its 41-year history that the entire event is virtual.

While you won’t be able to gaze at paintings in the long Frank Gehry-designed halls of Google’s Venice office (the iconic Binoculars Building on Main Street) this year, you can peruse over 150 artworks from the comfort of your own home via Artsy. Meanwhile, artist open studio tours will be replaced by virtual art talks with artists, art writers, educators and advisers throughout the month of May. Discussions, delivered via VFC’s email newsletter, will focus on works featured in the online auction and topics such as art collecting.

“We realized that even though we can’t be together for the art walk, we can still all work together to help the community,” says Naveena Ponnusamy, the Venice Family Clinic’s Chief Development and Communications Officer. “We knew it was important to keep the tradition of the art walk alive.”

Proceeds from the online auction will support the Venice Family Clinic’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, including testing and screening for COVID-19, expanding telehealth services for socially distant medical consultations, buying personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff, and ensuring continued food and housing access for the clinic’s patients during this unprecedented time.

“We are also there to help educate them on what they need to do to self-isolate and take care of themselves… if they have symptoms or if they have been diagnosed as positive. We’re also there to see and help patients who might need primary care treatment after they’re released from the hospital,” says Ponnusamy. “Bottom line we want to provide the continuity of health care that our patients have come to rely on us for.”

The VFC’s Art Walk also honors that tradition of service this year by naming famed architect Frank Gehry — who helped spearhead the founding of the Venice Art Walk in 1979 with a storied band of local artists and volunteers — as the art walk’s Signature Artist.

“Four decades ago, I recognized the vital work Venice Family Clinic provided for our community,” wrote Gehry in his Signature Artist’s statement. “Along with a team of dedicated volunteers, we recruited artist friends in Venice and we established the Venice Art Walk to ensure that the artists and their neighbors received vitally-needed health care. I’m proud to continue to support the Clinic today when their services are as essential as ever.”

“A lot of the artists who were living in the community were also getting health care from the clinic,” explains Ponnusamy. “So they were very grateful for the services the clinic provided to them personally. … They wanted to give back.”

Among the art walk’s early supporters were the late conceptual artist John Baldessari, who passed away this January, and the late abstract painter Ed Moses, as well as current Venice artists like Light and Space sculptor Laddie John Dill, who was recruited by Gehry himself. Dill has utilized the clinic’s services and continues to donate artwork to the annual fundraiser.

“I do it because I’m a citizen of Venice,” Dill told The Argonaut in 2017. “I find the clinic to be an extremely important place. … It’s really a lifeline…”

You’ll have to check Artsy on May 3 to see the piece Dill has donated this year. Despite having their galleries, and in some cases studios, shuttered due to the pandemic, artists have generously donated highly valuable and deeply thought-provoking works to this year’s auction, observes Erin Harnisch, director of events for the art walk, and her colleague Lisa Gelber, an art adviser and chair of the curatorial committee.

For instance, Johan Andersson’s portrait “Frontline” of a young woman with bloodshot eyes and her mouth covered by a surgical mask (which appears on this week’s cover) echoes photographs, often selfies, of medical workers’ faces scarred by the tight bands of N95 masks and other PPE. Though created in 2019, the image immediately speaks to the present plight of health care workers fighting COVID-19.

“[Andersson] had been showing us … ‘What about this? What about that?’ for weeks,” recalls Gelber. “We almost sort of lost touch. … But then one day there’s an email in my colleague’s email box saying ‘What do you think about this image? … And we were like, ‘Yeah, that’s fantastic.’”

Others like Yassi Mazandi’s diptych “Social Distancing” is a play on words and symbols, captioning a pen-drawn letter “X” as “a virtual kiss, for you” and an “O” as “a virtual hug, for you.” Meanwhile Otis-trained Mark x Farina’s aerosol on canvas painting spells out a now oft-used phrase “The New Normal” with a hazy blur of shimmering pink and green. Both are indelible objects of the moment —inseparable from the language and Zeitgeist of the era.

While Ponnusamy says there’s no formal theme this year, she thinks having the art walk during this public health crisis has underlined the importance of the Venice Family Clinic’s mission to provide affordable health care to those in need.

“Now more than ever, I think we understand why everybody needs access to quality health care,” she says. “We’ve been fortunate to have this creative community of supporters who are passionate about social justice and passionate about our mission. Everybody, despite the uncertainty they might have in their own lives, wants to step up and see how they can help. We’re celebrating creativity and community and banding together to help people in a time of need.”

For those who are able, Gelber adds, “I think buying art to support Venice Family Clinic is almost a duty at this point.”

The Venice Family Clinic Art Walk & Auction happens online May 3 through May 19 at Bids start at $250. Visit to sign up for the VFC’s email newsletter and virtual art talks.