Volunteers who founded Clinic’s Venice Art Walk fundraiser built lasting legacy

From an idea developed over lunch more than four decades ago to a major art event that raised more than $1 million last year, the Venice Family Clinic Art Walk & Auction has become an iconic event that brings together a community that cares about art and the Clinic’s mission.

For their vision and dedication to the significant role of the Clinic in the Venice community, the Venice Art Walk founders – including Irma Colen, Ruth Bloom, Mona Colman, Marj Fasman, Sheila Goldberg, Elaine Stone, Adele Yellin, Marcia Bein, Linda Brownridge, Barbara Hirsch, Freya Ivener, Alice March, Laura Maslon, Claudio Sego, Elaine Stone, Betty Tuchman, Toby Waldorf, and Hope Warshaw – have earned a place on Venice Family Clinic’s Visionaries list in honor of the Clinic’s 50th anniversary.

They used their resources and expertise to create a fundraiser for the Clinic that not only raised more money from individual donors than ever before – $35,000 at the time – but also brought together the artists Venice was known for and the community at large.

“The Venice Family Clinic Art Walk & Auction is now a beloved community tradition, bringing together artists, friends of the Clinic, and the general public, all in support of the vital work we do for our neighbors in Venice and throughout Los Angeles,” said Elizabeth Benson Forer, chief executive officer and executive director at Venice Family Clinic. “It continues to be an integral part of the Clinic, as a community event, an artists’ event, and an event that raises funds. Venice Art Walk, all its patrons, and the many artists have forged a community that supports the Clinic.”

The most recent iterations of the Venice Art Walk have hosted 6,000 people and included tours of artists’ studios, live music, a beer and wine garden, and a family fun zone. But this year, in keeping with state, county, and city Safer at Home orders that protect the public’s health, the event will be exclusively online, with an art auction hosted by Artsy from May 3-19.

Humble beginnings

In 1979, Venice Family Clinic was nearly forced to close its doors. The Clinic relied heavily on volunteers and a few paid staff members to care for patients, supported by some grant funding and medical malpractice assistance from UCLA. But those funds only got the Clinic so far, and attempts at private fundraising never yielded more than a few thousand dollars at a time. Then a chance encounter between Dr. Kendra Gorlitsky, MD, who was a volunteer physician assistant at the time, and Irma Colen, a noted fundraiser for civil rights causes and political campaigns, laid the foundation of the Clinic’s fundraising program – and to the development of Venice Art Walk.

“I thought, ‘How could we make a fundraiser for the Venice Family Clinic?’ [I knew a group of women who] were moving out to the Marina here, and they were building houses and everything. Here was a very wealthy area and a very poor area. So I called them and said, ‘Let’s have lunch,’” Colen said in a 2003 interview. (She passed away in 2006.) “They fell in love with the idea. They were doing something for real, for people. We decided that we would start the [Venice] Art Walk.”

Among the diners were Sheila Goldberg, art collector and historian Ruth Bloom, artist Elaine Stone, and others. Someone in the group knew a then little-known architect and art exhibition designer named Frank Gehry – he had purchased his now-famous Santa Monica residence just two years before – who connected these volunteers to many of Venice Art Walk’s first artists, some of whom had even used the Clinic’s services.

Another volunteer knew someone at the Los Angeles Times and pitched the event, which the Times covered. For $25, attendees could tour the work studios of various artists, including DeWain Valentine, Charles Arnoldi, Annette Bird, Ron Cooper, Stephanie Delange, Laddie John Dill, Claire Flakenstein, Robert Graham, Gloria Kisch, Margit Omar, Roland Reiss, Ann Thornycroft, and Vasa, as well as the Gehry-designed Spiller house and Galper-Baldon office building. The Tony Bill, Janus, Malinda Wyatt, and LA Louver galleries also opened their spaces for Venice Art Walk that first year.

“So, everybody made it happen, and I think that’s what made all of us love working there so much,” Goldberg said in a 2003 interview. “We fed off of each other, we bounced ideas, and that’s how the event began to grow. Because we just kept incorporating new things. I loved it because I loved working with all of those people, and with a group effort.”

Continued support

Many of the Venice Art Walk founders later served on the Clinic’s Foundation Board of Trustees and continued to raise funds, helping to develop some of the Clinic’s signature events such as the Silver Circle gala and annual Children’s Holiday Movie. Their vision and dedication to the Clinic rubbed off on many of the participating artists, including Gehry, who later provided input on the design of the Clinic’s flagship Rose Avenue location. Gehry is also this year’s Venice Art Walk signature artist.

“I got people I knew involved because the Clinic was the one place where you could see where your money was going. You were raising money for real health care. You could go into the Clinic any afternoon and see people being taken care of,” said Bloom, who served as chair of Venice Art Walk in the early years and spoke about her experience in a 2003 interview. “In those years, most of the people we knew were just starting out. Whatever they were giving was a lot of money for them, and to know that all of it was being used for the actual service was really important.”

Now in its 41st year, the Venice Family Clinic Art Walk & Auction has raised more than $23 million to provide quality primary health care to low-income families who may not have anywhere else to go. The event has grown to include some of the most notable contemporary artists of their time, including John Baldessari, Billy Al Bengston, Ed Moses, Ed Ruscha and Alexis Smith, as well as kept the involvement of some of the founding artists to this day. This year, in the midst of a global pandemic that’s sure to hit the most vulnerable in our community the hardest, we hope to count on our community’s continued support. Visit our website to learn how you can help.