A Walk on the Artsy Side
FUELED BY A LITTLE COMPASSION AND A LOT OF INGENUITY, THE VENICE ART WALK HAS AN ARTISTIC TAKE ON PHILANTHROPY
Dr. Mayer Davidson and philanthropist Irma Colen have a running joke. One of them founded the Venice Family Clinic; the other one saved it using chutzpa, charisma and her love of art.
Today Davidson’s dream and Colen’s succor have helped provide life-saving medical care to thousands of Angelenos whose annual income is so far below the poverty line medical insurance isn’t an option. Davidson and fellow physician Philip Rossman conceived of the Venice Family Clinic 36 years ago. It was the late 60’s, an era when charitable grass root groups were not just talking about the ills of society but trying to right the wrongs as well.
Rossman and Davidson dreamed of a free clinic which would provide quality care to the low income residents ofVenice who had no medical insurance and no place to go when they were sick.
At first they held makeshift clinics at night in a borrowed dental office. Many of the first patients were the “starving artists” of the community.
These first patients were forced to stand around, often for hours, waiting to be seen. Many times there were too many of them for the doctors to examine and—to make matters worse— there was no place to sit. Though medical services were donated, fundraising yielded barely enough funds to stay afloat and the Venice Family Clinic was constantly in danger of becoming just another good idea gone awry.
About this time (1978 to be exact) and in another part of the world, Irma and Lou Colen—fundraisers for liberal political candi- dates Anthony Beilenson, Tom Bradley and George McGovern as well as the University of Judaism and the ACLU—were on a cruise around the Panama Canal and met a couple who were connected with a certain fledgling medical clinic in Venice, California.
“Before we docked they made sure that I agreed to come to the clinic to give fund-raising advice,” chuckles a ruminative Irma Colen. And yet, while it was chance that led her to the doors of the clinic for the first time, what kept Irma there was something much more personal.
Upon entering the clinic, the fundraiser was flooded with painful memories of her childhood battle with rheumatic fever.As a youngster, she spent six months in the charity ward of a Chicago hospital fighting symptoms of the ailment because her family was too poor to afford insurance.
She empathized with every person she saw in the clinic awaiting treatment.
“My first thought was,‘How can I help’?” Colen remembers.
Noticing that so many of the patients who came to the clinic were artists, she conceived of an idea to get them to open their studios and charge money for an art tour. The money could then go towards benefiting the ailing clinic. Colen phoned a friend who knew architect Frank Gehry. Sympathetic to the cause, Gehry recruited a number of artists he knew to participate.
And the rest is history. The first Venice Art Walk made $35,000, which brought to the clinic more money than it ever had before. Colen then got her women’s group at UCLA to donate $28,000 more.
She also began aggressively recruiting more doctors to help. “When I’d meet with a doctor, they couldn’t get out of my clutches,” she grins.
“It was important to get UCLA involved because they provided malpractice insurance,” husband Lou chimes in.“Doctors couldn’t have volunteered without that.”
Today, thanks largely to Irma’s dedication and the couple’s gen- erosity, the Venice Family Clinic is the largest free clinic in the nation with a staff of 250 and more than 2300 volunteers. It is no longer just available to the citizens of Venice—there are now seven locations throughout Los Angeles and it sees some 22,000 patients annually.
Additionally, the Art Walk has grown to include not only the original tour of artists’ studios but also an Architecture as Art tour that guides visitors through significant Venice homes. The walk also includes a silent and live auction held at Bergamot Station complete with all the trimmings of a gala event as well as a separate Focus on Photography exhibit and auction. Anticipated net proceeds from this year’s art walk were over $600,000; the figure represents but a fraction of the income that the Venice Family Clinic now receives from both public and private sources.