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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
WISE THOUGHTS: It's no wonder that a statue of Athena watches over the Cantor Arts Center.

Art Wants to Be Free

The best entertainment bargain around can be found at local museums and galleries

By Michael S. Gant

ART CAN be a great solace in difficult times, as well as a low-cost way to enjoy a high-brow habit. After all, works of genius commanded by imperious rulers and commissioned by wealthy patrons can now be savored in leisure by the masses. A great deal of pleasure can be derived simply from knowing that the robber barons—er, venture capitalists—of the past at least left us with the means to while away a day communing with artists and their visions.

Take for instance the Cantor Arts Center on the Stanford campus. One doesn't have to admire Leland Stanford's business tactics in the early days of railroading to appreciate the fact that this well-appointed museum maintains its tradition of free admission to all.

In addition to some excellent traveling shows, the two-story museum (built the old-fashioned, non–Frank Gehry way, with columns and a grand entry staircase), the Cantor boasts a permanent collection strong in ancient Roman, Greek, Asian and, in particular, Native American arts. The upstairs galleries house a strong sampling of Bay Area abstract and figurative painters, especially Frank Lobdell and Richard Diebenkorn. The museum also holds an extensive collection of sculptures and related works in plaster, ceramic and other media by Rodin. A score of monumental bronzes have always been on display in the outdoor sculpture garden; this year, the Cantor is also showcasing its entire range of Rodiniana.

I have always liked to wander at my own pace through the museum, but for those who prefer a bit of structure and instruction, the Cantor offers a variety of free docent-led tours. The rotating exhibits can be supplemented in this way Thursdays at 12:15pm and Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm. The entertainment value is doubled this season with a series of free concerts every Friday (noon–1pm) keyed to a new exhibit called "The Metaphysics of Notation," a performance-art piece by composer Mark Applebaum; on May 15, florist James DelPrince will present Applebaum's Dada-influenced Concerto for Florist and Ensemble. On the third Thursday of the month, the museum also hosts MIX, a socializing opportunity with music and drinks (OK, the drinks aren't free).

We are blessed to live in a region with a surprisingly large number of free museums and top-notch galleries. Several cities (San Jose, Palo Alto and Redwood City) host monthly art walks that can include music and munchies and can fill up an entire evening without stressing the pocketbook.

Cantor Arts Center
Stanford University; Wed–Sun, 11am–5pm, till 8pm Thu; free; 650.723.4177.

Montalvo Arts Center
15400 Montalvo Road, Saratoga; Mon–Thu, 8am–5pm, Fri–Sun 9am–5pm; free; 408.961.5800.

The nonprofit center's Project Space presents rotating shows; currently on display is "In Possession of a Picture," a photographic collaboration by Julia Meltzer and David Thorne. Montalvo is also offers some gorgeously landscaped trails around the stately villa that once belonged to Sen. James Phelan.

De Saisset Museum
Santa Clara University, 500 El Camino Real, Santa Clara; Tue–Sun, 11am–4pm; free; 408.554.4528.

The museum's upper floors are used for changing exhibits, mostly in a modern vein. The newest show, for instance, focuses on artists using electronic or digital media. The basement gallery houses an eclectic collection of historical material about Native Americans and early settlers in the valley.

De Anza College campus, 21250 Stevens Creek Blvd., Cupertino; Mon–Thu, 10am–4pm; free; 408.864.8836.

The museum recently celebrated the opening of its new space next to the new Visual and Performing Arts Center on campus.

Art Museum of Los Gatos
4 Tait Ave., Los Gatos; Wed–Sun, noon–4pm; free; 408.395.7375. Inside the 1920s firehouse, the museum hosts juried shows and group exhibits.

Triton Museum of Art
1505 Warburton Ave., Santa Clara; Tue–Wed, 11am–5pm, Thu, 11am–9pm, Fri–Sun, 11am–5pm; free; 408.247.3754.

The museum generally hosts three shows at a time, with an emphasis on contemporary Bay Area artists.

Anno Domini
366 S. First St., San Jose; Tue–Fri, noon–7pm, Saturday, noon–5pm; free; 408.271.5155.

Talk about cutting edge. If there is a Brazilian graffiti star in the making, chances are he'll get his first U.S. exposure at this vibrant downtown gallery. The shows change frequently, and Anno Domini is the bedrock of South First Fridays, when it offers lively receptions, often with live music.

510 S. First St., San Jose; Wed–Thu, noon–7pm, Friday–Saturday, noon–5pm; free; 408. 998.ARTE.

The concentration is on Bay Area Latino artists, with rotating shows and the annual Latino Art Auction.

Mohr Gallery
Community School of Music and Arts, 230 San Antonio Circle, Mountain View; Mon–Fri, 9am–7pm, Sat, 9am–3pm; 650.917.6800.

The shows by local contemporary artists are often accompanied by free lectures. Shows change every six weeks approximately.

Palo Alto Art Center
1313 Newell Road, Palo Alto; Tue–Sat, 10am–5pm, Sun, 1–5pm, till 10pm Tue–Thu; free; 650.329.2366.

The center has three galleries (one is large and dramatically lit; the other two are pocket-sized). Past shows have ranged from Japanese prints to retrospectives by major Bay Area figures like Nathan Oliviera.

San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art
560 S. First St., San Jose; Tue–Fri, 10am–5pm, Sat, noon–5pm; free; 408.283.8155.

Metro's neighbor rotates provocative one-person and group shows and installation through two galleries, plus a video-screening room. The group exhibits often come with intriguing themes like the current exploration of rejection called "It's Not Us, It's You."

WORKS/San Jose
451 S. First St, San Jose; Tue–Fri, noon–4pm; free;

The community-based, artist-run space keeps eccentric hours, with occasional exhibits and evening music shows. 

History San Jose
History Park, 1605 Senter Road, San Jose; Tue–Sun, 11am–5pm; free; 408.287.2290.

The complex of historical buildings includes the McKay Gallery and Pacific Hotel Gallery, which hosts exhibits focusing on local artists past and present.

Art Walks South First Fridays
The downtown SoFA district goes all evening with receptions and happenings.

Second Saturdays Redwood City
Several galleries and the Redwood City Art Center participate the second Saturday of the month (April to October) from 7 to 9pm.

First Fridays Palo Alto
Many of the galleries stay open from 6 to 9pm for visitors. Some spots, like the Pacific Art League, host special programs with participating artists.

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