A Life in Art: Every picture tells a story to collector Doug Simay

By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt

Doug Simay has spent more than half of his life collecting art. Now in his 60s, the longtime La Jollan bought his first artwork at 28, when he found that a piece he loved was actually affordable, and, for a mere month’s salary, he could own it.

Currently, 57 “Selections from the Doug Simay Collection” are on view at the Oceanside Museum of Art, part of a museum-wide exhibition of landscapes. Simay’s section is titled “Outside,” which he explains in an introduction: “For me, ‘landscape’ is the pictorial plane on which ‘portraits’ exist. Take away the creatures that represent a story and what is left is my concept of landscape. A close-up of a horse is a portrait. A group of horses in a pasture is a landscape. Landscape is what is outside a protagonist.”

To Simay, every picture tells a story. “I can look at a painting and read it,” he said. “It’s partly an acquired skill, from years of education, but it’s also hardwired in me; it’s how my brain operates.”

Born and raised in Indio, he had a “superb” art teacher in high school, and developed a taste for making and appreciating art. He also managed to develop a taste for scuba diving, so he and his buddies drove down to La Jolla on weekend dive trips, camping in the parking lot behind the Museum of Contemporary Art.

When it came time for college, he chose UC San Diego, where he could pursue a dual major in art and biology and live close to the ocean.

At UCSD, he decided he wasn’t meant to be an avant-garde artist, and found success in the field of sub-cellular biochemistry. He went on to medical school, and spent more than 25 years in family practice, with an office on Coast Boulevard.

It was as a young intern that he bought his first artwork, a drawing by Robert Bechtle. Like all of Simay’s pieces, there’s a backstory to this one: he had to fight the San Diego Museum of Art for his right to acquire it. “They wanted it for their permanent collection, but I was there first,” he said. “They finally let me have it, and I let them show it in 1983.”

From the start, Simay bought from living artists, and enjoyed cultivating relationships with them.

In the late 1970s, he met Mark Quint, who had a small gallery next to Margaret’s Dry Cleaners. “I used to buy art from Mark, and when he moved downtown in the early ‘80s, I joined him, and opened my own gallery space next to his,” Simay said. The Java Coffeehouse Gallery followed, then an art-centered bookstore, and finally one large gallery, under what he called his “visual arts moniker,” SimaySpace.

“We did a lot of shows by culturally significant artists and I was my best customer,” he said.

In 1998, with artist Stuart Burton, Simay opened a full-fledged Art Academy in a 15,000-square-foot space across from his gallery. Under Burton, the Academy still exists, in smaller quarters on 30th Street.

Simay is now officially retired, but not from the art-world. “I can think of no finer way to spend my day than to look at art,” he said.

For 40 years, he has lived in the same art-filled condo, with furniture by Dave Fobes, who designed all his gallery spaces. These days, he buys less, and travels more widely, posting photos and descriptions of his art-finds on simayspace.com

He also goes to Los Angeles every month, visiting 70-100 galleries in a whirlwind few days, and sharing his “Best Picks” on simayspace with hundreds of fans.

“I used to feel that art speaks for itself, but people have to be educated, and that comes with communication,” he said. “My favorite works always have a quality I would call beauty, but I also favor works that combine good and evil, hope and despair, creation and destruction.

“I tend to like figurative stuff because, for me, storytelling is a significant pleasure. I look at more art now, and reporting on what I see is a tremendous learning tool for me. My life has never been better!”

Want to know more?

■ For an online look at ‘Outside: Selections from the Doug Simay Collection,’ visit

simayspace.typepad.com/photos/outside

■ To view the exhibit, visit the Oceanside Museum of Art, 704 Pier View Way, Oceanside. (760) 435-3720.

oma-online.org

• When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 1-4 p.m. Sundays to Jan. 5

• Also on display: ‘Nature Improved: Contemporary San Diego Artists Interpret Our Landscape,’ ‘Scape/Escape: Stephen Curry,’ ‘Urban Entropy: James Enos,’ and ‘Contemporary Landscape Photography: An International Perspective’

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