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Foxy Lady

It’s hang time with La Jolla art maven Karen Fox.

Karen Fox, a doyenne of the SoCal art scene, stands in her La Jolla penthouse. She is pictured here with  “Bus Tire Engraves” by Belsabee Romero, purchased at the MCASD auction, and  “The Vital Few,” a penny portrait by Shane Bainbridge, which enlists 8,056 coins.

Most people don’t jet off to Brazil for a contemporary art tour led by MCASD Director Hugh Davies, followed by a jaunt to star-studded Art Basel in Miami Beach. Then again, most people aren’t sassy local art maven Karen Fox, who is diminutive in stature but outsized when it comes to personality and collecting art.

She has turned her La Jolla penthouse into a chic, all-white museum of cool modern and contemporary pieces, from lithographs by Dalí and Oldenburg to a video installation by Jennifer Steinkamp. “I buy art not for value but for what rings my bells,” says Fox, who is 4 feet, 8 inches tall and dressed in a snow-and-silver ensemble that perfectly complements her surroundings.

When Fox moved from La Costa to La Jolla five years ago, one of her requirements was that her new home have 9-foot-high ceilings to accommodate her art. “And I’ve always wanted to have doors that opened up and looked straight over the ocean,” she adds. “Now I have them.”

The Hollywood Regency apartment had turquoise shag carpeting and silk wall coverings when Fox moved in. A serial remodeler, Fox gutted it and made everything white, from the marble floors to the ceiling. Covetable midcentury pieces including Barcelona chairs and an Eames lounger also match the palette.

“I wanted to do it very minimal and contemporary, so that when you walk in the door it takes your breath away when you look at the ocean,” she explains. “And then you see the art. The art is the color.”

A playfully abstract oil painting by San Diego-based Heather Gwen Martin, for example, gives Fox her morning jolt. “It’s so vibrant that, boy, does it wake me up.” And in the early evening, she is drawn to a ceramic lamb by another local artist, David Adey, whose sculpture also graced MCASD and the Orange County Museum of Art for its California Biennial. “I’m enamored of Adey to begin with, but I really love this piece, especially when the sun is setting and the sky is glowing and the little neon haloes are illuminated on the lamb.”

Fox has been collecting since she was an art graduate student at UC Davis, scraping together $300 to buy her first piece even as she was living in low-income housing. After realizing an austere artist’s lifestyle was not for her, she turned to interior design (“I thought of furniture as sculptures and wallpaper as paintings”) and then real estate.

In San Diego, she is a fixture on the cultural scene, serving on several boards here and is a supporter Hammer in L.A., where she keeps a “very Zen” condo filled with “edgier” art. She’s always wearing a bold outfit and sparkling on the arm of her beau, Harvey Rubin, who has coined the term “museum feet.” “It’s the person who gets dragged along to every art museum and gallery on the face of the earth,” laughs Fox. “Harvey is a trooper. He’s come to appreciate it all and absorb this contemporary art that I’m enthralled with.”

She knows the story of practically every artwork. Even better, she knows many of the artists. “One thing that’s important to me is art that’s honest, that really reflects the personality, the joie de vivre, the essence of the artist themselves,” she says.

“Karen’s passion for life extends equally into her art collection,” says L.A. gallerist Luis de Jesus. “It reflects a youthful curiosity and sense of discovery that I find truly exciting. She’s an incredibly erudite collector whose sharp eye and independent, open mind allows her to make very solid and confident choices.”

Fox’s divining method for the perfect new piece might be a little unusual. “I have to dream about it, literally, to know it’s the right one. I also have to have the right place to put it, where it has breathing space and is honored.”