Two years ago, while Justine Jentes was volunteering at a prochoice benefit auction, an art collector friend took her by the arm and encouraged her to purchase something. That evening Jentes came home with three paintings. With a mixture of pride and responsibility she thought, “Oh my god, I own art!” She stayed up all night deciding where to hang it.

Now not only does Jentes own art; she runs her own gallery. And out of that freshly painted Wicker Park space Jentes has set herself up as a tour guide, mapping the Chicago art scene for neophyte collectors and enthusiasts. Through her program, called Inside Art, Jentes says she hopes to dispel a few myths about art–namely that it’s unaffordable and that you need an MFA to appreciate it.

Jentes, 28, knows there are a lot of people in their 20s and 30s who didn’t grow up with much exposure to art. And while galleries may welcome crowds with wine and cheese during fall openings, they unnerve many people during the rest of the year. “You feel like you’re going to be checked out and measured by the people who work there,” Jentes says. “So you’d better know a lot going in or else they won’t take you seriously. I think that’s a big problem. . . . I thought there’s got to be a way of making all of this a little more fun and accessible to people.”

Jentes was exposed to the art world early on by her mother, who has been an Art Institute docent for more than 15 years. “I was my mom’s guinea pig,” Jentes says. “She’d take me and see how I reacted to the work she was showing me.” Though children respond to art with a visceral eye, Jentes says her mother has found that by around age ten they grow self-conscious about their reactions. Jentes says she often encounters this behavior in people her age.

“They don’t want to say what they think and they don’t want to see things,” she says. “They are so concerned with, what does it all mean and am I saying the right thing? Did I use the right words? Did I know the right term to apply to that artwork?”

Jentes began thinking about how art figured in people’s lives about four years ago while she was working in public relations at Ogilvy & Mather. She was researching ways that the Art Institute, one of her clients, could attract new audiences without the splash of blockbuster exhibitions. “It occurred to me that I knew a million people who never went to the Art Institute,” Jentes says. “It wasn’t that they didn’t know about it, but it seemed too much to take in. It was overwhelming.”

She and her coworkers came up with a program called Art Express, which brings art lecturers to Loop offices at lunchtime. Over the years, of course, museums have come up with their own programs aimed at young professionals, such as the Art Institute’s Evening Associates and the Museum of Contemporary Art’s New Group. But Jentes finds those groups, which have hundreds of members, too impersonal. And until recently her closest model, Art Encounter in Evanston, held most of its workshops on weekdays, excluding nine-to-fivers.

Finally last fall she began brainstorming ideas for her program with gallery owners, artists, and museum workers. She also decided that she wanted her own space to hold meetings and spotlight local artists. She found one on the site of a former auto repair garage on North Avenue. Jentes says she wants participants to feel at home there. “They’re not dealing with some little waif in a black turtleneck giving a lot of attitude. They can come in and have a cup of coffee and get crumbs on the furniture.”

Last month she kicked off her program with tours of studios in the Fine Arts Building and a gallery owner’s private collection. She led two groups through Around the Coyote. And in upcoming weeks she’s scheduled discussions with appraisers, critics, curators, and artists. This week she begins a four-event series called “The Inside Scoop on Outsider Art,” starting off with a talk by gallery owner Aron Packer on how to find and evaluate works. It continues with a studio visit, a meeting with a collector, and a preview of a show presented at her gallery by Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art.

Jentes is planning monthly exhibits by a range of artists that she hopes will help participants develop their tastes (and perhaps whet their appetites). She takes a 25 percent commission–half of what galleries usually receive–because she says she wants to keep prices down. All of the works go for between $50 and $1,000.

She says she’s taken some flack from people who argue that by emphasizing affordability she’s devaluing the labor and talent that goes into a piece of art. “I’m not saying that work shouldn’t be expensive and that the artists shouldn’t get what they deserve,” she says. “I think they should. But I also really relate to the consumer and the fact that people who have not bought anything before are not going to begin by buying something that is four or five thousand dollars. They have to move through a whole series of phases of understanding before they get to a point where they’re going to spend more money.”

Aron Packer lectures Tuesday at 5:30 PM at his own gallery, 1579 N. Milwaukee, suite 205. Individual sessions of “The Inside Scoop on Outsider Art” cost $15; a series pass is $48. An exhibit called “Crowning Achievements: The Crimped and Cutting Edge in Bottle Cap Sculpture” opens with a reception Friday, October 7, and runs through November 6. During the show the gallery, at 1651 W. North, is open noon to 5 Thursday through Sunday. To sign up for an event, call 772-4416.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mike Tappin.