Clinking wine glasses, chic black outfits and sideways glances fit the scene of typical art shows. In Puerto Vallarta, art collectors find a different milieu. Here gallery owners and artists alike open right up. Gallery goers become friendly faces. Galleries become places of discovery, not alienation. For six Americans visiting or retiring in the city, that warmth has opened doors to places they've never been before.

Pat and Jerry Dodson will leave San Francisco next year, point themselves toward Oaxaca, Mexico, and set out to find Jorge Gutierrez Gonzalez. "He's the first artist we're physically pursuing," Pat laughs. "We discovered his work at a gallery in Puerto Vallarta and his workmanship is extraordinary. But there was only one painting by him." Determined to meet Gonzalez and to acquire an exceptional piece, they've turned the search into an adventure.

In fact art has been central to each of their cross-border excursions: "Art was one way to learn about Mexico and to get involved in Mexico. It was an entre into another world." Since buying a condo in Puerto Vallarta a year ago, and when visiting annually before that, they have made art walks in town a priority: "The art community here is really fun. We watch the calendar carefully to attend openings."

No strangers to international galleries, shopping for art has become a way of life for the Dodson's whether in the USA or abroad. "Our idea of a perfect date is to go for lunch and then walk through galleries and shop for the afternoon." Though they look around together, they don't necessarily agree on each piece: "We don't want compromise pieces. We each buy what we really love. It works for our marriage to buy art that way."

Unlike some collectors, the Dodsons avoid impulse buying. They want art that can be enjoyed by them and their guests for a long time, not pieces that will eventually be stored under a bed. "We go back to galleries several times before buying. We looked at Landscape by Marco Vargas 10 or twelve times because we were buying it for a prominent place in our home. We looked in galleries in San Francisco, London, Istanbul, Paris, and finally chose Vargas in Puerto Vallarta," Jerry recalls.

A passion for art and travel has taken Jo Kloss around the world - several times - in the past 40 years. A trip to Carmel, California, in the '60s led her to the first piece in her own collection: "I found a painting by George DeGroat for around $5,000 USD and I bought it 'on time.' That was the only time I did that; I was young and it was a lot of money for me. I put $1,000 USD down and gave so much a month until it was paid off. I did it and I love it," she points to where that piece now hangs on her wall in Puerto Vallarta.

"When I travel I always go to galleries and art museums. I guess I just like art and pretty things," she laughs. "I once stopped a whole tour in South Africa because I saw a statue I wanted." The world is full of people with material passions of every sort: cars, clothes, jewelry. But Jo has eyes only for art: "All of my friends are driving BMWs and Jags, spending $50,000 dollars on them. I can fill a whole wall for that much."
And fill walls she does. Her best friend Pat now advises her when they step into a gallery, "Think small!" Whether on art walks or while dining out in Puerto Vallarta, Jo discovers artists and pieces she can't resist. She's currently eyeing works by Bella Rish, an artist in Mexico City she discovered while having dinner at Trio. The floral still life has clearly cast a magnetic spell over this collector.

Like many other collectors, she's adamant about buying for enjoyment, not as an investment: "Many of my paintings have appreciated a lot, but I don't buy for that reason. If I were buying million dollar Rembrandts, it might be different. Of course, you have to spend within your means. I often buy in the $3,000 to $5,000 USD area." Coincidentally, Puerto Vallarta shows many remarkable artists whose pieces fit right into that price range.

When Hedda and Werner Zeitler first moved to the USA from Germany, buying art was not on their priority list. "We needed basic things, like a table," Werner smiles. Apparently those days of frugal spending are distant memories. Now their homes in Puerto Vallarta and Dallas, Texas, are full of art. "Art makes us happy," Hedda adds, "We enjoy colors and variety. We buy for us."

Impressed by the art community in Mexico, Hedda and Werner jumped into it with all of their senses. On the evening of a typical art show, they browse through a gallery with friends, talk about art, go out for dinner and return to the gallery again for another round of cocktails and shopping. It's an immersion of sorts. "The art world is like a tree," Werner describes. "You meet many interesting people that way."

The freedom they've found among the people in Puerto Vallarta sometimes sends them spinning. "When we buy art, we fight a lot," they laugh. "Most of the fighting is not about what we buy, but if we should buy. I'm the impulsive one," Werner admits. "Hedda's the logical one. Maybe we have no more space for the art I want. She reminds me of that."

They have many favorite artists in Mexico, among them Rogelio Diaz, Daniel Ruffert and David Leonardo. But just as important is the tone of the art world here. "Everywhere else," they recall, "is snobbier. In Puerto Vallarta you can get to know the gallery owners. They live art. It's not just a business for them. That's why we like to buy here."

Artistic fervor has spread from their own lives into their children's. "Our second daughter, Carol, has our Bernice Starr pieces. And our oldest daughter, an architect in Dallas, wants the Edith Polumbo watercolor." Their son apparently favors something a little more concrete: "He just wants this condo," they laugh.

One art collector in Puerto Vallarta hears voices: "Art speaks to me. It says, 'Look how beautiful I am. Do you see me?'" No, you haven't tapped into a therapy session. That's Dorothy Piontkowski, former professor of psychology at SFSU and Stanford, describing how she chooses art. Mexican art in particular has opened up to Dorothy and her husband Fred another world, somewhere synonymous with exotic Puerto Vallarta.

After decades of fulfilling responsibilities at home in San Francisco, they've matured to
a stage of life when smart people toss good sense and become totally indulgent. It's the other adolescence called retirement. "Life is so much more than working and eating and raising children. Art takes you to that next dimension. It enriches one's life," Dorothy adds. In fact, so many pieces have enriched the Piontkowski's marina residence that they've named it Casa Dorotea Galeria.

When they're not golfing or playing mah jong, they do as countless others in the city - shop for art. They even shop in Mexico when they're back in the USA, via the Internet. It's rather like window-shopping: "We don't actually buy over the Internet, but we get notices from gallery owners about new pieces and we pick out the ones we like. That's how we bought our Meg Munro," Fred recalls. After examining Tropical Garden from afar, it took them less than 30 minutes here at the actual gallery to make the purchase.

They refer to the "art scene" in Puerto Vallarta as democratic, accessible to anyone with an interest. And wide open it is, but they recognize that one demographic group in reality seldom sees it: the Mexican children. Encouraged by their friend Peter Gray, they plan to donate much of their surplus art. After thoroughly enjoying certain pieces and no longer having room for them, works will go to the Centro Universitario de la Costa. At the Galeria de Arte Permanente, more than 5,000 local students daily will also be able to enjoy them.

In a post-modern world, art can be whatever you'd like it to be. For some visitors to Puerto Vallarta it is a challenge, a discovery. For others, it is a world of colors and images. They are captivated in one way and released in another. How wonderful that a paintbrush or a chisel can be so liberating.

Harry and Blanca Reifschneider could have their own reality show. With a grand casa and rich art collection they could replace the likes of Courtney Cox and David Arquette, showing couples with disparate taste how to combine it all. For the past 20 years, Harry has gravitated toward American contemporary and Southwestern art. Meanwhile, Blanca was focused elsewhere, on French impressionists and Mexican art.

So how do you blend two lives, two cultures and two collections? If this couple's experience is an indicator, there's hope for all of us. "It has been very interesting for me," Blanca reveals, "to be married to an American who had very different taste in the past. And then suddenly he discovered a new country [Mexico], a new place, a new art. And in this discovery he said, 'Oh my God, yes! I like this and I want to buy Mexican - of all kinds and all prices.'" Now, prodigious bronze pieces by Guillermo Gomez and Eraisy Perez attest to their love of things Mexican.

Before the colors and creations of Mexico captivated Harry, he was back in Boise, Idaho, collecting Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Pat Steir and others. He admits that some of his modern art was "way out there." And even though much of it still excites him, he's willing to give some of it up. Urged by his lovely wife, he took down a Rauschenberg painting in one of their homes and put up a Zapoteca rug, which he also loves.

So where does their retired art go? On at least two occasions Harry has donated works. His Sao Paulo Biennale 3B by Pat Steir now hangs in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. And Interior Series by Lichtenstein is among three of Harry's pieces that have taken up permanent residence at Boise State University. Only once has he sold his art, and that was mainly to experience a Sotheby's auction. Over the years they have changed from buying art for investment to buying art for life. Harry now begs the question, "What does it matter if art doubles or triples in value if it's not for sale?"

A 43-foot boat named Windraker gives John Decker good reason to spend a week each month in Puerto Vallarta. He compares marina living and its social intensity to his way of approaching art. "Art, in a way, is like people," he muses. "Some wear thin real fast. You meet some people - strong personality, real witty - and you can take them for a couple of hours only. The best friends are the ones who wear easy on you. Paintings are like that."

In his quest for lasting art, John claims to study pieces for so long that the gallery owner wants to throw him out. He looks for assurance from within the piece that he's not going to get tired of it. "I stare at a painting or a sculpture for a long time, until I know it doesn't bore me. And when it doesn't bore me, I buy it." Sculptures by one Mexican artist, Miguel Holek, intrigue John because of his Renaissance approach: "He has released something from within the block of wood. I never get tired of looking at it."

Both the mental process of the artist and the context of each piece fascinate John. Gallery owners in Puerto Vallarta provide open invitations to art shows where anyone can meet the artists and probe a little. It's a great way to sate the appetite of inquiring collectors. "I love the fact that he [Holek] can tell a story about each piece. Frankly it adds a lot of meaning for me when the artist describes the process."

Whether it's the openness of artists, the diversity of art or the low prices, acquiring art in Mexico is markedly different from the USA, John asserts. "Art in San Francisco is much more expensive and predictable. You see art here that's unique, unusual - figures and people leaning toward the abstract. You just don't see it in typical California communities." And perhaps best of all, "Everything here is a good deal. The only frustrating thing is the variety and trying to figure out what you like," he adds.