Everybody in the LA art world knows about the Museum of Contemporary Art's recent financial turmoil: the museum overspent its budget for the past few years until last fall it finally arrived at the brink of collapse before billionaire Eli Broad stepped in with a $30 million stop-gap pledge. So it was with keen interest that I went downtown the other night to preview the annual fundraiser, MOCA FRESH, in which artists donate artworks for a silent auction to benefit the museum.

It's an impressive show this year, and the sale offerings subtly telegraphed the art world's deep concern about MOCA's fate and artists' willingness to pitch in.

The first wall of works that greets visitors is front-loaded with plum works by the name-brand heavies: a collage, Two Opponents (Yellow and Blue), from John Baldessari; a Doug Aitken photograph; a gorgeous still life from Catherine Opie; a Bruce Nauman print, Malice, with the word written backwards and forwards; a lovely small canvas by Tim Bavington. I was stopped in my tracks by young artist Lara Schnitger's Where Are the Hippies (below), a hand-sewn patchwork "painting" that registers potentially as a political protest against the war in Iraq, an ironic commentary on the recent hot-blooded commercialism in the art market and -- given the pot-leaf visible on the fabric -- a joke about Sixties-style hedonism. (Memo to Lara on that last point: the neo-Hippies are up in Laurel Canyon smoking bowls of medical marijuana.)

Glancing at the bid sheet for Schnitger's work, the name of the first bidder jumped out at me: MOCA chief curator Paul Schimmel, who offered $6,000. That got me to thinking that if Schimmel, one of the LA art world's most esteemed curators, has endorsed Schnitger's work, shouldn't any savvy collector swoop to buy it based on his imprimatur alone? I suddenly wondered if could I glean any more tips from the art professionals -- curators and gallery owners -- in the room. It wasn't hard: many were on hand to give advice to clients and donors, trying to drum up enthusiasm among potential bidders. I eavesdropped.

"That gets my endorsement," said dealer Marc Selwyn as he talked to a collector in front of a pair of photos by Shana Lutker.

I asked a few other art folk for their best recommendations. A young MoCA curator also singled out the Gober -- "If I had $10,000 I would get it" -- and then sang the praises of a quirky Martin Kippenberger poster as he translated the German text, which commemorated the artist's "quarter-century" birthday. Yet another curator mentioned that Piero Golia -- whose 12-inch lacquer LP in a plain paper sleeve had an opening bid of $1000 -- had just been written about in The New York Times.

Lauri Firstenberg, director of the non-profit arts space LAX Art, said she "worshipped" a Dan Bayles painting, and then she steered me across the room to a Drew Heitzler print (below). I went over to take a closer look.

The MOCA FRESH party takes place tomorrow night (Saturday, May 9) at the Geffen Contemporary space. Click HERE for more information.