I really enjoyed reading your biography, as you are a true Renaissance Man. Tell us about your early introduction and interest in the world of art.
Art has been around me for as long as I remember. As a child, my mother was constantly painting…canvas or bas relief works were on her easel as my sister and I drew pictures and surrounded her station. We were strongly encouraged to have drawing books and my mother, Martha Slaymaker, would tutor us on as young children.
Once as a young boy, I drank a quart of turpentine when my mother wasn’t looking, and I ended up in the hospital having my stomach pumped. This episode might explain my unusual behavior even today.
During my late mother’s life, she had 150 one-person shows, and sold 40,000 works. It seemed that she was always preparing for an exhibit, so art was a consistent activity that dominated much of our collective lives. Her art is in the permanent collections of many museums worldwide. As we became older, my mother showed us how to use her intaglio collagraph press for relief prints and etchings. At some points, my sister and I would help her in the process, although, at the time, I was much more interested in athletics and other things young boys in Indiana found amusing, beside art.
I did have to deal with my sister because she was allowed only to draw girls, and I was allowed to draw boys. However, my sister, Jill, betrayed me at 12 years old because she also started drawing boys. This was my first art deal gone bad, and it forced me to become suspicious of the art business.
Tell us about your world travels and how that has affected your outlook on business?
When I began selling art, I couldn’t believe that I was getting paid for traveling. The excitement of going to new cities and countries seemed too good to be true.
Over the past 27 years, I have worked every state in the Union, South Africa, Mexico, Canada, Australia, Ireland, England, Jamaica, all of Europe, Hong Kong, Tibet, New Zealand, P.R. of China, Japan and probably a few countries I have forgotten about.
Selling in non-western countries is quite different than selling in the west. Negotiations and haggling are important parts of making the sale. Trying to “cut through the chase” will only make one’s customer feel that they haven’t honed into the best deal possible, so it is necessary to play the game.
Business manner range dramatically from nation to nation as well. One’s best preparation is to present oneself in a traditional manner. Never discuss politics, religion and sex, even when people try to drag you into the discussions. Always be respectful of their customers. It is important to be polite and not to offend. It is also important to remember that the overseas accounts are usually making a great effort to use your art, and the value of their currency makes this more difficult than dealing with an account from the United State.
You have a very talented wife, parents and family… and why do you call yourself “The Indiana Jones Family?”
When we were small children growing up in Indiana… our parents would pull us out of school early and bring us back late as we all journeyed by vehicle to central Mexico and Central America. My parents were passionate about archaeology and we would travel around excavating various Mayan, Toltec, Aztec an Incan excavation sites. We were a part of many famous digs. To this day, I have unusual artifacts acquired from that time. Some of the Mayan artifacts still have the original paint on them.
Toward the end of my life, I may donate them back to the governments from where they came. There is an entirely different political view today on our activity that there was in the 1950s and early 1960s, which I partially subscribe to.
You have a friend who is in the Guinness Book of World Records. What was his qualification?
In 1977, I was a foreign exchange student from Indiana University and attended La Universidad de Ibero Americana in Mexico City. As I was a piano major studying composition, I was placed in the home of Senor Jacobo Puentis, who had made a living writing Mexican commercial music and jingles.
When I met him, he had no legs and was on a respirator with emphysema, but he could speak well when it was removed. He is in the Guinness Book of World Records for having been legally declared dead 17 times. He had been declared dead eight times before he was 12 years old. He not only shared music and composition with me, but his philosophical outlook was amazing.
Religious leaders from around the world came to see him occasionally to gather his experience of death before he came back to life. He said that his will to live was just so strong that he kept “bouncing back.” He was a fascinating person, and I learned a tremendous amount of philosophy from him.
How has your business changed over the past five years?
Our business has remained basically the same over the past five years, other than it increases in sales by various percentage annually. We are unusual in that we offer quality original works of art on paper and canvas, and will not compromise our standards by doing giclées ir reproductions.
This means that we have to work with more than 80 very talented artists who need to work hard to satisfy the demand for original works without any gimmicks. We always pay our artists within five days of receiving their arts to show our appreciation. By out-paying our competition, we often benefit by new artists finding us, when they are discontent in their current situation. This also means less work for me, as the great artists usually find us, as opposed to us constantly combing the bushes.
By paying for the art immediately, getting the best artists in our stable at the right price, we are able to effectively control price. This enables us to have very reasonably priced originals.
Our road reps have done a wonderful job for us over the years as well. As the economy and travel prices have increased, they have been able to churn out very steady sales.
if you could live anywhere, where would it be?
Choosing where to live would be relevant to what one is doing in life. It would prefer to live on the moon, with an elaborate network of hot tubs, pools, staff and friends.
However, being down to Earth, Chicago fits my character fine. I am in a distribution business and could not pick a more ideal city with a central location. I like the hard working, rough and tumble feel of the people and the humility and well-mannered concept of Midwest.
what is your greatest regret?
My greatest regret stems from the fact that my measuring stick was wrong during my early years in business. The sacrifices I made to acquire what I considered “having enough money” were not worth the cost of what I gave up. My pursuit did not consider spirituality in any way at all, as I followed my values, not God’s, although they were easy to find. My wife and I would like to have had more children, as they are the lights of our lives, but we ran out of time. Truly, I would have benefited from a more balanced measuring stick which considered more than a acquisition of wealth as a priority.
You’re an accomplished musician. What instruments do you play?
I play the piano and have been playing lots of dramatic, dark Russian classical works, which I love, but no longer have the tutelage of my piano professor, Mira Levi, from St. Petersburg, so it is difficult to continue. I also play pipe organ, harpsichord, the harmonica and used to take college level courses on voice, saxophone and harp, although I later gave up sax and harp even though I have experience on them. Also, in college, I taught tap dance for a while. My routine in talent shows, which got the most response, was the rap dance, voice and harmonica skit that I did simultaneously. Somehow my piano playing wasn’t as interesting to an audience, although it is far more interesting to me.
What was the last book that you read?
My life leaves me very little time to read books. If I get the free time, I read music. Sometimes I’ll glance through the Bible on Sundays. But other than that, I prefer to read magazines or watch videos of books. I realize that the author’s interpretation is lost to the producers, but that is a sacrifice I am willing to live with in order to conserve time.
How would your best friends describe you?
My friends would describe me as passionate, intense, loyal, witty and slightly mad.
You have a very talented wife. How has she been a benefit to your business?
Fangji has lived the most amazing life of anyone I have ever met. As a small girl from Jilin, Manchuria, she was moved by the P.R. of China;s government to Beijing, where she was trained as a classical dancer by Chinese and Russian instructors. Chairman Mao Tse Tung’s wife was the sponsor. The Central Dance Company and her company performed at every state function for dignitaries visiting China.
Since she was 12, Fangji has toured the world as a dancer, and at 16 years old, solo performaed at Lincoln Center in New York. She was the youngest performer from China during the cultural exchange, which President Nixon and Chairman Mao began. She also has performed at The White House and has toured the United States. She has performed for President Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Carter and Bush (Sr.).
When Fangji an I met in 1990, she became very interested in the art and framing business. She knew several famous painters from China, and we began importing their art to the West. Also, Fangji’s brothers, Dan Jiang and Hong Yuan were renowned artists. We brought them to America and they are crucial in our business.
Primarily, Fangji works with our artists in the United State helping them with color and current artiest trends. She overseas our picture framing and accounting departments and her efforts are invaluable to our organization.
Not only is she my wife and the mother of our two children, but she makes the time for her influence in the fine art business to be realized.
What would you consider your greatest achievement?
My greatest achievement would be the father of our daughters, Martha Louise and Ana Elisabye. Any accomplishment I have made in the fields of art or music or real estate pales in comparison to their beings.
What advice would you give to someone who is just opening an art gallery or starting a business as a publisher?
I have different advice for an art gallery than for a publisher, as they are obviously as different as apples and oranges.
An art gallery needs to establish a fresh an original look that is their identity. The best way to achieve this goal is to buy the best possible source, at the best possible price. Nine times out of 10, this will be from an established art publisher.
The problem with taking free local art is that it has not been commercially edited for its viability. “Good art” is a matter of opinion, but publishers have already formed the formula as to why something sells and exploits that position.
The mere action of buying art should ensure reasonably negotiated price points allowing the new retailer to be price competitive and to offer tested, saleable art with less effort.
The key to success for art publishers is to find an artist or look, which is different, yet saleable. The next step is to “take the show on the road” and visit as many venues as possible.
It may be necessary for a new publisher to trade his art with other publishers in order to expand their road portfolio, while staying grounded to the fixed cost of their initial purchases. This will give them enough variety to have success, but one has to be careful not to risk exclusively, “being violated” by accident through trade with a third party.
“Having an eye for art” and particularly what art will sell is a rare art, and I’ve noticed that most people don’t have it. The eye is developed only through time and experience. If one can take the time and be disciplined, the art publishing world is an exciting and rewarding field.
If you could invite three people, living or dead, for dinner in your home, who would they be?
Patrick Henry, John Phillips Brooks and Mart, Queen of Scots. I would have a series of questions, which I would ask them to answer over a seven-course meal.