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Interview Mon Dec 05 2011

Artman/Businessman: An Interview with David Leonardis


(left to right:) Bill Kurtis, David Leonardis & Alfred Llahí Segalàs, Prince Héritier de Tanna.

David Leonardis is a gallery owner, a TV show host, an art entrepreneur and man in charge of the late Howard Finster traveling folk art exhibit. Leonardis began his career in the arts first working for a gallery so he could afford Finster prints, to befriending Finster, to now working on this traveling exhibit as well as raising funds to maintain Howard's permanent residence, the Howard Finster Vision House Museum, in Georgia. The Village of Long Grove, IL is playing host to the late Howard Finster exhibit, now through January 31. On his TV show, the "Chit Chat Show", Leonardis will turn the microphone around and interview Elysabeth Alfano of "Fear No Art" next.

What do you like about art? Where did your interest in art come from? How did you get started in this direction?

My mom is an artist, my father is a businessman, and I kind of became the art businessman. When I was in college I had a girlfriend who was an artist and she introduced me to an artist couple. I hung out with them a lot, and I kind of realized that I get along with artists. So then when I discovered Howard Finster and pop art, I wanted to buy everything I saw, but I couldn't afford it, so I decided to get a job at a gallery. Eight months later I was working as a waiter and I would eat on the job and spend all my money on art -- Finster's specifically. Then I had all these Finsters and so right away the barter thing came into play, especially with artists. So I started amassing a contemporary collection. When I opened it was 1992 and we did pretty well. So all the sudden I just basically rolled it and I've basically been rolling it for 20 years. It's not really too much more complicated than that. You just have to have a good eye and some courage. For me there's just something so cultured about collecting art. I have some friends with an art collection and I was envious. I was like, "That's cool and I want that". So I just kind of took it to the nth degree.


Leonardis' in-house collection (all for sale), with work pictured by Chris Peldo, Christopher Makos, Marc Hauser & Ronnie Cutrone.

What do you look for in art?

I only sell happy fun art to cool people. I would tell people, if you're looking for Francis Bacon art, go to the gallery down the street. But that's sort of changed a little bit. Andy Kane -- I've sold Andy from the very beginning. And his stuff gets a little dark. But I like to offset that and have the nice pop art. Art has to kind of speak to me. I like painters, but I also like photographers. I was collecting little bits of the popular culture. After I got going, for a while I concentrated on artists who had books. The clients will kind of buy what you tell them to buy if they like it. And so if you are able to show them the book, that makes it a lot easier. I definitely like to draw that line because the thing about being a gallery owner is that you don't have to sell art you don't like. There are so many artists out there. One thing I always ask artists is if they collect art and if their answer is, "Well, NO! I'm an ARTIST!", it probably won't work out so well. Because the great artists collect. And selling art -- if someone's gonna buy some art from you, they put their hand in their pocket, they take out their money, and they're giving it up. The category of art that I sell is more like $250 to $3500. It tops out at about $10,000 here and there. I represent the artist Kristen Thiele, who painted on old window frames in reverse. Sometimes the frames would come in dirty and I told her people don't want that on their walls so she started cleaning them up and I work with artists who work in series so she had these paintings of cats and dogs, and they were $500-900. So I sold 137 Kristen Thiele paintings at that rate in about two and a half years. So she took that money to Florida for a while, then she comes back to Chicago and she has a show of work from $900 to $2k and nothing sold. That after selling 137 in two and a half years. People were so used to getting that art at an affordable price, weren't going to pay more in the Chicago market. Maybe somewhere else, somewhere more touristy, somewhere with an international market... the people I was selling art to, they were Chicagoans. I always like to recommend to people that to build an art collection you have several pieces of art from several different artists. I build a strong, strong client base of people who would buy a lot of art.

That's something that I've been asking a lot of artists about lately. With the economy being bad still, it's more difficult to sell art for thousands of dollars. People are looking for small, affordable pieces. So have you found that since the economy has gone down, you've actually had better business, because people are attracted to the lower prices normally associated with folk art?

I wouldn't say it like that. What's been going on for me, though, is that I've maxed out a lot of collectors. My prices have been affordable for a long time, and so they'll buy 25 or 30 pieces of art from me, and they don't have any more room. So I tell my collectors to rotate. Build an art rack. Take stuff down after a while, put it on the rack, and put new art on the walls. We're not taught about buying art. We're not even really taught about the value of art, and I don't mean the monetary value, I mean the aesthetic importance of having a visual stimulus that's not a TV. Some of this art comes from TV, but it's put into a physical form.

It's one of those things that you kind of have to be around to understand.

Yeah, once they're exposed to it, they kind of start to get it. In Long Grove, at the Howard Finster gallery, people come in and they're like, "Oh my God! I love this! Thank you for doing this!" And they usually seek it out. And then there are some people who wander in, and I'll ask them if they're art lovers, and they're like "no." Just flat out, "no". And so I ask what they're doing here and if they're looking for culture. And they say, "Well the only culture I have is the yogurt in my fridge."

Ha! That's a weird thing to say.

Yes, people say the strangest things. Once, a guy wandered in and he asked, "How much is this?" and I said, "It's $1000, how many would you like?" and he replied: "I wouldn't give you $100 for it." So I said, "Well, that's cool, In Chicago I would normally tell you to get out, but feel free to walk around and check out the exhibit." I've talked to a few people who own galleries here and they say that's just kind of one of the perks of owning your own art gallery. And that's nothing that I strive to have happen, but it certainly has happened more than once.

When I first moved to Chicago I took my parents to a Darger exhibit and they were just disgusted by the prices. They get people so upset, especially when you get into the tens of thousands of dollars. People get really offended. I've had several friends tell me that they just hate art. But I would imagine that people come up to you and say, "Normally I hate art, but I like this". Do you get that a lot?

Absolutely. That's the true enjoyment that I get. When I sell work to people I take a picture of them with the piece and on my website I have a section called "Happy Buyers with their Art" and there's quite literally a hundred people holding art and smiling. And I don't update it too often, but I put it on Facebook and people really like that. You've got to get people past the idea of taking the money out of their pocket and into the idea that it's something that's going to help them visually. I like to say that art collectors are better, more well-rounded people. And children of art collectors grow up to be better, more well-rounded people, for sure. If you can teach someone that from childhood, they'll embrace it. I've had fantastic compliments from people who come back and tell me they love the work. If you're local, I come to your house, tell you to move something and put my art in the best spot. A lot of people need that. Once it's there, it's in their home. You can't be afraid to put the nail in the wall, and some people are. I'll stop by their house and I see a piece I sold them for $2000 sitting on the floor.

Being a salesperson is hard enough, but selling art has got to be even harder because you've got to convince people that they need something that they don't necessarily understand they need. If you're selling vacuum cleaners, it's more cut and dry.

Yes, but if you're selling the more expensive work, you're usually catering to a crowd that does get it. A lot of people buy stocks, and then sell it and make a profit. Sometimes you buy a stock and you sell it and you lose money. Art is the same -- you can make money or loose money, but at least in the meantime you get to enjoy it. Some people trade in art and I'll give them less than they paid but they already got enjoyment from it, and then they get to trade up.

Are you looking for new artists to represent?

I've kind of gotten to the point where I'm kinda sick of most of my artists, personally.

Ha, especially with the sort of art that you work with, because so many of them are schizophrenic, I imagine.

The normal ones are worse! I recently had this conversation with someone about that. Just because [insert artist's name here] is an asshole, doesn't mean I'm going to give up the painting from him that I bought in 1992. I've had people tell me if I only dealt with dead artists my life would be easier. Now that Howard Finster's died, I've been able to work with his work very well. He's kind of the Obi-Wan Kenobi to my Luke Skywalker. I'm considering some new artists, I guess. I kind of want to concentrate on Howard Finster because I feel indebted to him. He was so nice to me, and he allowed me to publish his work. But I always miss working with regular artists, too. I've got a big collection. I need to sell some of the pieces that are commodities. I would like to sell folk art again. But my tolerance for having parties and just giving away beer... that's not my job anymore.

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AA Milne / December 6, 2011 12:03 AM

I'm not sure why you're profiling this man. He's know in the local art world as a bit of a loose cannon. He had a gallery in Wicker Park for 20 years that he suddenly closed - but that's not part of the story? I've had business dealings with Leonardis in the past and nearly had to get a restraining order against him when things didn't go his way. I know he's a legend in his own mind, but why are you wasting your time on this?

Tali / December 6, 2011 9:55 AM

Great piece Kelly!

david / December 6, 2011 12:05 PM

I'd like to say that I was indeed feeling pretty cranky that day after providing culture to people and maybe they just didn't understand. I was about to do an art deal with a kind of frenemy the next day. I always try to make people happy buy making fantastic art available at a great price. So sorry to anyone who ever felt my art filled artist/businessman passions pour out.

It's a privilege to own the howard finster vision house museum in georgia and to have another location in chicago's east garfield park neighborhood and to have a touring finster exhibit.
I'm not perfect but I am passionate about art.

Thank you. DL

Bitsy / March 9, 2012 1:35 AM

DL's employee bashed into my car and DL refused to take responsibility until he was legally forced to. He is scum.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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