Sam Heller began dealing in art in 1987, first at Merrill Chase Galleries, and then as Curator and a director of Atlas Galleries, at the time Michigan Avenue's two largest fine-art galleries.
Born in New York City (his first home, the historic Ansonia Hotel, home of The Continental Baths,) the openly gay Heller, a longtime Northside resident, has surpassed the 25-year mark as an art-dealer, despite several recent years filled with professional and personal obstacles.
Now, as president of Sam Heller Fine Art, launched in 2006, Heller offers his own large collection of art; but also spends much time "sourcing" works requested by clients; as well as authenticating fine-prints. Clients range from "serious collectors to young couples, with little knowledge, looking for something beautiful on a budget. There's little 'intimidation factor" with me; the experience is tailored to the individuals I'm working with" says Heller.
"As a private dealer, I'm able to limit my offerings to works that I respect personally. Three of the traditions of the Private Dealer are reasonable pricing, knowledge and passion for fine art; and a distaste for the high-pressure "close." Without the enormous overhead of a gallery space on expensive real-estate, dramatic markups are unnecessary."
Heller specializes in works of museum quality, most between $2 and $15,000; with a cap of $100,000. "I offer works of very high-quality. But high-quality doesn't necessarily equate with expensive. There's only so much room for marvelous artists to become celebrated and, therefore, valuable. I like to think I'm good at seeing works of intrinsic artistic and technical quality, no matter what the setting, or reputation of the artist."
Heller always offers several works for a few hundred dollars, and "on the top end, I seldom offer works above $50 thousand. By specializing in fine-prints, I'm able to offer museum pieces. Whereas, paintings by the most famous names are far above my price-range, and drawings are often impossible to authenticate."
Heller's clients range from economically middle-class "up to the very financially-successful; but I doubt I've ever sold anything to a billionaire. I grew up middle-class; I am middle-class; and I'd feel exclusionary, as well as more at-risk, if I dealt with art in higher price brackets. I enjoy the diversity of people I deal with; always have. I've met and worked, and occasionally made friends, with a lot of fascinating people. It's one of the bonuses."
Heller's specialty in 19th Century French fine-prints directs some of what he sells, but there's a wide gamut. "Over the last six years I've bought and sold prints, paintings and drawings by everyone from Mary] Cassatt, to Frank Stella, Marc Chagall, and works by many who, while well-known to museums, don't have a "household name."
Heller's artwork offerings include an eight-foot tall bronze mother and child sculpture from Israeli Ruth Bloch. He also has a framed Joan MirÃ" aquatint that is almost six feet wide. Plus, "I have the largest Mackenzie Thorpe original work available anywhere in the United States [and] an enormous Alexander Calder."
Heller says, "I have a good deal of expertise in Rembrandt etchings, and have located three very fine, early examples since starting my business. I also sold a small Renoir painting shortly before leaving the gallery world, and brokered a mixed-media painting by Hans Hofmann, one of the fathers of abstract expressionism.
Heller is the Chicago source for the French archive of an important series of etchings by Salvador DalÃ; created in the 1960s for his friend, the dealer/agent Pierre Argillet. Heller has access to examples set aside by Argillet, over 40 years ago, as a legacy for his family. According to Heller, "these works are among Dali's most artistically significant. All date from a decade before the emergence of questionable works and outright fakes. Many are extremely beautiful."
Gay Art History
I have a lot of love and respect for the work of several 20th Century artists who, while never publicly gay, were clearly gay in many of their works. Sometimes overtly; often more subtly. Says Heller, "I particularly appreciate Paul Cadmus, Balthus, Don Bachardy; Gilbert & George; Romaine Brooks and Ross Bleckner. But many others as well."
A quarter of a century has allowed Heller to accrue a total client list of about 3,500. Many have been LGBT people; but, he says, "only in recent years have many been open about it, beyond a sort of subtle acknowledgement. I've worked with dozens of gay couples — particularly in the 1980s — who were careful not to betray the relationship. One couple pretended, in public, to be brothers. However, that's changed so much and, after so much struggle, so seemingly quickly. I'm working with more openly LGBT people, and am often asked about art relevant to LGBT lives."
Heller says that he's become more open with clients. "I don't make any attempt to hide my dog's rainbow leash, my LGBT bookshelves, or countless other things that make [my sexual orientation] pretty obvious," Heller said. "I've lost a few conservative clients because of this, but, I'd rather not work with people who can't respect who I really am."
At age 29, Heller collapsed and later was diagnosed with diabetes. He was, at the time, a workaholic; overweight; and a chain smoker. "When I collapsed, I was told at St. Joseph's [Hospital] that my blood-sugar [level] was about three times [over] the normal range," he said. "I changed everything after that." He quit smoking cold turkey, dropped 50 pounds, and became an obsessive swimmer.
"Life got great," he said.
"ADHD [Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] wasn't being diagnosed in adults very much back then. So it would be another 15 years before I got the good news, and the bad news, that I tested out well for intelligence, and am, I suppose, almost obsessively creative; but [also] have severe ADHD."
Heller was a cartoonist for Windy City Times in the mid-1980s, and says, "I used to go into hyper-focus when I did those. I remember sitting drawing for over 20 hours without stopping at all. Tracy Baim [then Windy City Times editor; now its publisher] decided to run my cartoons, which was very important to me at the time. It was my path back into the Gay/Lesbian community, after retreating for a couple of years after the breakup of my first significant relationship."
Says Heller, "I remember one strip WCT ran that I called "What if All the Great Artists Were Straight?" Among other things, I had Michelangelo changing his mind about the Sistine chapel ceiling. He decided to stucco it. Pretty spiky. But I was sometimes rather spiky back then."
Shortly after that, Heller got involved with the Windy City Gay Chorus, becoming president of the board of directors, and then the Chorus' first Executive Director. Says Heller, "I was an enthusiastic and effective chairperson, but a very choppy executive director. I'm a hard-worker, but can barely organize a dishwasher, let alone an office. At least, post-ADHD diagnosis, I know why."
Heller worked with the Chorus on several "firsts." "I helped to fund, and then produced the Chorus' first CD; and also got a lot of local media interested in what we were doing. The Tribune finally ran a long article. WFMT came in with strong support for the Chorus, and Studs Terkel inaugurated our Honorary Board, and got us some great attention. Several other things. We found funding for commissioning a new work, and I involved Joe Parisi, editor of Poetry Magazine who got several gay/lesbian poets of note to include a work. We called it "Letters to the Future."
Continues Heller, "We took a big risk, for that time, and did a joint concert with The Chicago Children's Choir. Nancy Carstedt, head of the CCC, risked her job. Several parents pulled their kids out of participating. Then, the Sun-Times reduced something I'd said about the importance to LGBT kids of gay adult role models. They printed, 'According to Heller, "Gay people are good role models for children."' That wouldn't cause much outcry today, but things were different in 1990. A couple of days later, they ran a series of letters from people excoriating me. The Chorus' conductor had programmed a cute little skit for that concert. I'd made a 'cartoon set" for it, and ended up directing it as well. The mother of a young gay couple visits on Christmas Eve, and the piece ends with her looking at them and saying "shouldn't you two be in bed?" After that, several more parents pulled their kids from the next night's concert."
Heller also helped create Chicago's first Lesbian and Gay Chorus. He says, "I proposed calling it Union. Then someone suggested adding an "s" to make it Unison." The new ensemble, "Unison, Windy City Lesbian and Gay Singers", gave way, a few years later, to a women's chorus, Aria, which acts as Windy City Gay Chorus' sister organization.
Heller took a break from the art world in the 1980s to start his own producing company, renting theaters, and hiring performers, many of whom appealed to the LGBT community, including Eartha Kitt, Barbara Cook, Janis Ian, The Flirtations, and Holly Near. Heller also engaged jazz singer Diane Schuur for a concert co-starring pianist Ramsey Lewis, at Symphony Center (then Orchestra Hall.) He had first booked Schuur on behalf of Windy City Gay Chorus for "a highly publicized sell-out concert at The Chicago Theater. The Chorus didn't have enough time in the space, or with Diane, to be at their best; so the event was a mixed blessing."
The crisis period
One day in 2007, Heller began to hyperventilate. His assistant called an ambulance and, at Weiss Memorial Hospital's ER, he was told it was acute pneumonia and "they didn't know if I'd pull through. None of the usual treatments were working. My life was saved by a pulmonary physician who guessed it might be Idiopathic Resistant Bronchio-Obiterenz-Organizing Pneumonia, a rare variation of an already rare disorder. My overactive immune system was attacking my lungs, and they were beginning to literally disintegrate."
Heller was chief support for his mother, and recalls that "I made calls on the gurney to other dealers to buy some of my artwork and get the cash to her, just in case. However, while I was being prepared for an emergency lung transplant, a very large series of steroid infusions turned it around."
Says Heller, "I began to get my strength back pretty quickly, but two months later had a complete relapse. It took about 6 months to come back from that one. I remember, on most days, taking a cab down to the Hyatt Regency [Hotel] with my laptop and cell phone. I'd sit in the lobby, and do business while looking at the fountains and little waterfalls. It's not the prettiest place, but those "water-features" redeemed it. I began a continuing practice of meditation there."
Over a year of a very high dose of the steroid Prednisone, aggravated Heller's diabetes and he developed a serious foot problem. "Northwestern advised radical surgery," Heller said. "I told them, 'Thanks, but no thanks,'" and he went looking for alternative treatments. "I found them and ended up in a hyperbaric chamber three days a week, and on an IV several hours a day at home."
During this time, in the space of two weeks and without warning, Heller said, "a close friend passed away, followed by my business partner. Shortly after this, news came from Israel that my younger brother had also died unexpectedly." About a month later, Heller lost the sight in his right eye, again due to lingering effects of his steroid therapy.
Says Heller, "it just kept going. I was in the middle of an amazing series of horrible events that, if spread out over a couple of decades, wouldn't have seemed terribly unusual, but packed into less than three years, nearly took me down. The good thing to come out of all of this was realizing that I'm strong. Not without courage. A survivor. Every time I thought I couldn't handle it I found some way to shift the paradigm, at least for a while."
Heller says, "I finally have a clean bill of health, swim laps daily, and do beach runs with my dog. My goal now is to gain about 10 pounds."
Heller said current goals now include becoming fluent in French, and finishing two portrait sculptures for clients.
As for romance, "I'm in the common Catch-22 of wanting a life-partner; but knowing it can't be pushed. My current "cuddlebunny" is my beagle, Cody, but she's a placeholder for the right human-being. I'm used to the continuing flexibility necessary to a lasting love-relationship; but the right guy will need to like, or at least tolerate, dogs.
Three years ago, Crain's Chicago Business columnist Shia Kapos broke the news that Heller was representing a friend, the artist John Langdon, as his dealer, and the publisher of handmade etchings of the six arcane designs by the artist that guide the plot of Dan Brown's, Angels & Demons. Brown named the novel's lead-character Professor Robert Langdon, to acknowledge his collaborator. The Langdon character returned in Brown's best-seller, The Da Vinci Code.
Said Kapos, "Heller represents the real-life professor who …..teaches typography at Drexel University in Philadelphia and is well-known for co-inventing the ambigram words written with a typographical style that allow them to be read upside down. Mr. Heller, a fan of mathematical games, became the agent and publisher of Mr. Langdon's work about a year ago."
Says Heller, "During my recuperation, John has waited for me to get back in the saddle; which is quite a compliment. He's a brilliant man; a bit of a prankster in his attitudes and his widely variegated artwork. John has been famous in intellectual circles since the 1970s, and has often been called a genius."
Langdon, has said of Heller, ""Sam and I are, in many ways kindred spirits…..we spark each other creatively…….he's a brilliant man.
By the end of 2014, Heller plans to be up and running with Langdon's artwork, "which I've always found exciting, unique, and incredibly varied," he said.
On being gay
Heller says he knew he was gay at age 9 when he followed a classmate home, going right past his own home without even realizing it.
"I remember, that he seemed to exist in a soft halo of light; and looked just like Christopher Robin from Winnie the Pooh," Heller said. "Ever since, I've [been attracted to] guys who have the qualities I first attributed to that boykind and gentle, but on their own course — independent; curious; adventurous; and smart."
Shortly after his realization, Heller asked his mother to get him a permanent pass to check out books from the "grown-up" part of the Public Library. I said I wanted a book about the discovery of Troy, but in reality, "I was desperate to read Dr. David Ruben's [book], Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask). It was the only book I'd heard of that I knew would say something about boys who liked boys," Heller said. "It was a bestseller, and all copies were checked out.
"When I finally got it, I ran home, went to my room, locked the door, and flipped through the index to 'Invert,' the only word I knew that described boys who liked boys. He made us sound like monsters. I'd expected something positive and accepting. Instead, at 10, I read that we were child-molesters. Even with kid-level logic, and no other information, I knew he had to be wrong. But, in my heart, I became a secret mutant; just as so many kids did at that time, and as many still do today."
Heller dated several girls in high school, and learned to focus on guys passing in his peripheral vision. He says. "I can still, all these years later, look at the person I'm talking to, but be concentrating more on something over to the left," he said.
From age 9 to 17, he told no one that he was gay. After graduating from high school, he told everyone"whether they wanted to know or not, whether they knew me or not."
Heller was thrown out of his home when he told his parents. But this self-motivated man did not let that stop himit was just one in a series of setbacks that seems to have made him stronger.
More Sam Heller
When he left Atlas Galleries, Heller had to wait two years before contacting former clients. Not wanting them to forget him, he produced a holiday CD instead of holiday cardsand sent out about 2,500. Heller says "A good friend [noted pianist/arranger] Jim Cebastien and I spent about 12 hours [in] a recording studio, with a really good mixer. I sang and sang, and the result was a three-song recording. I still get requests for it, but they are all gone long ago. I'm glad I did it because after all the lung incidents, I lost my singing voice. However, I have proof that I could pop out some decent high-notes before my lungs went 'fluey."
It's recently begun to come back, says Heller. In celebration of this, Heller "rejoined Windy City Gay Chorus in order to sing at their Pride concert."
About one-third of the performers Heller's presenting company brought to Chicago were for fundraising concerts for the Illinois Federation for Human Rights (now Equality Illinois.) "The concerts were geared toward getting the [state gay-rights bill] passed. The Federation was just getting going and my idea was to bring in funds from people who didn't contribute to LGBT causes, by booking stars big enough to sell-out the theater to the general public.