Dan EliasInterview

On the Road with Dan Elias

The Antiques Roadshow is the most popular prime time series on PBS. Its new host, Dan Elias, who received a BFA from Tufts in 1985, is not, as one might assume, an antiques expert. He is the owner of Elias Fine Art, a gallery that deals in the works of contemporary artists. Editor Michele Gouveia spoke with Elias at his Allston gallery. Surrounded by the drawings of Chuck Holtzman, the current artist on exhibition, Elias spoke about art, television and trying not to feel schizophrenic moving between his two jobs.

You are the new host of the Antiques Roadshow. You've completed one season?
That's right. We taped a season last summer. The way the show works, there are two parts: one is the show--the television program that everybody's familiar with. The other is the road, which is actually going out and doing the one-day appraisal events that those shows are made from. Last summer we did nine events out on the road; they happen on a Saturday in whatever city we're in. And out of that one-day event, in say, Madison, Wisconsin, they get two or three one-hour programs. We went to nine cities last summer and I think they edited 25 programs from that.

How did you get involved with the show?
Interesting question. My wife, Karen Keane, is an appraiser on the show, has been since the beginning. She was one of the people that they came to when they were looking for a new host. She's the CEO of Skinner, Inc., here in Boston.

What's her field?
She's in Americana and decorative arts, but she's a generalist and has been on the program talking about needleworks, china, porcelain and silver as well as American furniture and decorative arts.
   She told me that they were looking for a new host. I had no experience in television or in antiques, and at first it was not something I really thought very hard about, or had the time for. But then I realized that the folks making the show were better at something that I do everyday.
   Here in the gallery, I try and give people context for works of art which are brand-new and therefore often quite unfamiliar because artists tend to try and push the envelope a little bit. So it's hard to follow them. I spend my life trying to give people some context, trying to give people a level of understanding of what's behind this work, how this work connects to other work that might be more familiar--give them some sense of the value of these drawings or paintings or objects.
   I realized that the folks at the Roadshow do that on a weekly basis, with 15 million people tuning in and it occurred to me that I should go and talk to these folks. Not that I wasn't interested in the job, but I simply didn't think I had a prayer of being a serious contender for it.
   I went there, armed with questions such as, What are you planning to do with this show? You have a big audience, you have a young audience which you didn't expect, what are you doing to hold on to them, to interest them? What kind of host are you looking for? Are you thinking about age or sex? Do you have a preconception and if so, why? And after about an hour and a half I'd run out of questions, and they had big smiles on their faces.
   The rest is sort of history. They offered me the job and I thought about it for about a day and figured: you'd be crazy not to. What a riot to run around the country talking to people about their stuff. It's really exciting.

What is the experience like when you're on the road?
Hard work. The way it goes, we'll be in one town one week and usually, on that Thursday, I spend one day doing what I'm doing right now, talking to reporters. Because most of the reporters are entertainment people on the local television stations or sometimes the radio stations, I'm going on wake-up-time television or drive-time radio so my day starts at 5:00 am, and I'm on TV at 5:30 am, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. And I talk to people on the lunchtime shows and sometimes an afternoon interview or two, and that stretches into a pretty long day.
   The next day we really start making the show. I do the pieces where I'm out in Taliesin talking about Frank Lloyd Wright, or I'm in a museum in Charleston, South Carolina. Or I'm talking with an appraiser about a particular object in a house-museum someplace, or talking with an appraiser about some area of their expertise and they know that there is the best collection in the country in this particular museum and let's take a look at it. So, I do those kinds of things. That's again a long day of taping--7:00 am usually until 5:00 or 5:30/6:00 pm, in all kinds of places. That can get exciting. Last summer, we were in Las Vegas and went to Hoover Dam to tape one of the opening segments. I was told later that the thermometer at the top of Hoover Dam was registering 130 degrees that day.
   The physical challenge is exciting for me as well and the challenge of being able to deliver the line, talk to the people directly and with some kind of understanding so that they can get what's really fascinating and interesting about this place. And then do it again because a helicopter flew by right at the wrong moment. There's an interesting challenge--keeping that alive and fresh under trying circumstances. It's actually a lot of fun.

Were you a fan of the show? Your wife is on it, so you must have watched the show before.
I watched the show before, and I was a fan of the idea. I didn't watch it every week, certainly, but I was familiar with it. It's a great idea and a great thing that this came along and has happened through American culture, and I think people are learning a lot.

Antiques Roadshow is one of the most popular shows in the history of PBS. What about the Roadshow, do you think, has made it so popular? As you mentioned earlier, it has both a young and a mature audience.
The show is a great combination of things and different people like different parts about it. With an audience of 15 million, you've probably got 20 or 30 million different reasons for why people watch it. For one thing, there is the whole money aspect, which people really like. It's like the lottery. You watch somebody win the lottery or something like that. And it is similar to a lot of game shows, like The Price Is Right.
   But what's really great about this show is there is that kind of glittery surface--the money thing--where you hear somebody get good news as well as bad news. But then underneath that there's a very interesting mix of the appraisers and knowledge, the person who's bringing this thing--their personal history, their grandmother brought this thing out West in a covered wagon or whatever it is. That keeps people coming back.
   You could, I think, wear out a television program that was simply How much is this? It's worth this much. How much is this? It's worth this much. That's almost the Home Shopping Network format. And after a while it becomes very boring. What people keep coming back to, and if you ask people, even the ones who say they're only interested in the lottery aspect of it, is they'll tell you the story. They remember who this person was, where they came from. They remember that the appraiser had never seen one in as good condition as this. That they see these things week in and week out. For 30 years they've been in the field and this is the best one. Or it's the prototype from which all the others were made. Or they're just completely blown away by the quality of what they're seeing. And that happens all the time on the set.

I know that when I mention the show to people, often we will remember the same story or object. Usually the ones where someone just found something in the garage and was going to throw it out.
I like that it gets Americans talking about the aesthetic qualities of an object. Why is this cream pitcher better than another cream pitcher from the same period of time and the same general location? It gets people not only talking about the history, but also about how things look. That's the reason I'm involved in the show. I think Americans have tended to ignore that kind of thing. And I, being involved in the art world, find something very compelling about visual experience. Americans have a tendency to pass over it as unimportant, even though it affects them very directly and very deeply and people will remember visual things, whether it's ads on TV or something else. People are aware of these things but they tend to discount them as unimportant. And I don't feel that that's true.

Since you've been on the show, what's probably the strangest, or one of the strangest, things you've seen someone bring in?
There are some pretty strange things that show up from time to time. One of the things that really turned my head was in St. Louis. At almost the very end of the day, somebody brought in a shopping cart. One of the great things about the show is all the conveyances that people use to bring these things in: fridges, dollies, little red wagons and all these things that people use to carry this stuff. It's really great. But somebody brought in a shopping cart with these four wooden poles and on top of the poles were papier-m‰chŽ heads of the leaders of the Axis in WWII--Hitler and Tojo and Mussolini, and I think Franco. Bigger than life-size, really quite big things. They must have been done for a parade in the 1940s. The big grimacing, scary features were really a riot, very bizarre and a great example of folk art. A terrific thing and very poignant. We see all kinds of stuff.
   Some of the places that things come from are very unexpected. A guy came in from Kellyville, Oklahoma, which is a small town east of Tulsa (we were doing a show in Tulsa), and brought in what he called his TV stand. He had a picture of himself standing next to it, his television's on top, there's this piece of furniture and in the top drawer he's got a row of all his Roadshow tapes. And they put it up, and Wayne Pratt, who's from Connecticut, took a look at it, appraised it and said that it was a 1765 chest of drawers with original Birmingham, England, brass. It had never been touched, never been polished, in perfect condition. It's worth about $150,000. The best piece of furniture we saw last summer. Pratt was absolutely amazed to find this thing in Kellyville, Oklahoma, and asked him, "So what are you going to do now that you know what this thing's worth?" He said, "Well, I guess I'm going to put it back under my television. I've got nothing else to put my television on." So, that stuff is great, too, when it comes out.

Now that you've been on the show for a while, do people come up and ask you to appraise things for them?
Oh, all the time. And it's a very embarrassing moment because I know nothing about antiques. I have to say, "Look, my wife or all these other people that I know, they can help you." We have 70 appraisers on the floor at every event; they're the best in the business. They're extraordinarily talented people. So I know a lot of good appraisers, but if you beat me over the head with it, I couldn't tell you what it's worth. My field is contemporary art. I know more about Chuck Holtzman's drawings than just about anybody. But as far as antiques go, I have to admit that I'm pretty much in the same boat as the person who's holding it.

Coming from the contemporary art world and having to step into the world of antiques, do you ever find them crossing the same path? Do you ever get confused?
First of all, I feel completely schizophrenic most of my life. Every conversation I have is half about one thing and half about something else: on the telephone, the other dealers that I work with, the artists, the clients, the collectors, the museum people. Everybody wants to hear about the show. So first of all, it's very confusing and bizarre to be wearing both hats.
   But the fact is, I feel there essentially is no difference between the aesthetic experience of antiques and decorative arts and paintings, between old things and new things. They are all works made by artists and artisans functioning within the cultural matrix that they live in, expressing themselves to the best of their ability. And sometimes that's pretty extraordinary ability; they're very good at it. If it's a really good St. Louis World's Fair pin from 1904, that's an aesthetic statement, it's a piece of history. It has a context, not only historical and educational, but an aesthetic context. It's a piece of design that occurred at a certain moment in response to design that was happening in Europe, maybe in response to expositions of Egyptian things that might have happened ten years before. There are all kinds of things that feed into the mind of somebody who's making something. And that's true today, and it's been true since people started making things.
   The difficulty in contemporary art is giving people enough of the puzzle so that they can understand where this piece fits in. When you're talking about something from the turn of the last century or from the 18th century or from the 5th century BC, we've absorbed a lot of that matrix. We know the general outlines of who the Egyptians were and what kind of things they made, and who the furniture makers were during the Revolutionary War in the United States. People have absorbed those forms and those shapes and those ideas a little bit more. Not a lot, but enough to make them feel comfortable listening. People are sometimes less comfortable listening about contemporary art. I hear all the time, "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like and it's not this." And to me, that is a statement of "I don't understand where this fits in. I understand some things and I'm comfortable with those. But I don't understand how these things connect." And what I try to do in my work here and what is so beautifully happening on the show all the time, is that people are giving parts of those puzzles. "Oh, this is how it fits in. This is a connection to what you know and what you're comfortable with. Here's another one. How about, maybe, I'm sure you could think of some other ones. Do these things remind you of anything you've seen anywhere else, or is there a quality of the surface that you find attractive?" That happens all the time in this business and also on the show.

Speaking of contemporary art, what do you think is the biggest misconception people might have about it?
That it's tough. It's hard to understand. It's not hard to understand. It just takes opening your eyes a little bit, opening your ears a little bit. Not making the assumption that it should speak to you the first moment you lay eyes on it. Giving it a little bit of time. That's the biggest one. I think there's also a misconception that artists and art dealers are trying to put one over on you, they're trying to fool you. You know, like, "How could they possibly put this thing on the wall? This is silly and they're trying to make me look like a fool." I think artists, like everyone else in just about every other field, the ones who are good, are working as hard as they can to do their jobs the best they possibly can. And what's interesting for me is to try to understand where that is coming from. Rather than trying to keep myself from being caught out. If you act like a fool, you never are. You know what I mean? It's true at least in contemporary art.

Who are some of your favorite artists?
My favorite artists? Well, of course, everybody I show. A lot of them are my favorite artists: Shelburne Thurber, Chuck Holtzman, whose work is here. There are other folks from around here, Alice Swinden Carter, who actually had a show up at Tufts not long ago. She got a master's degree a couple of years ago and did a show in Aidekman. And nationally/internationally, Sigmar Polke, I'm a big fan of his work; Richard Artschwager, an American sculptor and painter.
   I tend to like things that have a really interesting physical presence, beautifully made, carefully thought out, but also, a really interesting set of ideas behind them. I want those two things to work together. I'm not the kind of person who wants just something that strikes you because of its color and you don't know why, and that's it. I tend to want to understand more about where it's coming from and to have a good story behind it.
   There are lots and lots of people. Bruce Nauman is a very interesting artist that I like greatly.
   In a position like mine, where I live way up over my ears in artwork all day long, I have lots and lots of favorites at all different levels of fame. And some people have put together an extraordinary show, one that's very memorable to me, but I haven't seen other things that I really like by them.

Do you create art yourself?
No. I went to the Museum School and Tufts and before I graduated, I knew that I was not cut out to make artwork my primary goal in life. I realized that there were thousands of people much better than I was, much more talented than I was, who were going to starve to death trying to make a living in the art world, and I should do what I did much better, which was to talk. So, oddly enough, talking has proven to be most sufficient.

When you were at Tufts, what was your experience like? Do you have a favorite memory, a favorite professor?
I had a blast at Tufts, actually. The way that I did the Museum School program, which is not the way that everybody does it, there are several different ways that you can approach it. I went to the Museum School for two and a half years, pretty solid, and did studio art and a little bit of art history down there. Then I went to Tufts in the middle of junior year and did absolutely no art at all from January through spring semester, double summer sessions and fall semester, full load of courses and did everything else.
   I particularly remember Leila Fawaz, Middle East history. I remember Peter Winn's Latin American history classes. Brilliant teachers, I thought of both of them. Also David Maxwell, who did Russian literature, which was very exciting. I remember I did a summer course of Russian literature in which we had to read The Brothers Karamazov in a week. I sat down in my chair at 9:00 in the morning and read until 5:00 in the evening everyday and when it was over, I completely burst into tears and sobbed. That book was not meant to be read in a week.
   I had a great time. It was about ten years before I went back to Tufts after high school. And in one week I went from kind of reading for pleasure to 1,500 pages a week. And the papers and all of that, boy, you could smell the clutch burning. It was very intense. But I had a great time. It was the best academic school experience I ever had because I had really chosen it--I knew why I was there. And I was older than most of the TAs. It was fun; I had a great time.

When you're doing the Roadshow, do you find yourself using your art history from college?
I use that stuff not only on the show but also in my work in the gallery. I use it on a day-by-day, hour-by-hour basis. It's very important. In fact, one of the interesting things about contemporary art and contemporary artists is that artists, I would say more than any other profession that I can think of, live moment to moment and day to day with the history of their field going back a thousand years. If you go into a studio of any contemporary artist, what do you see up on the walls? You see Pontormo, you see Egyptian relics, you see the whole span of art history represented there.
   Artists live and die by their relationship to history in a very real moment-to-moment kind of way. And it's not true of dentists, it's not true of stockbrokers. Stockbrokers live and die by their last quarter. With artists, it's a very different thing. One of the artists I represent here in the gallery, Ahmed Abdalla, is Egyptian; he lives here in Boston. And everyday he wrestles with the fact that the most famous art in his country was made 5,000 years ago, and he makes work that responds to that. So, it's very interesting how artists are in the historical world.

What is going on in the art world today?
There's an awful lot going on in the art world. Like most worlds, it's populated by a huge, diverse group of people. Probably more diverse than many because they spend all their time trying to go off in new directions.
   I would say that over the last 30, 40 years, the issue of content in artwork has become more and more important--the ideas that surround the making of a work of art as well as the way it looks are always more important. I think that's more true when you get outside of the Boston area as well: in the New York art world, the European art world and the world that takes place without a geographical reference--the art world broadly.
   I think there's a real interesting mixing of making things and thinking about the making of things that is stronger and stronger. That doesn't really give you any help. I'm not saying this ism or that ism is going to be the next big trend. I think that one of the wonderful things about the contemporary art world is that although there are trends, which are mostly manufactured by people like me, dealers, there are a tremendous number of artists out there who are operating without a thought in their head about what ism they are currently inhabiting.They're just doing what they feel is important and responding to the culture broadly, whether it's their grandmother or the way things look as they walk down the street, or any number of different inspirations.

What would be the one object you would love to see someone bring to the Roadshow? What would just make your day?
It happens all the time, on a pretty regular basis on the show. The great thing about it is that it's not my imagination that's coming up with it. It's this stuff coming out of the real world, coming off of these folks' dining-room tables or out of a garage. I couldn't possibly come up with anything nearly as interesting as what turns up on that show. And not only the objects but the reactions to them and the stories.
   There was a woman from western Kentucky who came to St. Louis from, I think, quite a distance, bringing a rifle that had been in her family for quite a long time. And she showed it to an appraiser and he said, "This rifle's in very good condition. It's an iron-bound rifle and it was made in 1830. It's a precursor to the Winchester repeating brass-bound rifle that was the main firearm for the Civil War, a very important gun. What really matters with these things is their age, their condition. This is in perfect condition. You can see here the serial number. And if you turn the thing over it has serial number 64 on it." It was a gem of a rifle. This woman was very taciturn; she was very self-contained. She seemed like a person from the country, not comfortable in all the lights and so on. And he said to her, "This gun is probably worth $75,000 to $100,000." She looked at him, didn't blink an eye and said, "Well, thank you very much." And that was the end of the interview. I was in the truck with the director and everybody's saying, "He said, it's worthÉ" She just didn't know how to respond to that. It's just such an interesting thing because everybody's responses are so different and the information that they get is so surprising. It's just amazing. So, I wouldn't want to put an object in anybody's hands. I'm just agog at what they bring because I couldn't possibly have written it any better.






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