You can get here from there. It's called the American Dream. For Sarasota art dealer and collector Frank Breuer, "there" was a tough, working-class neighborhood in the South Bronx; and "here" is a beautiful home in McClellan Park where he lives with his wife, Liz, and a thriving business, the Missing Link Gallery, which specializes in non-Western art.
Breuer's gallery, in the fashionable Burns Court district of downtown Sarasota, includes African, Asian, East Indian, Chinese, Pre-Columbian, Mexican and Chinese pieces. The gallery has a reputation that reaches beyond Sarasota, and Breuer's clients include some major collectors of non-Western art. The collection includes both contemporary and ancient works. Because of Africa's climate, voracious insects and the proclivity of early Christian colonialists to burn heathen art, it's difficult to find objects that date back more than a century from that part of the world. The Breuer collection, however, includes wood pieces dating back two centuries and clay pieces 10 times that old.
How Breuer, 62, rose from his working-class roots to become a respected collector of native and tribal art is not your typical Horatio Alger story of a young man driven to succeed from his earliest days. Instead, Breuer tried his hand at a number of endeavors, and was well into his 20s when he first happened upon the art that slowly became the focus of his life.
Breuer grew up in a small railroad flat shared by his parents, grandparents, uncle and baby sister; but as a kid, he recalls, his real life was on the legendarily mean streets of the South Bronx. "They had to drag me out of the Bronx kicking and screaming," when he was 15 and his family moved to Elmont, Long Island, he says. At first, he found suburban life strange. "There is something humiliating about having to learn to ride a bike at 15," he says. "I knew how to ride a bus, I knew how to ride a cab, I knew how to ride a subway, but I didn't know how to ride a bike."
The Breuers were a family of collectors of little things, sometimes more for practicality than for pleasure. When Breuer's mother died she left behind tin boxes filled with Depression-era buttons cut from clothing destined for the ragman.
Like most kids in the late '40s and early '50s, Breuer collected kid's stuff like lead soldiers, comic books and, of course, baseball cards. But Breuer also loved music, an interest that came naturally: Breuer's father played violin and worked as what is now called a roadie for the Glenn Miller Orchestra, and his godfather played drums for Woody Herman. His favorite place in his South Bronx apartment building was the basement where one of the other tenants kept a record player. When she wasn't listening to Italian music, Breuer would hop and bop to the music of Chick Webb, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw.
Those were also the days when Louis Jordan was inventing a new form of raucous small band music that would blossom into black rhythm and blues and finally, rock and roll. His parents thought the new music was trash, so the teen-aged Breuer bought a turquoise Emerson portable radio so he could lie awake late into the night, listening to Alan Freed spin R&B records with the speaker close to his ear to avoid detection.
In 1962, after high school, Breuer was drafted into the army; he was discharged shortly before the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. Many of his friends weren't so lucky. They were among the first Americans to die in Vietnam. Breuer was working for Volkswagen of America at the time; and his anger over the war and dissatisfaction with his life as a corporate drone resulted in him doing the '60s thing: The 25-year-old dropped out and started wandering around North America in a station wagon packed with a tent and a few necessities. "It was like Goofy goes camping," he says of that period in his life.
But the six months Breuer spent on the road led him to his fate. After learning that a friend from the Bronx named Logan Sherman was working for the Canadian government in Toronto, Breuer drove up to see him. Sherman is a Native American who, earlier in the decade, had worked for VISTA in the Southwest helping Zuni and Hopi Indians revive their native art and culture. In 1968 he was doing the same for Canadian tribal peoples. It was Sherman who introduced Breuer to Native American art.
Breuer had been fascinated by Indians since childhood, when his collection of lead figures included cowboys and Indians. "In my battles the Indians always won," he says. "I could never understand why anyone would want to hurt Logan's people."
After renewing his friendship with Sherman, Breuer began buying Inuit sculpture and beadwork. The money helped the tribe, and Breuer began a collection that would quickly fill his 600-square-foot apartment in Chelsea. In order to keep collecting he had to sell pieces he'd acquired earlier, so he opened a shop in New York that dealt in Indian crafts. The shop led to an acquaintance with musicians, which in turn led his entrance into the music business as the manager of an up-and-coming band called the Laughing Dogs.
In the early '70s, a new form of music was emerging from a bar on the Lower East Side of Manhattan called CBGB's. Rock writers called it punk; and Breuer and his band began to be regulars along with the likes of performers Debbie Harry, Richard Hell, David Byrne, Patti Smith and the Ramones.
In the meantime Breuer also finished a college degree in political science, ran his shop and continued to collect Indian art. He thought he'd made a real find one afternoon when he bought what he believed was a fragment of a Haida or Tlinget totem pole at an estate sale. Breuer sent Sherman a Polaroid photograph of the carving, hoping his friend would confirm the source, and received a letter back saying, "Congratulations, you've just purchased your first piece of African art." Collecting African art and artifacts soon became Breuer's primary interest.
Breuer succeeded in signing the Laughing Dogs to a major label and was also representing John Lurie and his band the Lounge Lizards. But by then the music business had lost its appeal. He decided to become a dealer in African art full time instead and opened a gallery in Chelsea.
In the early 1990s, Breuer and two partners decided to open a gallery on Longboat Key. They had done some research on Sarasota but had never really explored the area before signing a lease written in pencil on a brown paper bag. The plan was for each partner to spend 75 days a year running it and hire someone to run it in the summer, allowing Breuer to keep his gallery in Chelsea. Once the formalities were finished the partners walked around St. Armands Circle.
"I was afraid we had made a terrible mistake," Breuer says. "It looked like we should have opened a golf shop or marine art gallery instead of a gallery that sold African and Asian art." His opinion changed shortly after the gallery opened, when a woman came in, looked around and then fell on her knees on a stack of Afghan rugs. "Thank God it's not more pelican art," she said.
That was 14 years ago. Today Breuer is the sole owner of the Missing Link Gallery. The name was chosen to commemorate the first African piece he mistakenly bought. What intrigued him were the similarities between a Bwa butterfly mask from Upper Volta and certain heads carved by Native Americans living in the Pacific Northwest. They not only looked similar, they both had the same agriculture-related function: to protect seedlings and ensure a good harvest. In other words, spiritual necessity and a similar attitude toward how the protecting spirit should look linked the Bwa culture with the cultures of the Pacific Northwest.
With the help of friends, Breuer created the sophisticated modern yet comfortable environments where he lives, works and displays the collection. He is surrounded by the art he loves, which includes contemporary photography and painting, examples of which are selectively hung in the midst of African objects at his home.
There is no missing link in this seemingly incongruent combination. Breuer has long been a great admirer of early 20th-century Modernism, most notably Picasso, whose breakthrough 1907 painting Le Demoiselle d'Avignon was in part precipitated by his attraction to African masks and sculpture. Breuer couldn't afford a Picasso, but he could afford the kind of art the European master learned so much from, which he decided was even better.
Breuer's success as a dealer has a great deal to do with his impressive knowledge of the art and the societies that produced it and his infectious enthusiasm for the objects he displays, whether a 600-year-old pot from Mexico, a 100-year-old reliquary figure from Gabon or a 50-year-old Colonial Era dream lover from the Ivory Coast. He's also very mindful of the responsibility of collecting and selling art from tribal societies.
"Now collecting culture is preserving culture; I never feel that I own anything. I'm a caretaker who passes on the objects I care for to other caretakers," he explains. Eventually most of his collection will be in museums, where the power and beauty of the objects will continue to intrigue viewers in perpetuity.