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Heights at the top

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For 25 years, Mitch and Lee-Ann Jansonius have sold art, framed art and talked art at their business, Heights Gallery. This quarter century of missionary work has paid off: Today they're doing more selling than framing and the customers can speak for themselves. Mitch Jansonius does not claim to have opened Little Rock's eyes to art - but maybe, he says, he can take some credit for "expanding horizons," and putting Arkansas art in the picture. It wasn't always that way. In 1979, when Heights gallery opened, its only competition was Sketch Box and Art Fair. Later, Eileen's. In those days, buyers came in "with a sofa cushion under their arm," Mitch said, and asked for matching art. Framing kept the gallery in business. Today, Little Rock has dozens of galleries - three alone on the Kavanaugh block where Heights Gallery is located. Arkansas art sells; buyers no longer believe they have to shop in New York and Santa Fe to get something good. Mitch and Lee-Ann opened their own gallery with these rules: No reproductions. No dogs with dead ducks in their mouths. ("Though I'd be a lot wealthier if I had," Mitch says.) They started with what Mitch called "investment graphics" - silkscreens by Picasso and other "names" - and framing. Print sales didn't go over as well as they'd hoped, and they decided "to sell artists we could meet and touch." Arkansas artists got a stage. Heights' stable of artists today includes Sammy Peters, Arkansas's premiere abstractionist; color maven Beverly McLarty, who's been with the gallery 20 years; and Jim Johnson, a retired ad man who has spent every minute the past couple of years at an easel developing his artistic identity. Mitch on buying art: Unless you can buy what museums buy, don't think of your purchases as investments. You're buying retail, so the work would have to have quadruple in value to bring a profit. Instead, he says, buy what you love. Mitch on artists: He has no time for the artist who asks, "What sells? I'll paint it." That's a sign they're willing to sacrifice their creativity, and go for decoration over art. There's a difference. His advice to artists: "If I give you a check for $500 are you going to be happier with the money or the painting?" Mitch says it's crucial for an artist who wants to make a living from his work to be able to let the work go, and go at a reasonable price. There are only so many family members willing to pay too much.

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