Steven Steinberg is the owner of a New York Central Art Supplies, which, for artists, is a New York institution, if one can call a store such a thing. The business was started by his grandfather in 1905 and it has been in the family ever since. Even if you are not an artist, there is something uplifting about being in a place filled with the raw materials that seem so sumptuous with creative possibility. Steven himself takes pride in going to incredible lengths to get hold of specialized products and many artists speak of indebtedness to him for his efforts. He’s good company, funny and mildly flirtatious (‘As a matter of fact I’m actually charming,’ he said. ‘We’ll be the judge of that,’ we replied.) He’s wily—in a good way—but also downright honest. He really has no axe to grind—just a fascinating business to run. Incidentally, try not to be too temperamental if you go into the store—the assistants keep what they call The Gila Books (named after the fierce Gila lizard) in which they sketch and paint wicked portraits of difficult customers.
Tell me, do you think artists are as miserable as people like to think they are?
Miserable? What do you mean by that? I would tell you the words from my youth was … well, show and tell in school: ‘What does your father do?’ – ‘He sells art supplies to poor, starving artists.’ I thought that [answer] was really good … really terrific. I didn’t know any better. This store goes back to 1905. It’s [goes back] a long, long way … but nobody’s difficult with me—because they want me.
Were the artists poor and starving?
That was an expression, really. You gotta remember you always have to look back and see what other things cost. I remember when a trolley car was a nickel.
How old are you?
I’m not telling … seventy-two.
I really didn’t think you were in your seventies.
I have good genes. My face is smooth and I have most of my hair. I’m happily married for the second time.
Do you have children?
Two little girls. I’m a lousy grandfather though. I told my daughter when she gave birth in June, I said ‘Was I a good father?’ and she said to me ‘You were a fabulous father, Daddy, which is surprising since you seem to not like children.’ Which is true. I go to restaurants and parents don’t know when not to bring children to restaurants. I never took my children to restaurants.
When are your busiest times in the store?
The busiest time of our business is back-to-school fall. Here’s the deal. I found that advertising to students is a waste and I [still] fill the store with as many students as possible – why? Because I get their teachers. The only thing the kids buy is what the teachers tell them to buy. And the teachers tell them where to go.
It’s a fabulous place to be, it’s like a treasure trove. You were saying that you really need to touch the things in here.
Touchy-feely is the way to go. People come in the store, they know what they want, but they also like to just touch. People say to me [lowers his voice to a whisper]‘Is that Rosenquist? Is that Tom Wesselmann?’—Of course he’s dead now.
Do they all come in here?
Absolutely. And [Jim] Dine, Kiki Smith, we get ’em all. And the new hotties.
Who are the new hotties?
Oh … Carol Brown … the English lady, no … Cecily Brown. She’s a really good customer. Chuck Close is another good customer of ours. I’ve known Chuck for years. And Jeff Koons is a good customer.
What does he buy?
He has a team there. To buy paint. There’s a lot of commission painting that Jeff does, and then [Francisco] Clemente always has works in progress, but they have a lot of people with them. It’s like the old days, like Reubens is back again. It’s nothing unusual to have [assistants]. Who’s that artist …? … He doesn’t even paint his own paintings … Kostabi.
Oh, Mark Kostabi?
I make brushes for him. I make special things for him. There’s no such thing as ‘no’.
‘No’ is not a word I ever heard of. People know in my store, they know that if a customer asks for a specialty brush, they turn that kind of business over to me. I can get it. But we discovered years ago that the average profile of an arts supply customer is guess what? It’s a middle-aged woman. Truly.
What does that tell you?
A lot of them come into the store and I have to take them deadly seriously. A lot are not showing artists but when I was working with my father, the only serious women artists we had were Helen Frankenthaler and Louise Nevelson, but today I got lots of them.
What do you think of the current mania to own art, that it’s become the ultimate status symbol?
Isn’t it wonderful? But let me chat about this because I lived through this and I’m a bit of an art collector myself, and I remember in ’87 the market fell apart because of greed. The art market got killed in the early 80s simply because of greed … I went to a Christie’s auction and the guy was trying to buy a Jasper Johns painting and the auctioneer said ‘You can put your hand down now, it’s yours.’ He was bidding against himself.
One of the things I have known about collecting art and antiques is that in days of low interest, the smart money went into collectibles.
Do artists ever trade art for art supplies?
Not so much anymore. Years ago it was more prevalent.
But you must have some interesting stuff.
I’ve got some interesting stuff. On my birthday 15 years ago, Lisa de Kooning asked me to bring a mat–cutter out to East Hampton … so I’m driving out on a snowy day on my birthday in December and I bring it out to Lisa. I told Lisa it was my birthday and so we come inside the studio, whether he [Willem de Kooning] remembered me or not I’m not sure because many times when the beginning of Alzheimer’s starts setting in they fake it, but he did remember the store. So she tells Bill, while we’re drinking some vile coffee, that today is Steve’s birthday. So he goes into his tabouret and pulls out a drawing and writes on the drawing ‘Happy B-Day. Love Bill.’ I put it in an envelope. My hands were shaking.
Which other artists do you collect?
Of course I have to be very careful opening up my Christmas mail because sometimes there’s prints. But anything I’ve ever gotten … really I bought it. I collect names and the artists that I have in my home are all customers. That’s the minimum requirement. Only customers. I have a Hockney, I have two Stellas, I have a Motherwell.
So what do you get out of this line of work?
I am not really as friendly with the artists as somebody who might misread me. I’ve had dinner with a couple of them but for the most part I don’t invade their world. I don’t want to come off greedy. But Tom Wesselmann wrote me the most wonderful letter one day just telling me in writing how important it was for him that I existed and provided the services that I do. It made me feel very glad that I do what I do because nobody would understand … I love this stuff.