From farm boy to art dealer, this Dixon native is impacting the country’s creative scene in ways his neighbors don’t even know about

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Ben Pendleton sits amid the art in his gallery.

Ben Pendleton keeps a low profile. Few people in Marshfield know who he is, although he’s lived in the middle of town since the early ‘90s. And most of them also don’t know about his treasure trove of art housed in the “old” Marshfield Christian Church, where he lives and operates a gallery.

But once you get outside of Marshfield, the story is a little different: Ben is a nationally known dealer of Western and Sporting art. But he’s careful to say he’s not an expert. “I would never go that far,” says Ben. “I’m knowledgeable.”

Art dealing wasn’t a childhood dream of Ben’s, although he does tie the Western element to growing up on a farm. And his interest in art also stemmed from an early age. He recalls his teenage years, complete with a job at a grocery store where he earned money for magazine subscriptions. “I would cut the pictures out of the magazines and paste them on my walls,” he says with a smile.

His walls are still covered in art these days, but much transpired between those early decorations and today’s masterpieces.

Ben has always been ambitious. When in his senior year of high school, he enrolled in a transportation correspondence school. Upon graduation, he was recruited by the Missouri, Kansas and Texas railroad – more commonly known as the Katy. “I was hired at 18, the youngest station agent that had ever been hired for a station agent’s job,” says Ben.

That was in the mid ’60s – a worrying time for 18-year-old young men. And Ben was one of the ones the draft came for. One of the things he recalls the most from his time spent overseas was the limited communication with home. “I was in Germany for 18 and a half months and had one three-minute phone conversation with my family,” says Ben.

Upon his return to civilian life, Ben went back to the Katy but quickly became interested in working for the union. Shortly thereafter, he was elected as the group’s legislative representative. “At that time, I would go to Jefferson City when any legislation that was being considered which affected transportation, especially railroads,” he says. He quickly moved up the ranks, and was soon given the role as regional chairman of the union by age 22. “I had a lot of experience in negotiating contracts and getting people out of trouble and so forth,” says Ben. “It was kind of like having a job as an attorney, because you represented the union member before the company lawyer, basically.”

That job led him straight to Harvard.

Ben was awarded a scholarship to the university from the union, who paid for him to attend the Harvard Graduate School of Business courses there to make connections with other business students – the people, they believed, who would soon be leading companies across the nation. However, Ben was more interested in law. So midway through his time there, he switched disciplines, moving to the Harvard Law School – all the while lobbying on behalf of the union in Washington D.C.

Unfortunately, the stress just go to be too much. “I resigned because I could no longer deal with the graft and so forth in the lobbying,” says Ben. “For a person who grew up in a small town with traditional values and so forth, it was just too much.”

This meant that after accruing 42 hours at Harvard, he lost his scholarship. He accepted a job with the Southern Pacific Railroad in Houston and quickly set to work helping write the company’s Affirmative Action plan. One of his roles was to recruit women and minorities, which he did with groundbreaking flair. “I hired the first woman locomotive engineer in the United States,” says Ben.

Later, Ben also spent time working for the Department of Natural Resources as a researcher. It was during this time that he began to “build his business,” as he puts it.

But let’s back up for a moment. Ben’s track record proves his commitment to education – he has accrued two or three associate’s degrees (he can’t remember how many for sure), as well as those 42 hours of graduate work at Harvard. Then there are bachelor’s degrees in Art History, Economics, Political Science and American History. All of which, Ben notes, have helped him in the art business.

Opening a gallery, however, required some real-world education. So in 1987, he went to Santa Fe to learn the ropes of the business by working in the Fenn Gallery. It was there that he picked up a lot of ideas and connections. “I was so young compared to everybody else in my life at what I was doing, I was sort of like a son to a lot of these older men who became my mentors,” says Ben.

Those links provided invaluable insight into the business. One special name was Dean Krakel, the director of Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa and the founder of what later became the Cowboy Hall of Fame American Heritage Center. How Krakel and Ben connected was quite simple. “I read about him, I just picked up the phone and called him,” says Ben. “I’ve done that with several people who you’d think were impossible to contact. They’re not.” Today, Ben cites Krakel as his Western art mentor, and David Hagerbaumer as a mentor when it comes to Sporting art – but more than that, he thinks of them as very close friends.

But over the years, Ben has found many friends in the business. “I knew everybody in the Western art business,” says Ben “I knew all the artists, cowboy artists, National Academy of Western Artists. Some of them are really great friends. I go visit them and spend a week with them.”

Ben officially opened his Marshfield gallery – named Pendleton’s American Fine Art – in 1993. Although it’s not open to the public, Ben often has visits by appointment. He gives an example of a client who’s arriving in a couple of days from Wisconsin. “He’s arriving Thursday night, coming here at 9 a.m. and will probably only be here three to four hours and go back,” says Ben. Others fly to Springfield, where Ben will pick them up and have them stay with him until the visit is over. “People come here from all over the country. Most people are not aware of their visits.”

In a world where it’s normal to sell paintings for $20,000, having a knack for purchases is a good thing. “I had sort of a gift for picking artists that were underpriced that I knew someday would be discovered,” says Ben. He cites Gene Kloss, an etcher whom he purchased pieces from years ago for between $75 and $300 each. “And I’ve sold about three-fourths of them, none of them for under $2500,” he says.

He visits shows and other dealers to find new art. But these days, he’s pretty specific about what he’s seeking. “I usually have a painting sold before I buy it,” says Ben. He’s so familiar with his clients’ collections that he has a good idea of what to search for. “If you have 100 good clients, that’s all you need because they keep buying throughout their lives and recommend you to other collectors. And when they get older, they often consign or sell back to you some of their collection.

Looking back at his own career, Ben says that love was a reason he got into the business. “The love of art and history,” Ben clarifies, recalling the early days when American art was his forte. “I concentrated on Bodmer, Miller and Catlin. They were the explorer artists who went up the Missouri River in the 1830s to paint Native Americans. Had it not been for Bodmer, the Blackfeet would have no idea of what their ancestors looked like or what they wore or anything. He documented that tribe and it was almost annihilated two years after he was there by smallpox.”

But besides that, Ben says that the people are a big dividend of being in the business. “Most all my friends are artists or writers,” he says. “Good god, how much better does it get then that?”