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McEntee: Jim Dabakis — from talk radio to Russian art

Published June 19, 2010 4:11 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

As a kid, Jim Dabakis wanted nothing more than to be a radio talk-show host. So he hustled a nonpaying job at a little AM station in Salt Lake City, working all hours at no pay to learn the fundamentals, and finally made it to the mic.

Such paid gigs would last 13 years, earning Jim the voice he'd yearned for. He also developed a sideline there, leading tours to the Soviet Union. He didn't make much money, but he scraped enough together to buy a little stake in some stations.

In the mid-1990s, Clear Channel swept through, buying small stations. For the first time in his life, Jim was a rich guy.

The radio was passion No. 1. There would be many more to come — travel, education, LGBT rights and art. Specifically, Russian impressionism, made by hugely talented, impoverished Russian artists who had never earned a shred of respect in their homeland.

Jim grew up in Springfield, Mass., and joined the LDS Church there as a means of playing basketball, his partner, Stephen Justesen, told me. He tried Brigham Young University, didn't last, and served a mission.

"When I got my patriarchal blessing, he told me I'd be called to serve among my people," Jim says, laughing. "They sent me to San Francisco."

Later, he met Stephen, and together they moved to Budapest, Hungary, and tore through Eastern Europe, ending up in St. Petersburg, Russia. Jim met professors at a Soviet university that was ditching its Marxist-Leninist curriculum for business education, and they asked him to teach some classes.

That led to a series of micro-businesses involving Jim and the students, with operations that still exist in Europe and Asia.

But they retained roots in Utah, where Jim helped found Equality Utah and the Utah Pride Center. Jim also played a role in last year's discussions with LDS Church representatives, which resulted in the faith's endorsement of Salt Lake City's ordinance protecting sexual minorities from job or housing discrimination.

Today, Jim and Stephen have a home in Holladay and an apartment in St. Petersburg.

Every year, they'll rent an apartment for four months or so in, say, Mumbai, Shanghai or Tehran, and Jim writes long e-mails home about his adventures.

Like the time in China when a gaggle of hair stylists found Jim, who emerged with purple hair, except for the orange-green streaks.

Or in India, where he fell in with a huge crowd of snake charmers ("Snakes everywhere — mostly cobras!" he wrote) protesting a new law banning snake charming. Anti-animal abuse activists were behind it, Jim wrote, and had convinced the government that snake charming is cruel to animals.

Jim wound up on a four-day cobra-hunting expedition and survived. He asked one of his new friends what he thought about the people who pushed the law through. He reflected, and said, "I wish they would all be reborn as cockroaches."

For Jim and Stephen, the Russian art saga began in 1990 in St. Petersburg, when a young artist told Jim of an extraordinary collection he'd seen in a Moscow hospital. The Soviet Union having collapsed, Jim sent search teams throughout the region, looking for that art and other artists and their work.

The undertaking spanned years, but ultimately, Jim obtained the Hospital Collection (one ballerina piece remains at the McCune Mansion in Salt Lake City) and much more.

On Friday, I joined Jim at the Thomas Kearns McCarthey Gallery in Park City, which features dozens of Russian paintings, drawings, lithographs and the most ornate matryoshka, or Russian nesting dolls, that I've ever seen.

The work is incomparable. I was taken most by Grigoriy Leontievich Chainokov, who sought out the villages that over time were abandoned by everyone but the old people. In one painting, a man sits in a rough, tiny home and sharpens his scythe. I came back to it time and again.

I asked Jim about how he and his partners got the paintings out of Russia. Working through the bureaucracy, he said. No one wanted any questions about the validity of the acquisitions.

"Every painting we've ever gotten out of Russia we've done officially ... and sometimes we haven't gotten pieces out," he said.

Jim and his working partners have made money on the art, but that wasn't the only point.

"The big deal about all of this is, we were so lucky to happen to stumble into Russia in the 1980s and be part of the discovering of a whole genre of art that the world didn't know about," he said.

But the American critics and experts were dismissive, Jim said, until the paintings began selling at European auctions. "When the prices went up, suddenly those critics said, 'Wow, maybe there is something to this,' " Jim said.

Well, I'm certainly no art expert, but I think so. Jim has opened another set of eyes to the artists who, as he put it, "were painting for their souls."

Peg McEntee is a columnist. Reach her at pegmcentee@ sltrib.com.