Jan Serr and John Shannon Believe in the Power of Art

Whether in art or business, Jan Serr and John Shannon can’t stop creating.

John working at Guardian Fine Art Services; photo by Matt Haas

Jan Serr stands a few inches from a dry point etching that hangs on the wall at the The Warehouse gallery on St. Paul Avenue. Outside, the summer sun shines bright, but no rays reach inside. After all, this gallery, and the rest of the 65,000-square-foot industrial building, was renovated by Serr and her husband, John Shannon in order to store and showcase art – including their 3,600-piece collection – in a secure and controlled environment.

While the resulting Guardian Fine Art Services and attached gallery are perhaps Shannon and Serr’s biggest investment in Milwaukee’s art ecosystem, it is certainly not their first. Shannon and Serr have donated to a wide range of Milwaukee arts groups including the Milwaukee Art Museum, the ballet, the Florentine Opera, the symphony and the film festival. “Jan and John see contemporary art as a way to expand the collective consciousness,” says Eric Segnitz, the co-artistic director of Present Music, a contemporary classical ensemble that Shannon and Serr support. “They believe in people and they believe in the power of art.”

In 2016, the couple gave $1 million to the UW-Milwaukee Peck School of the Arts to help the university open the Jan Serr Studio, a venue that can be used for art shows, performances and event rentals. Like Guardian, the Jan Serr Studio marries business and art, a union that both Shannon and Serr believe can catalyze, and sustain, change.

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Jan in her studio; Photo by Matt Haas

“We like things that return cash to the community – it’s social entrepreneurship,” says Shannon. “I’m not on the ramparts with a flag or a Molotov cocktail, but I have built good businesses and employ people at fair wages. This, to me, is my politics. Creating jobs. Creating value for people.”

The etching Serr is gazing at, 1921’s Self Portrait by German expressionist Käthe Kollwitz, depicts the artist deep in thought, her head resting in her hand, her eyes cast down and away from the viewer. The strong, determined markings form a heavy brow, a nearly obscured hairline. The image is fearless and entirely unglamorous. “She isn’t trying to be beautiful or pretty,” continues Serr, who keeps her light brown hair cut short and prefers muted, classic styles . “She was working when things were dominated by men and it wasn’t that easy for a woman to make a statement.”

“I love how bold her lines are,” Serr says as she moves closer to the framed piece. “It’s such a powerful image.”

Serr, an artist herself, discovered the Kollwitz piece in 1964 when an art dealer from Chicago displayed it during one of her undergraduate courses at UWM. After class, Serr approached the dealer and bought the etching with money from her National Defense student loans. “When I saw the piece, it was like seeing myself. I really related to her. I just had to have it.”

At The Warehouse, the etching hangs among more than 50 self-portraits, all except one owned by Serr and Shannon. Titled “I Am a Story: Self-Portraits at The Warehouse,” the show is the sixth that has been curated from Shannon and Serr’s personal collection. Every piece holds meaning to the couple, but the Kollwitz etching lives close to Serr’s heart. Over the years, she has examined the striking, austere image hundreds, even thousands of times, and she never tires of it. “Buying this piece was really the beginning of a passion for collecting.”

Though Serr and Shannon, who is tall and speaks gently, articulating each individual word at an unhurried pace, would not meet for another four years, Serr’s visceral, intimate connection to Kollwitz’s etching has remained the driving ethos behind the couple’s approach to collecting over their 50-year marriage. They don’t buy art for profit, but for something deeper, more personal and closer to the marrow. “They are very decisive about what they purchase,” says Deb Brehmer, the owner of Portrait Society Gallery who has sold Shannon and Serr several pieces for their collection. “It might not be analytic or logical, but there’s an awful lot of internalized knowledge between the two of them. It’s a really different way of looking at art.”

Serr and Shannon in Racine, 1978

For Shannon, 75, and Serr, 77, a love of art has always stood at the heart of their partnership. Serr grew up surrounded by music in Bay View – her sister is an opera singer, and Serr sang and played several instruments as a girl – while Shannon’s father, an engineer and inventor, would spend his evenings in their Kenosha home sketching technical drawings that eventually led to more than 40 patents. “I grew up in a house where making art was expected,” says Shannon. “I was never very good at it, but I appreciate art.”

When Shannon and Serr first met, Shannon was finishing his degree at the University of Chicago, and Serr hers at UWM. “I had seen a picture of John and I was already smitten,” recalls Serr. The two would meet on weekends in Chicago and spend entire days wandering the Art Institute of Chicago. “Chicago was where we discovered ourselves; who we were and how we related to each other,” recalls Serr, “It’s also where we discovered art.”

While Käthe Kollwitz sparked Serr’s zest for collecting, Shannon discovered his own passion at an exhibition of Young British Artists hung at the Art Institute. In it, Shannon encountered the work of vibrant, playful artist David Hockney. “I was amazed at his draftsmanship and confidence,” recalls Shannon. “That discovery was really singular for me. Even now, so many years later, Hockney continues to transform himself. He doesn’t stay still.”

Their wedding day, with Shannon’s parents, in Georgetown, Ontario, 1970

Like Serr, Shannon used that early impression as a compass for how he approached collecting. Over the next several decades, Shannon continued to follow Hockney’s career. Now, he and Serr count several Hockney pieces among their collection. One such piece, a self-portrait featuring a young, naked Hockney posing for Pablo Picasso, currently hangs at the Warehouse show just a few feet away from the Kollwitz.

In 1969, a year into their courtship, Shannon moved to Canada in order to help grow his father’s Racine-based business, Quick Cable Corp., a manufacturer and supplier of electronic connectors and wiring. Though he eventually oversaw the construction of a second Quick Cable factory in Mississauga, Ontario, Shannon spent the first several years doing multiple jobs for the company – sales, building, delivering, invoicing. The move meant another stretch of long-distance for Shannon and Serr, who had taken a position teaching at UW-Stevens Point. The two continued to meet on weekends, but now in the Great Lakes border port of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. “It was really crazy,” laughs Serr. “But it was a given that we should stay together.”

Nearly a year apart was long enough for the couple. Serr joined Shannon in Toronto at the end of 1969, and the two married just a few months later in a small room above a Chinese restaurant. “We were married by a justice of the peace in a greasy suit,” recalls Serr. “I wore a little dress with flowers on it that I’d found in a shop in Stevens Point. It was an economical wedding.”

The first few years in Toronto weren’t easy for the couple. They lived on “no money,” says Serr, and rented a small apartment above “the landlord from hell,” laughs Shannon. Serr continued to teach, but when she developed ulcerative colitis, a condition that put her in the hospital for weeks at a time, she turned to making art full time. “We had each other but didn’t really have friends or family,” explains Serr, who also lost both her mother and father within a matter of years. “It was a pretty lonely, isolated time.”

In Venice, 1996

That changed in 1974, when Serr found inspiration in Long Point, a peninsula that juts into Lake Erie. There, she created several large-scale landscape paintings, the first series of many featuring Canadian wilderness. That work captured the attention of the Marlborough Godard Gallery, which took Serr on as an artist. “We really grew during those Toronto years,” recalls Shannon. “Jan built her art career while I built up the family business.”

Shannon and Serr left Toronto and arrived in Racine in 1978 when Shannon agreed to take over as CEO and president of Quick Cable. Over the next three decades, Shannon grew the company exponentially. By the time he sold it to a private equity firm in 2012, Quick Cable employed 130 people in the U.S. and Canada. While the move was a shock for Serr – “Racine was not a place you’d intentionally go to at the time,” she says – the couple used the move (and increased income) as motivation to travel. Together, they crisscrossed the globe, from Japan to see classical Noh theater to Vienna for opera. Everywhere they went, Shannon and Serr made it a point to visit art galleries. “We discovered we worked really well together,” says Serr. “No matter where we were set loose, we were like predators on the hunt.”

Today, Shannon and Serr have identified six focuses of their collection: portraiture, contemporary craft, monotypes, sculpture, photography, and Serr’s own work. Every room in their 11-room, 6,300-square-foot home on the Upper East Side is covered in art. Shannon describes the design choices as simply “eclectic,” but Serr disagrees. She’s the couple’s unofficial interior decorator and suggests a simple organizational structure to the house: craft in the cabinets, photographs in the hallways and large-scale paintings and sculptures in the larger rooms.

On the first floor, on either side of the opulent marble entryway, rooms are lined with sculpture. In one corner sits a towering-yet-delicate bamboo and thread basket by expert Japanese weaver Jiro Yonezawa. In another, a cabinet displays several glass and ceramic pieces, including a lidded vessel and platter by Betty Woodman, a sculptor whose colorful, whimsical work exudes joy from behind the glass. Another piece, a large blown glass vase, by master Venetian glassblower Lino Tagliapietra, comes with one of Serr’s favorite stories. “We got it at a very exclusive gallery who did not want to be found,” explains Serr. “We tracked them down to an island off of Venice on a backstreet with no signage or lights and we just banged on the door until they let us in.”

In the cas: Lidded Vessel by Betty Woodman, Teapot by Akio Takamori, Zogan Cups by Shingo Takeuchi; photo by Matt Haas

The second level is a showcase for Serr’s own paintings. (She created nearly half the 100 pieces displayed throughout the house.) One oil painting, hung facing the main staircase, features a chestnut tree set against a deep, black background. The painted leaves are a bright green hue while the blossoms are captured in a soft pink. The painting, somehow both hopeful and solemn, is a memorial of sorts, one of seven that Serr dedicated to her father. The two planted a chestnut tree in the year before he died.

Up the stairs, at the edge of the third floor, hangs a Sally Mann photograph. In it, a young naked girl stares into the camera lens, her arm held aloft as though pointing to a scene invisible to the viewer. Shannon and Serr have collected hundreds of photographs, most of them of children. Though the couple never had their own children, they became legal guardians to their two nieces when Shannon’s younger brother died from lung cancer in the early 2000s. “Children have always been a part of our life,” explains Serr. “That’s what happens to people who don’t have their own children – you become parents to them all.”

Liu Li Chang by Marc Riboud; photo by Matt Haas

The top floor belongs to Serr’s studio. It’s here, in the bright, white-walled space – a result of a total renovation including knocking down several walls – that the dialogue between Serr’s work and the couple’s art collection comes into focus. Serr’s interest in collecting self-portraiture, for example, shows up in her Diary prints, a series of lithograph self-portraits she’s created over her decades-long career. One such piece currently hangs in the Warehouse show. Her admiration for monotypes, too, is exemplified in her bright, large-scale prints of dancers in motion. There are dozens of pieces in the attic space. Serr estimates she’s created at least 2,000 works over her prolific career.

7 Birds and Coyote by Gwynn Merrill, Chestnut #7 by Jan Serr; Photo by Matt Haas

Between Serr’s work and the couple’s growing collection, the two housed more than 5,000 pieces of art in their East Side home by 2014. That overwhelming fact, and the lack of a sophisticated, secure art storage facility in Wisconsin, led Shannon and Serr to buy a dilapidated, nearly 100-year-old warehouse on the edge of Menomonee Valley and transform it into Guardian and the attached private gallery, where they could curate and share their collection with the city.

The clean, modern brick and concrete building is an impressive sight – and a far cry from what Shannon and Serr purchased six years ago. “The building had been boarded up for at least a quarter of a century,” says Shannon, who holds the title of owner and operator at Guardian. “Every system had failed. We had to remove it all, and a lot of other bad things like asbestos and dead seagulls.” Shannon and Serr rebuilt the entire interior from scratch, including a new heating and cooling system that keeps the building at 70 degrees and 50% humidity, a state-of-the-art security system, LED lights in every socket and the modular gallery space on the first floor. The process took two years to complete. Shannon declines to reveal the cost of the renovation; he does, however, confirm that he and Serr paid for it in full. “I didn’t want to owe anything to a bank.”

Guardian now counts both art institutions and private collectors as clients. And while Shannon does not share the names of his clients for security reasons, he does suggest that the Milwaukee Art Museum encouraged him to build the space.

With Guardian and the Jan Serr Studio, plus their other philanthropic efforts, the couple hope they’ve had a positive impact on their community. “We have a strong belief in the important role the arts play for the whole world,” says Serr. “We’re not billionaires, so we can’t build a private museum, but we’ve built The Warehouse with this personal collection. It’s our message to the world.”


Elly Fishman wrote “The Betty Awards” in the November 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s October issue.

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