S itting in his office at the Pizzuti Collection, the public non-profit space he opened in 2013 in Columbus, Ohio, to showcase his 2,000-plus art holdings, Ron Pizzuti recalls his first encounter with Frank Stella’s work in a Paris gallery, where a small painting from the artist’s Protractor series was on view. “I was young and not very savvy and couldn’t imagine spending $10,000 on a piece of art,” Pizzuti says, explaining that he was in Paris with Leslie Wexner, his longtime friend and former boss at then-budding clothing giant The Limited. “But I thought it was so beautiful,” he continues. “I became a student of Frank Stella.” Research on the artist at the New York Public Library led him to the Pace Gallery, where dealer Arne Glimcher put him in touch with his mother, Eva Glimcher, whose own gallery in Columbus, where Pizzuti lived, showed Pace artists. “Her goal in life was to get good art into the hands of the people in this community, and she was a mentor for several years,” says Pizzuti, who bought his first piece, a $900 Karel Appel print, on installment from Eva in 1974.
A decade and several Glimcher-sourced artworks later, Pizzuti – who founded his Columbus-based real estate development company in 1976 – was finally able to afford a work by the artist responsible for his Paris coup de foudre: He acquired his first Stella, a large canvas also from the Protractor series. Today, as Pizzuti’s business has expanded to Chicago, Orlando and, soon, Nashville, the treasured piece has retained pride of place in the Columbus home he shares with his wife, Ann.
For this developer-collector, business and art pursuits have always been integrated – and not just on a personal level. “You go to any of our offices and you’ll find art as soon as you get off the elevators,” Pizzuti says proudly. “Everyone who works for us has a piece of original art in his or her office. I’ve always done that.” The 18,000-square-foot Pizzuti Collection is housed in a renovated historic 1923 building in Columbus’s trendy Short North Arts District. The collection is just one part of the Pizzuti company’s recent development projects in the neighbourhood. These also include an office-and-retail building and a garage, as well as the city’s first full-service boutique hotel, The Joseph, named after his father and filled with art from Pizzuti’s collection. With these and his company’s earlier projects around the city, the developer has done much to enhance the profile of Columbus, which he still calls, affectionately, a sleeper city.
Nothing in Pizzuti’s early years could have prepared him for the fact that his work and collection would have such an impact. Growing up in Kent, Ohio, his only exposure to art was a mass-produced print of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper hanging in his family’s kitchen. His father, an Italian immigrant, was a “smart man” who “spoke three languages,” Pizzuti says, but he had only an eighth-grade education and worked in a nuts-and-bolts factory. The younger Pizzuti put himself through college at Kent State, moving to Columbus in 1962 to work at the Lazarus department store, where he was a trainee. “It was the best job I ever had,” he says. When he left retail to try his hand at real estate, his sole ambition was to get to the point where he could manage the business himself. “Today we’re not afraid to tackle anything,” says Pizzuti.
Perhaps because success has come to him the hard way, Pizzuti has always been very deliberate in his collecting. Early on, after graduating from prints to paintings, he focused on canvases by Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Agnes Martin and Cy Twombly, among other American postwar artists. “We bought a piece a year, then two, and we did our homework,” he explains. (Despite his royal “we,” Pizzuti has in fact collected on his own, independent of a curator – until 2011, when he hired Rebecca Ibel, a former Columbus contemporary art gallery owner, to oversee the Pizzuti Collection.) “There are some artists we missed,” he says, mentioning Philip Guston as one he followed for years but whose work is now beyond his reach. “But our batting average is pretty good.”
Over the last decade or so, Pizzuti has increasingly acquired younger or less established artists. “I hate to use the phrase emerging artist. It doesn’t have to be a kid,” he stresses. His interest in collecting certain artists in depth has given him the opportunity to enjoy personal relationships with Ori Gersht, Enrique Martinez Celaya and Brian Tolle, something he appreciates greatly. His strongest artist friendships are with Stella and Jim Hodges, who comes through Columbus frequently.
TITUS KAPHAR’S DOUBT, 2010. (LEFT), AND KEHINDE WILEY’S TREISHA LOWE, 2012.PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY THE PIZZUTI COLLECTION.
Most recently, with Ibel’s guidance, Pizzuti’s energies have been focused on presenting his art collection to the public. “I just decided it was time to share,” he explains. The space features three floors of galleries, a research library and staff who help him track artists of interest. “We find an artist we like, and we get to know everything we can and see as much work as we can,” he explains. Some years before his non-profit opened, for instance, Pizzuti zeroed in on Cuban artists. “Our first trip to Havana was in 2009. I wanted to research the market, and I didn’t know what I was going to see,” he recalls. He ended up meeting artists such as Alexandre Arrechea, Yoan Capote, Raúl Cordero and Roberto Diago and acquiring their work. He has returned to Cuba every year since and devoted one of the space’s two inaugural shows in 2013 to Cuban art.
Since then, the Pizzuti Collection has presented shows focusing on individual artists, like Gersht or Tomory Dodge, as well as large thematic exhibitions such as NOW-ISM: Abstraction Today. On view through 2 April is Us Is Them, a look at 37 international artists who often make pointed social critiques. The idea for the show came from an installation of pieces by El Anatsui, Pascale Marthine Tayou, Mustafa Maluka and Mickalene Thomas in a long corridor in Pizzuti’s home. Struck by how these works addressed political and social challenges, Pizzuti and Ibel conceived a broader show exploring the same ideas for his non-profit. The title was suggested by Hank Willis Thomas, whose 2011 Strange Fruit, a searing photograph of a black athlete simultaneously dunking a basketball through a noose and hanging limp from it, is part of the exhibition.
ZHANG HUAN’S FAMILY TREE, 2000. PHOTOGRAPH BY RICKY RHODES.
Giving a tour of the show, Pizzuti points to a favourite piece, Jeff Sonhouse’s Meeting at the Crossroads (2003), depicting nattily dressed twin men whose giant Afros are formed from burnt matches. He’s also excited about three photographs by Omar Victor Diop, a young Senegalese artist whom Pizzuti’s son Joel discovered. (A collector himself, Joel has loaned these and several other works to the exhibition.) “I’m anxious to meet Diop,” says Pizzuti. “I’m waiting for another series.” As a collector, Pizzuti is willing to bide his time for the right work, as he did for his recent acquisitions of Yinka Shonibare’s Magic Ladder Kid IV and Hayv Kahraman’s Kawliya.
The collection has clearly become a priority in Pizzuti’s life. When the space opened in 2013, he was spending about 20 per cent of his time there and the rest at his company. “Now it’s more like 50-50,” he says. Brimming with plans for the future, he mentions an upcoming solo show of Robert Buck. The exhibition will include a series the artist did after the Columbine High School massacre, based on newspaper photographs of the teenage killers. “I think we’re going to get some grief about that,” Pizzuti notes. In March 2017, the entire space will be turned over to Indian art by Subodh Gupta, Anish Kapoor, Bharti Kher and Sudarshan Shetty. Pizzuti’s been acquiring works on recent trips to India. “I’ve found it to be the most spiritual place I have ever been,” he says, “including the Vatican.” A solo show of Stella may also happen at some point. “I think he’s as good as it gets: He reinvents himself over and over again,” Pizzuti explains. “He’s not always successful, but I think he deserves respect because he has the guts to do things.” As some would say, it takes one to know one.
Hilarie M. Sheets writes for The New York Times, Art + Auction and other publications.
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