Columbus Artists: Becoming Collectible

By Tracy Zollinger Turner

When it comes to cultivating a financially successful career as a visual artist, there is no clean and obvious blueprint. It is an obstacle course of grant and fellowship applications, exhibitions, gallery representation and media attention that still may not lead to the ability to financially sustain oneself as an artist without a strong helping of serendipity.

There is also the question of what makes an artist’s work appear to be a worthwhile investment to art collectors. While it’s sometimes just a matter of the personal tastes of a committed art-buyer, other factors, such as a track record of grant and fellowship awards, appearance in publications or a strong history of showing in notable galleries, can put a higher premium on the work of a particular artist.

One thing that often creates momentum, as well as a more solid foundation for an artist is having work purchased by a major institution or private collection.

“The value of an artist having work purchased by experienced collectors is that it can help build confidence in inexperienced collectors as they consider what to buy,” says Rebecca Ibel, the veteran Short North gallery owner who shuttered her doors in 2011 and became the director and curator of the Pizzuti Collection.

“Collectors don’t do things by committee. They are often just buying something they like. But the impact of having a well-established collector buy something can also be meaningful to the artist,” she says. “If it’s good enough that someone like Ron [Pizzuti] bought it, that can be a big confidence boost.”

With the opening of a new exhibition space in the Short North in late spring, the Pizzuti Collection - a non-profit organization committed to showing contemporary art - will draw from and give the public insight into one of the best-respected private art collections in the world. A stately building located astride Goodale Park that formerly housed an insurance company has been beautifully redone, and will have public visiting hours two or three days a week.

Local real estate developer Ron Pizzuti began collecting over 30 years ago. After traveling around the world and tiring of visiting "churches and bars," he meandered into a gallery and saw a work by minimalist painter and printmaker Frank Stella, who he then went home and began to research.

He bought his first piece of art from Eva Glimcher, co-founder of Pace Gallery, an internationally prominent showcase for contemporary artists (which had a Columbus affiliate in the 1960s and ‘70s). He put $100 down for a piece by Dutch avant garde artist Karel Appel. Pieces that will be on view in the new building’s third floor provide some insight into Pizzuti’s evolution as a collector. There are pieces by Stella, Jim Dine, Ai Weiwei, Gerhard Richter, Jean Dubuffet and other influential artists that one is most likely to find in museums and contemporary art centers.

The bottom floor gallery, on the other hand, is dedicated to the next generation, or up-and-coming artists like Darío Escobar, Robert Buck and Duke Riley.

While his focus has more recently turned toward new and emerging artists, the motives behind Pizzzuti’s purchases over the years ultimately aren’t that much of a mystery, according to Ibel.

“It’s pretty basic,” she says. “Ron picks things that he thinks are really cool.”

For the first year, the middle floor of the new exhibition space will be devoted to work by Cuban artists that Pizzuti has collected. It includes a series by photographer and Ohio State University professor Tony Mendoza. Born in Cuba, Mendoza returned to Havana for a two-week visit in the 1990s and took several pictures of life in the city.

When it comes to stories about artists whose career trajectories were drastically shifted after a purchase by a major institution, Mendoza’s story is quite a doozy.

“From 1972 until 1985, I was the classic starving artist sort of managing any way I could and doing very badly at that,” says Mendoza. A Yale graduate with an engineering degree, he abandoned his career as an office-bound architect to pursue the life of an art photographer. He lived in a commune in Boston and taught photography classes, then later moved to New York’s Tribeca neighborhood to try to dig in further. But, as he puts it, as far as his career went in those years, “nothing much happened.”

“I had all these stories in my mind that were kind of unusual and for a couple of years, I became kind of obsessed. Around 1985, I put them all together in a short story format with the photographs and finally took it to the Museum of Modern Art,” he says. At that time, photographers could drop their portfolios off on a Wednesday to be considered by John Szarkowski, MOMA’s director of photography. Mendoza left him 65 with pieces and received a phone call a few days later, letting him know that Szarkowski was interested.

“He said ‘I’d like to buy them all if you give me a good price. This is all the money I have in the fund, but I’ll make it up to you.’ So I listened to that,” says Mendoza. The cost was only $3,000-$4,000, which Mendoza’s peers advised him against taking. “Since nothing was happening for me at that time, I said ‘I don’t know, I’m going with it.’”

“The next thing I knew, he gave me a show at the Museum of Modern Art.”

Not only that, Mendoza was soon awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, and had books of his work published – Ernie – his photographic memoir about living with a cat, as well as the stories he had sold to MOMA.

“After that I got teaching jobs and visiting artist gigs. Not that it was all was due to that – the work was interesting, but having the work bought by, followed by the show at MOMA basically got my career going,” he says. "I got the job at OSU and my life started to hop as an artist.”

As he focused on his work as a professor, Mendoza’s career as an exhibiting artist and selling his work slowed down, but he’s about to retire from teaching and publish a coming-of-age novel he’s worked on every summer for 20 years.

“I started sending it to publishing companies 10 years ago and accumulating huge numbers of rejections,” he says. “But in the last couple of years, the rejections have become personal. And finally, somebody wants to publish it – it’s been kind of an interesting journey of hanging in there for a very long time.”

While the novel will be his first published project without photographs, he’s planning to return to shooting and exhibiting with greater frequency.

“Hopefully, I get to do more work, because I’m very energetic,” he says.

Mendoza currently sells work in galleries, usually basing the price on what it fetches at art auctions, like the Columbus Museum of Art’s annual Art for Life event. Most of the time, he gets $1,000-$1,200, but at the most recent event, he sold one of a series of images of flowers against the sky and something shifted.

“This year at the Art for Life auction, one of my photographs sold for $6,000,” he says. “What was happening was everybody was drunk. It was at the CMA – and they serve free liquor, lots of it. So I don’t know if that has anything to do with it. But if that happens again, then I’d say something’s happening here for me.”

Columbus-area artists trying to establish themselves without the benefit of the attention of a revered curator for an international institution like MOMA have still found themselves greatly helped when their work is purchased for a collection like our own local-international establishment, the Columbus Museum of Art.

The validation of larger institutions can especially help an artist, and anyone who might be helping to sell his or her work, attach a buzz-phrase like “museum quality” to it, says Ibel. “And what that means is simply that a museum has sanctioned it.”

Showing outside of Columbus, particularly in larger markets, doesn’t necessarily mean anything in terms of the quality of an artist’s work, but it can undoubtedly helps his or her marketability.

“Things that have artistic merit but remain in the same community don’t attain the same kind of market value,” says Ibel.

Artist Laura Sanders had a strong track record of residencies and exhibitions, and had won several grants and awards before one of her paintings was purchased by CMA a couple of years back. A North Carolina gallery currently helps her get commissions for portraits while she works on new material.

“I’ve been cultivating a new body of work, so I haven’t been approaching new galleries, but I feel that having that on my resume should be helpful to me then."(A preview of the new works Sanders is working on will be on view at Lindsay Gallery in the Short North throughout March.)

Self-taught artist Leni Anderson said that the purchase of four of his pieces by the Columbus Museum of Art several years ago propelled later purchases of his work by the State of Saxony Ministry of Art and Science in Dresden, Germany, the American Folk Art Museum and other institutions, as well as several notable private collectors.

He had won fellowships and shown work at museums around the world, but he was surprised when he learned about the interest, which had been propelled by the CMA’s then curator of Modern/20th Century Art  Annegreth Nill.

“When I got the phone call, I was kind of shocked. Even though my work had been shown at the museum a few times, I had to sit down,” he says. “It was a boost. It was a confirmation for me – not a confirmation to do my work, but to know I was on the right track.”

“It was a catalyst that led to many other things. My work isn’t the kind of work most people collect unless they are collectors. It doesn’t look pretty in their living room. I had built a strong resume, so the museum felt my work would continue to increase in value.”

Anderson researched the careers of established artists in the years that he struggled to figure out how to sustain himself as an artist. While looking at the lives of Pablo Picasso, Joseph Beuys and Gerhard Richter, “the epiphany that I had was that what I didn’t have in my work was consistency.”

He became very focused on creating his work, showing pieces with consistent themes and routinely keeping 50-100 pieces on hand. While he was able to make a living as an artist for several years, he returned to school for library science and currently works as Instructional Aids Associate (director) at The Ohio State University-Newark Education Curriculum Center. He still “hoofs it,” creates his work, cold-contacts galleries and supports the work of his artistic peers.

“I strongly believe first and foremost that you create the work you want to create as an individual person and artist,” he says. “I can’t just concentrate on wanting to make money. I create for myself first with the hope that when others see it they will at least appreciate it. And I don’t take it personally if they don’t. If I took it personally, I would have stopped doing it a long time ago. I have at least 300 pieces that no one has ever seen. It’s a matter of being confident in myself and creating what I want to create and just cross my fingers.”

Columbus Artists in Major Collections

Several living local artists – some born and raised in Ohio, some lured here by the call of our local educational institutions - are included in significant collections around the world.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but here are a few highlights.

A graduate of The Ohio State University (BFA and MFA), photographer and printmaker Fredrik Marsh has work in private, corporate, museum and library collections, including the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, several of Ohio’s major museums and the U.S. Library of Congress. He currently teaches in the art department at OSU.

Photographer Ardine Nelson, professor emeritus at The Ohio State University has work included in the Guggenheim Foundation Collection, the International Polaroid Collection (Amsterdam, Holland) and The Chicago Center for Contemporary Photography Collection, Columbia College.

Installation sculptor Xan Palay has work in the Columbus Museum of Art’s collection, as well as a permanent sculpture on the rooftop of SPACES gallery in Cleveland.

Columbus native and MacArthur Genius fellow Aminah Robinson has an extensive number of pieces in the Columbus Museum of Art’s permanent collection. CMA organized a retrospective of her work in 2002 that traveled throughout the country, and in 2010 her work was featured in an exhibition at the Museo de Bellas Artes in Santiago, Chile.  Robinson is also in the collections of the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, The Tacoma Art Museum and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

Alfred Tibor, a Holocaust survivor born in Hungary, has lived in Columbus, where he has been able to devote himself to sculpting since the early 1970s. Now 93, his work is in over 500 private and museum collections worldwide, including Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem memorial.

Image:  From Tony Mendoza's Flower Series (2004 - )

Kodo Drummers of Japan.  Image courtesy of CAPA.

Dumarka Soomaaliyeed Voices Unveiled
Presented by Somali Cultural and Research Institute
March 1-30, 2013

Home/Away: A Benefit Art Auction
Presented by Kimball Events
March 2, 2013

Thursday Night Concert Series: Urban Jazz Coalition
Presented by McConnell Arts Center
March 7, 2013

Personal Nature
Presented by Ohio Art League
March 7-30, 2013

Kodo Drummers of Japan
Presented by CAPA
March 14, 2013

Novel Writing Workshop Series: Complete your book in 6 months
Presented by Columbus Idea Foundry
March 22, 2013

Verdi, Vine, and Ludwig van
Presented by Carpe Diem String Quartet
March 23 & 24, 2013

Good Lovelies
Presented by CityMusic
March 24, 2013

Digi-Eye: Film/Video Showcase
Presented by OSU Department of Theatre
March 29 & 30, 2013