"I’ll tell you my Cuban story,” says Ron Pizzuti, Chairman and CEO of Ohio-based real-estate development firm The Pizzuti Companies. “When I was in college, three friends and I went to Fort Lauderdale. I had $20 for a week. My friends decided to go to Cuba. And I called my dad and said, ‘May I borrow $90? I want to go to Cuba.’ And he hung up on me,” Pizzuti laughs. “So my three friends went off to Cuba, and I got stuck with our hotel room. So going to Cuba was always on my bucket list.”
Fifty years later, in 2009, Pizzuti, a passionate art collector, would make that visit after an invitation from Cuban-American art dealer Alberto Magnan. In 2005, Magnan had opened his Chelsea gallery Magnan Metz with his partner, Dara Metz. “When Dara and I opened the gallery, the country was under the administration of George W Bush, and there were many Cuban artists being denied visas, which was hurting their careers,” says Magnan. “So we made a point of trying to exhibit these artists.”
Though the gallery has always had an international programme, Magnan and Metz have become known for their eye for both emerging and established Latin-American artists.
Pizzuti and Magnan met a few years prior to that trip, in 2006, through an introduction by Pizzuti’s daughter, who is a friend of Metz.
“When Ron and I met, I said, ‘There’s this incredible artist named Alexandre Arrechea I need to show you,’” says Magnan. “I was taking the chance of having an exhibition of his work [without the artist present, because of visa issues] and showed it to Ron, who fell in love with a piece.
“He didn’t know Arrechea, didn’t know what he was about, but he simply believed in what I was doing and the artist. That’s one of the great things about Ron: he has a great eye, and when you talk about the work, he knows exactly that it’s a great piece.”
That piece of work by Arrachea, Dust (2005), a life-sized glass punching bag filled with debris from the streets of New York City, came from a series of 10 punching bags the artist constructed using “dust” collected in locations around the world. Pizzuti purchased the piece, while the remaining nine in the series wound up in other leading international collections, including that of the Miami collector Martin Margulies.
That would be one of the first pieces in his collection of contemporary Cuban works (now one of the largest in North America), which makes up a portion of his greater contemporary art collection, including works by Frank Stella, Jim Hodges, John Chamberlain, Jean Dubuffet, Carroll Dunham, Louise Nevelson, Ai Weiwei and many more.
Last September, Pizzuti and his wife, Ann, opened The Pizzuti Collection, an 18,000sq ft exhibition space in Columbus, Ohio, to house part of their collection, rotating around 10 per cent of what they have in curated shows throughout the year. The launch exhibition was titled Cuban Forever and featured works by Yoan Capote, Raúl Cordero, Raúl Martínez, Martínez Celaya and Douglas Pérez.
Pizzuti has bought most of his Cuban art while travelling to Cuba with Magnan (he has made five trips so far), or from the gallery. This has included works by Juan Roberto Diago Durruthy, also known simply as Diago, Raúl Cordero (Heroes Before the Last Vision), Duvier del Dago (Yamaha GP), Martínez Celaya and Glenda León, who represented her country in the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013.
“Alberto has been instrumental in shaping my collection of Cuban art,” says Pizzuti. “I wanted to visit the country, and to have someone like Alberto, who knows his way around, was great. I’m not bilingual, so when I’m in Cuba, Alberto is very, very helpful. And it’s also important that he’s very wired to the artistic community there.”
Magnan has developed his network through his own Cuban heritage and through the ISA (Institute of Superior Art), which he says is “the finest school of art in Latin America for developing conceptual and contemporary art. I would say that a large majority of the Cuban artists who are internationally known come out of that school.”
He has also looked to the Havana Biennial and the community of artists living in Havana.
“I love going to artists and asking them, ‘Who do you think right now is doing anything new, different, great?’ And they’re pretty open; they’ll say, ‘Yeah, you’ve got to go see my friend who had a show here. Go meet him,’” he says.
For collectors interested in going to Cuba, Magnan suggests they should check with their local museums for information on trips organised through a People-to‑People programme.
Prices for contemporary Cuban artists aren’t skyrocketing, but they are steadily climbing, so much so that last November, Phillips’ New York auction house included a special section of Cuban contemporary art in its biannual Latin America sale – the first time that a major auction house has created such a platform for Cuban art. The auction closed with a 100 per cent sell-through rate for the Cuban portion, which included works by Los Carpinteros, Carlos Garaicoa, Belkis Ayón, Tania Bruguera, Manuel Mendive and René Peña. In a statement about the sale, Phillips noted that “contemporary Cuban art is poised to make a broader mark on the international art arena”.
According to Magnan, prices for works by emerging artists in Cuba can range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. “But some of the more established artists, such as Arrechea, Diago, Los Carpinteros, Garaicoa and Mendive can sell for between $10,000 and $100,000,” he explains. “They have created international careers for themselves and they’re sought after by museums for exhibitions abroad. Since 2006, many of these artists’ works have doubled in price.” Institutional interest is also a good sign of a region that’s on the up.
“Cuba is one of the few places where you have every major museum visiting, especially the US museums,” says Magnan. “Last year over a hundred US museums and their trustees visited Cuba, and the incredible thing is they knock on the artist’s door,” says Magnan. “Where else in the world do you have a museum with 10 of their trustees coming in and saying, ‘Can we please go into your studio and see what you have?’
“And there is going to be so much more out there,” he continues. “We’re only scratching the surface. People are starting to learn about Cuban artists – what they’re doing, what their potential is – so this is only just the beginning.”