Rebecca Ibel prepares the Pizzuti Collection for its first impression

Erin Edwards

Rebecca Ibel is in her office at the Pizzuti Collection, admiring a gorgeous, gray designer lamp made of anodized aluminum. This is not just any old office lamp.

Ibel, her strawberry-blonde hair pulled back loosely, makes a soft-spoken confession. "I took this from Ron's office," she admits, smiling. "Ron was out of town, and it's a really nice lamp. But it just didn't work in his office, so I took it."

Ron is her boss, Ron Pizzuti, the real estate developer and founder of The Pizzuti Companies, who is listed among the top 200 art collectors in the world by ARTnews magazine.

Much of Pizzuti's contemporary art collection has been stored away for decades, except for the pieces he's kept in the Miranova home he shares with his wife, Ann. He began collecting in 1974 and estimates he owns between 1,600 and 1,700 pieces.

On Sept. 7, the Pizzuti Collection's new permanent home opens to the public in the renovated United Commercial Travelers building across from Goodale Park. The 18,000-square-foot gallery, which includes indoor and outdoor sculpture, painting, drawing, photography and video, will also offer educational programs, lectures, events and a research library.

The lamp is just one of Pizzuti's possessions that Ibel has "relocated" recently.

There was the time, for example, that she and Pizzuti sparred over moving some major pieces of art by Gerhard Richter, Donald Judd and Frank Stella from his home to the new gallery. "You can't take that out of my house!" was his immediate response.

The pieces now reside on the gallery's third floor.

"All these are personal to him, even the bigger pieces," she says.

Pizzuti has known Ibel for more than 15 years and handpicked her to be the director and curator of the Collection after she spent 18 years running her eponymous gallery, a haven for contemporary art in the Short North.

"I think it was the next evolution of her career," says Ibel's friend Lisa Hinson, who runs the firm Hinson Ltd Public Relations. "I'm really happy for her, because she ran a successful business for so many years in Columbus. I think she was exceptionally good in drawing people Downtown to see the artists she represented, and she'll continue with the Collection to do the same."

Back in Ibel's office, she's already preparing for next year's solo exhibition by Ori Gersht, an Israeli artist whom Pizzuti follows closely. One wall is covered in small photos that have been taped up there like mug shots in a police-themed TV drama. The photos are miniature versions of Gersht's artworks printed to scale so that they can be moved around within models of the exhibition spaces.

Along with hours of research, this method helps Ibel realize visual connections among the pieces while organizing her curatorial attack.

Ibel, 47, is married and has a 5-year-old daughter. She balances toughness with an easy-going humor, and her demeanor is supremely poised despite her hectic schedule. She clears her head on the weekends by getting out to the country, where she rides her horse named Hudson.

Ibel was born in Columbus and moved to Northern California with her family when she was 8. Her parents exposed her to art early on, and her grandfather had a modest collection in his home. There were trips to the de Young Museum in San Francisco with her mother and annual summer visits to an uncle in New York City with her father. The New York trips always included pilgrimages to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Museum of Modern Art. And although she never had ambitions of becoming an artist, Ibel knew early on that she wanted to study art history.

"It's always been home to me," she says.

In high school, her English teacher at the elite Katharine Branson School (Julia Child was an alumna) helped her score a month-long internship at the Marlborough Gallery, which is among the best regarded galleries in New York. During Ibel's stay, Marlborough was showing paintings by Francis Bacon, the British artist known for his visceral, disarming figures.

"I went every day to work and was like, 'What is that?' " Ibel says.

From there she went on to study art history at the American University of Paris, where she had the advantage of seeing classical works up close. The program used Europe as its classroom--to study the Dutch masters, students traveled to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. For the presentation of her senior thesis on Venetian art, they went to Venice.

"You know, the ability to see is a learned skill. It is!" she says. "When you look at works in person, it's a completely different experience than seeing them online or in production or on slides. It's not just a theory in a book."

After college, Ibel moved to New York City to work at Sotheby's, where she expanded her education in art history and the world of auction houses, art dealers and collectors. It was in 1993, while living in Berlin, that she decided to take an exhibition by a pair of artists on the road. She went to Naples, Florida, first and then decided to stop in Columbus for three months.

What she discovered was potential.

"We found a space in the Short North, which was a much shorter Short North than it is today, and to me it was a sign written on the wall: This neighborhood was going to grow and develop as it has. That was no surprise to me."

That rental space at 761 N. High St. became her gallery's first location. (It's home to High Street Denim today.) Everyone advised her that it was too far north and, yes, prostitutes often hung out on the gallery's stoop in the morning, Ibel says.

In 1995 she stopped commuting between Berlin and Columbus. She moved the gallery even farther north into an old gas station that was being used for storage by a nearby hospital at the time.

With her eye for emerging artists and persistent enthusiasm about the neighborhood, Ibel became a pioneering force in the Short North Arts District. She sees herself as an ambassador for Columbus and its arts community when she travels to places like Miami, New York City and Havana.

"Rebecca has consistently been among the very few gallerists devoted to contemporary art. She was, during her long tenure as a gallery owner, adventurous and willing to offer shows to young, emerging artists as well as more recognized ones," says Sherri Geldin, director of the Wexner Center for the Arts.

Both Ibel and Geldin see the Collection as having a unique perspective that will augment the work being done by the Wexner Center and the Columbus Museum of Art.

"What's special about the Pizzuti Collection is that it has been developed by one person over several decades," Geldin says. "It's a very personal take on the contemporary art world that wouldn't necessarily be found in an institution like ours or at the CMA."

Ibel closed her gallery in 2011 to take the new job with Pizzuti and was able to lend her aesthetic eye and "stand up for the art" during the historic building's renovation. That meant ensuring builders didn't place light switches in the middle of gallery walls and visitors would first be greeted by art, not a hallway or reception desk.

Creating powerful first impressions is Ibel's primary mark on the Collection.

"I want that first breath," Ibel says, taking a quick breath in to illustrate surprise and wonder.

For example, as visitors enter through the gallery's large front doors, they are met by Cuban artist Yoan Capote's stunning depiction of the Brooklyn Bridge titled "American Appeal (Bridge)." The entire piece is constructed of fish hooks, easy to obtain in Cuba, but also sharp and rusty. They compel distance from the observer.

"If you think of the image of the bridge, there is no bridge from Cuba to the U.S.," Ibel says. "It's a very precarious, difficult passage."

On this floor, an exhibition titled "Cuban Forever," highlighting Cuban contemporary art, kicks off the gallery's opening. Pizzuti says he now has a "pretty sizable and pretty important Latin American collection with a strong emphasis on Cuban" art that came about by accident, really.

"There's a whole new young class of artists in Cuba. Castro has kept many art forms alive. … He's allowed them to flourish," Pizzuti says. "Many of these artists are self-taught, but I would pit most of them against their American counterparts or their European counterparts."

Supporting and spending time with young artists-like those coming out of Cuba-compels Pizzuti as much as the artwork itself, Ibel says.

"Cuban Forever" includes works such as Raul Cordero's painting "Heroes Before the Last Vision," Reynier Leyva Novo's resin casts of revolutionary heroes' revolvers and several pieces by Alexandre Arrechea, who will participate in the artists panel at the gallery opening.

To create the atmosphere of Havana's streets-the colonial architecture, the pastels-Ibel has placed American photographer Michael Eastman's large-scale photographs of the city throughout the hallways.

The other two floors of the gallery feature "Inaugural Exhibition: Looking Back," which tells the stories of Pizzuti's beginnings as an art collector (on the third floor), and "Inaugural Exhibition: Looking Forward," which represents what he is collecting now-21st-century artworks by young, emerging artists (on the ground floor).

A trip there provides an example of Ibel's tendency to use every available space for art. Its hallways serve as the ideal pitch for "Obverse & Reverse," an installation of inside-out soccer balls by Guatemalan artist Dario Escobar.

A walk up the stairs to the third floor and-bam!-visitors are welcomed by an organic twist of chromed steel and color titled "Backupenchantress" by John Chamberlain. Ibel has intentionally placed the sculpture in a small space, forcing a confrontation before the visitor moves on to the Collection's premier space, a wide-open floor beneath a soaring ceiling.

Prior to renovation, two drop ceilings hid the high ceiling and detailed plasterwork, while the open floor was cut up into offices. Ibel says workers even found old typewriters left behind in some rooms.

The first piece Pizzuti ever purchased is here on the third floor. He bought "Circus People," a $900 lithograph by Dutch artist Karel Appel, from Columbus' Pace Gallery and paid for it in $100 monthly installments.

Also on the third floor are pieces by some of contemporary art's household names-Donald Judd, Ken Price, Susan Rothenberg and Frank Stella.

"The first major painting I ever bought was a Stella," Pizzuti says. "I'm pretty passionate about him and the way he works. He reinvents himself, and I have a lot of respect for artists who do that and a lot of respect for people in business who have the guts to reinvent themselves."

In Ibel, he found someone willing to do just that. He respects her savvy, her ability to stay current and her work ethic. And her expectations? Unflinchingly high.

"It should be the best," she says. "Everything you do, do the best that you can do it. … It shouldn't be like, 'Well, it's just Columbus. … It's just a gallery in Columbus.' No, this would blow the socks off of anyone, anywhere."

She pauses. "Or I hope it does. That's the goal."