Pete Dell: When the Artist Becomes Art Collector

Artist and collector Pete Dell, with his painting, Geometry (2022).

In the early 2000s, Pete Dell began collecting art during weekend excursions to University Circle with his teenage son, Denver. The two would start by catching an unconventional film at Cinematheque at the Cleveland Institute of Art (CIA). Then they would visit various art galleries throughout the city.

“That’s when I started buying art and gradually started spending more money on it,” says Pete, who, in addition to being an artist, has a discerning eye for contemporary artistic talent. “I would pick stuff, and then I would see that the Free Times review would mention the items I happened to buy, so I discovered a lot of people when they were unknown and are now better known.”

His collection grew as he acquired more emerging, local artists such as Amy Casey, Eileen Dorsey, Derek Hess, George F. Kocar, Dawn Tekler, Douglas Max Utter and Eva Volf. “But it wasn’t a conscious strategy or a collection guided by principles,” Pete says. “It’s very subjective. I know what I like when I see it, and I buy it.”

A basement wall in Dell’s home is covered in screen printed concert posters and other works by artist Derek Hess.

On one of their Saturday sojourns, Denver saw a poster on a bulletin board at CIA advertising a photography contest. He knew his father was just getting back into photography. Pete submitted a black-and-white he had snapped through a chain link fence of railroad tracks limned by a Whiskey Island sunset. The photo won a prize in the contest, was bought by an insurance company in Manhattan and displayed by William Busta in his gallery.

In May 2003, Pete did his first photography show with Dott Schneider at the now-defunct Creative Impulse Gallery. His first solo show followed at Kelly Randall Gallery, also defunct, in August 2006.

Today, he exhibits his photos—black-and-white, color, Polaroids of images from movies on his TV he scratched with a quarter as they developed, Photoshopped images—throughout his house in Canton, where he moved in 2012. His residence doubles as his own personal art museum with his photos and paintings and several hundred works by a variety of local artists exhibited in every room and hallway. Even his laundry room features many works, including Can You See Me?, an acrylic and spray paint on canvas, and ERU Art 1, a digital edit photo of painting on canvas, by Jazz vibraphone player and contemporary artist Ron Smith.

Pete’s been into photography since his father gave him a Kodak Brownie camera that he used to document his family’s camping trips, sometimes out West.

“My dad would say ‘You’re taking better pictures with this old Brownie than I am with my fancy new camera.’” Pete recalls. “I knew at an early age that I had an eye for framing, and I liked to draw as a kid, but I never had any formal training in art.”

Paul Rogers, Untitled #2, acrylic on canvas, 24 X 36 inches. Purchased from the now-defunct Artchitecture Gallery.

On a recent tour of his collection, Pete was most proud of his series of photographs of Quay 55 on the downtown lakefront as it was being built; a variety of photographs of Cleveland’s famed bridges, including the Superior Viaduct and the Detroit-Superior Bridge that he gained special access to so he could shoot the Cuyahoga River and Flats from above; and a series of candids of the late-night denizens of the Old Fashion Hot Dog diner in Ohio City that later fell victim to the wrecking ball and new development.

During the tour, Pete also pointed out several of fellow drummer Scott Pickering’s works such as Muh-Rooow, a digital collage in a shadowbox, and Circle Blur, a spray paint and mixed media on board piece; one of Depew’s collage’s formed from the suicide note left by gonzo journalist and author Hunter S. Thompson; Maugan’s framed/matted print One Thing I Need to Tell You; and Erin Mulligan’s giclée print America the Beautiful and repurposed drawer with paint and thirty objects entitled Pine Tree Face Has the Answer.

Mulligan, a painter who lives near Dell in Canton, confirms his standard operating procedure as friend of and friend to artists like herself. “Pete’s an interesting guy because he supports a lot of artists, but he also takes art classes and he’s curious about how to make art,” she says. “Most of the people who collect my work are not artists.”

Jenniffer Omaitz, CMY, acrylic on canvas, 23 X 35 inches, framed.

When she dropped off one of her pieces to Pete’s house several years ago, Mulligan received a nearly three-hour tour of her patron’s extensive collection. “He showed me all of his pieces and talked about each of the artists,” she says. “Every time he buys from me, he wants all the detailed information so he can catalogue it.”

Pete’s taken workshops with artists at BAYarts in Bay Village, and the Morgan Conservatory and Zygote Press in Cleveland. The papermaking classes he took at the Morgan “kind of changed things” for Pete.

“Clare Murray Adams taught us how to bleach, burn and rust paper,” he says. “I had a lot of old photograph prints, so I started rusting and messing them with a bleach pen and destroying them, burning them, so that’s given me a whole new shot at my old photographs to make them into new art.”

Pete, 67, grew up in Highland Heights and went to Mayfield High School before launching into what he labels “a varied career.” Early on, he performed commercial insurance inspections and audits for underwriters of different insurance companies. Later, he co-owned a florist shop in Mentor-on-the-Lake with his first wife. In 1988, he founded The Dell Group, a business doing safety and environmental consulting. The company is still going strong, but last year, he transitioned to semi-retirement.

Now, he has more time to create art, purchase art, and play drums in a few different bands, performing in various Northeast Ohio clubs and occasionally recording songs. He was a founding member of Moko Bovo (1988-1997), and he now plays with three of the musicians from that group in a current band, Slideways. Pete got into drumming through his friendship with artist Scott Pickering, who owned a record store in Mentor. Pickering’s brother Keith was already a friend, and he convinced Pete to buy a drum set when he was 27.

Installation view of works by artists in Dell’s collection, including Justin Brennan and Sean Wheeler.

More recently on the art front, Pete began to move away from photography, and he embarked on an abstract painting journey, took some classes, and has been painting enough that he’s almost to the point of showing some of his work. He’s created a significant portion of his abstract paintings while enjoying time in his beachfront condo in Florida during always-chilly North Coast winters.

He says he’s been cutting back on collecting a little, but around Christmas last year, he purchased a couple of prints by Mulligan: Compassion and Lady of Shallot.

During the past four years or so, Pete started creating a spreadsheet to catalogue all of the artworks he had purchased. He recruited his artist friend Bellamy Printz, owner/director Deep Dive Art Projects, LLC, Cleveland, to help him with appraisals. She informed him that some of the pieces had gained in value since he purchased them.

“I’m slowing down because I don’t want to saddle my kids with the problem of what to give away or what each piece is worth,” he says. “That’s why I started the inventory a few years ago and looking at the appraisal part of collecting.”

Of his art collecting, which is “kind of a hobby slash obsession,” Pete advises neophyte collectors to buy what they like because preferences in art are so subjective.

“I also think it’s smart to find emerging artists whose works are a little cheaper, and then they go up,” he adds. “It’s hard to predict, but Cleveland is such a cool area because it’s big enough to have giant talents and small enough that you can get to know just about everybody in art, music or poetry. So I would encourage a collector to have a personal relationship with the artists they collect because they’re all interesting people.”

Astrologically speaking, Pete labels himself a true Gemini with a dual personality. “I have my business side and my creative side,” he explains. “Creative side, I’m a hermit. Business side, I’m an extrovert.”

Pete definitely likes to collect or buy from people that he has a connection with, according to painter Jenniffer Omaitz, professor of interior design architecture at Kent State University and current master marbler-in-residence at Morgan Conservatory. He owns one of her favorite paintings, CMY, a framed acrylic on canvas; a couple of other acrylic works; and Three Gray Marblings, framed marbling on paper.

“He came over to see the work, and he was interested enough to buy a piece,” Jenniffer says. “Then I had a studio sale three or four months later, and he bought something from that, so he wants to support local artists and make sure that they are able to survive in some way.”

What does Pete find most fulfilling or enjoyable about being an artist as well as a collector?

“It’s that whole right-brain thing that excites me, when seeing art makes the right brain start boiling with inspiration,” he says. “I create more when I see creative things being done. I feel more creative.”

When his pal Depew owned Asterix Gallery in Tremont, he told Pete about an upcoming show called Fridge Art that would feature artists who had make art out of refrigerators. So Pete did.

“That always helps to get motivated,” Pete avers. “All of a sudden you’ve got a show coming up, so you really get a lot done.”

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