Houseguest

A chat with Suzie Aron, art collector and Crossroads real estate broker

Updated: 2013-08-25T02:35:49Z

By ALICE THORSON

The Kansas City Star

In 1983, long before she became known as a major player in the Crossroads Arts District as a real estate broker and developer, Suzie Aron bought a house in Fairway.

“It was a tiny three-bedroom box from the 1970s, with no basement and no attic,” said her husband, Joseph Levin, a retired insurance executive who now serves as treasurer for the city of Fairway.

Over the years, the couple have extensively improved the property, adding a sky-lit great room designed by architect Roger Kraft in the early 1990s. Views of the wooded setting give it the feeling of a treehouse.

Four years ago, Aron and Levin bought 6,000 square feet of adjacent property and put in a 60-foot-by-12-foot lap pool and a screened-in pavilion. Both were designed by their son-in-law, architect David Dowell, who had earlier renovated the kitchen, upstairs bedroom and bath.

The place is a perfect fit for a couple of empty-nesters. Furnishings range from an art noveau armoire to a Marcel Breuer Wassily Chair and a Mies van der Rohe Barcelona Chair. But the walls hold the real treasures, including a gorgeous Jules Olitski spray painting and a collage on canvas by Robert Rauschenberg.

As Aron tells it, she started out as an art major but changed to psychology. “My tastes got too good for my talent,” she said. “I became a collector, not a maker.”

How long have you been collecting?

Since I was 16. My first piece was a French painting, a street painting by a contemporary artist. It was $500, and I paid it off. My father wouldn’t lend me the money, but my father’s friend did, and I paid him.

And you stuck with it.

In my early 20s I started buying seriously. I bought a Warhol “Soup Can” in late 1960s. In the early 1970s, I bought Jasper Johns, Jim Dine and Robert Rauschenberg.

There was a whole group in Kansas City who was interested in contemporary art at that time.

I joined the Contemporary Art Society at the Nelson-Atkins, and I was the chair of a couple of shows, including Dale Eldred’s “Sun Structures, Time Incident” and the big “Wheat and Steak” celebration of agribusiness by the Spanish artist Miralda.

With Miralda, we took over the 1981 American Royal Parade and had floats that incorporated 10,000 ears of corn. At the Board of Trade, Miralda created a wall of bread that he used as a screen for a slideshow of the history of American agriculture. It was one of the first public art projects for the community. It was very inclusive, and everyone loved it.

Your husband told me he gave you a Victor Babu charger for a wedding ring, and you gave him a Ken Ferguson basket.

I’ve always done ceramics. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, I bought works by Ferguson and Babu, Jim Leedy, Paul Soldner and Jun Kaneko.

But I think of photography as your specialty.

Gloria Baker Feinstein brought the first really good photography to Kansas City, and there was a small group that started a nonprofit space in the River Market. It was called the Society for Contemporary Photography. When John O’Brien opened Dolphin gallery in the Crossroads, I convinced the SCP to go to the Crossroads.

And what did you collect?

Diane Arbus was the first photograph I bought. I drove my daughter Kathy to college in Boston, and we went to a gallery. They had three photographs by Arbus. Kathy wanted the little boy with the hand grenade; I chose “Woman With the Mask,” from a series she did of people in a mental health hospital. I paid very little money — a couple hundred. People were just starting to show photography then.

That trip was the beginning of sharing my love of photography with my daughter. She has an eye. Kathy eventually moved back to Kansas City and became the director of the SCP.

And what are these other pieces you have grouped with the Arbus?

The Society for Contemporary Photography used to issue a collector’s print, and one of the photographers we supported was Tseng Kwong Chi (1950-1990) from China. That’s his image in the stairwell with the Arbus and a piece by Alexander Rodchenko and another by Luis González Palma, a contemporary Guatemalan photographer.

Your collection is international in scope. Tell me about the Bernd and Hilla Becher piece.

It’s from their Water Towers series. I went to New York to buy a photograph by Hiroshi Sugimoto. When I left Kansas City, it was $10,000. When I got to New York, it was $20,000. I went to Sonnabend Gallery and saw the Becher piece. There’s not anyone who hasn’t been influenced by them. They teach you how to see and how to document.

And you also collect photographic works by Kansas City artists.

That’s a vintage car close-up by Richard Loftis. Mike Sinclair did the color image with all the discarded signs. The small piece with the two costumed figures is a picotage print by Paul Anthony Smith. He’s the youngest artist in the collection.

What attracted you to photography?

I think it’s a really interesting medium, and when I look back, there’s always been an element of photography in a lot of the work I’ve collected over the years, including the Warhol and the Rauschenberg.

I know your Warhol “Soup Can” is on view at the Nelson-Atkins. Tell me about the piece that you lent to the Nelson’s current exhibit of contemporary photographic portraits.

It’s by a Japanese photographer, Tomoko Sawada. She does photos of herself at photo booths. For mine, she took 25 poses and made four prints of each and put it in a 10-by-10-inch frame. I purchased it at an AIPAD (Association of International Photography Art Dealers) show.

For me art is about ideas. When you see someone who knows how to see something and show it in a unique way, that’s what attracts me. It’s all about ideas. It’s not about beauty.

To reach Alice Thorson, call 816-234-4783 or send email to athorson@kcstar.com.

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