The Art Of Community Building

Albert Scaglione grew up in Nutley, New Jersey, a good Italian boy who knew how to work. When he was eight he began tagging along on weekends with his father, who drove a truck and hauled industrial waste.

He spent his Saturdays slinging bricks, hunks of metal, chunks of plaster and sundry junk into the back of his father's truck. He'd pull a nylon stocking over his head to filter the dust and use a pickax to break slabs of plaster into manageable chunks. It was dirty, physical work, but he was good at it, and eventually so reliable that his father could go grab a cup of coffee while Albert filled the truck.

When he was 16, Albert's mother decided he'd had enough of the garbage business. She arranged a summer job with a cousin, Paul Borghi, who owned an art gallery.

Albert went to work for his cousin, stretching and varnishing canvases, framing artwork and hanging it on the walls.

"My hands were clean; I didn't have to wear a nylon stocking over my head," said Scaglione, now 68. "The smell of varnish is still lovely to me."

Scaglione is founder and CEO of Park West Gallery, a Southfield-based art gallery with 1.2 million customers around the world. The gallery has a massive second location in Miami Lakes, Fla and sells artwork on 70 different cruise ships. Together with his wife, Mitsie, Scaglione has built the gallery into something uncommon in the art world – a place where collectors and curious consumers alike can appreciate, learn about and buy fine art. And as the gallery has thrived, the Scagliones have shared their success with the community.

Giving back

They open the elegant, 63,000 square-foot Southfield gallery to any 501c3 charity that wants to use it for a fundraising event. At least once a month the gallery lends its space rent-free, donates catering services, cash and art for auction so the charity can come away with pure profit. Proceeds can top $100,000. Scaglione likes to think of it as a place in the community where the answer is, "Yes."

"They were so generous and so kind to our coalition," said Peggy Burkhardt, marketing and public relations director for of the Donate Life Coalition of Michigan, which raised an average of $30,000 at each of four fundraisers at Park West. "I'd go so far as to say a lot of the reason we still exist is the generosity of Albert and Mitsie. That's our major fundraiser, and we created it at Park West… I will always remember what they did for us. When we really needed somebody to take chance on us, they did."

Their commitment is more than checkbook-deep.

Moved by their faith and by the stories of young girls struggling to survive after aging out of the foster care system at 18, the Scagliones started the Park West Gallery Foundation. Through the foundation and their church, Tree of Life Bible Fellowship, they've become the surrogate grandparents to more than 30 teenage girls. "Their girls" call them at all hours of the day and night, celebrate holidays with them, go on trips, ask them for advice.

"They really just treat them like any grandparents would," said Kevin Sendi, executive vice president for operations at New Oakland Face to Face, a mental health program that has donated care to some of the girls. "I think the relationship really helps strengthen (the girls') self esteem. They know someone out there that really cares, and it makes them more motivated to accomplish things. If Albert and Mitsie weren't around that's 30-40 girls who would probably be doing drugs, on the street, prostituting themselves or doing whatever they could to make ends meet."

The Scagliones would like to see the foundation grow into a vast network of mentors and supporters. There's no shortage of people who need that kind of help, Albert Scaglione says, and no reason to expect government or social agencies to solve all of society's problems.

"Even when you do an excellent job parenting in a two-parent home, you can't send them off at 18 with all their belongings in a garbage bag and expect them to survive," said author and longtime Detroit sportscaster Eli Zaret, who's negotiating with one local television station to air a five-part series on foster care age-out and the Scagliones' efforts. "It's easy to make out a check if you have money, but giving the gift of yourself and your time, your interest and availability – that's the greatest gift of all."

A different perspective

Much as he enjoyed working in his cousin's gallery, young Albert went on to study engineering, eventually specializing in magnetohydrodynamics – a discipline that involves the dynamics of electrically conducting fluids.

In the late 1960s he taught at Wayne State University while working with NASA to create materials to protect astronauts from the extreme atmosphere of Mars.

But in 1968 the space program dropped the project and Scaglione realized that the government had no use for his expertise beyond weapons research.

His heart wasn't in it, so after an agonizing year he left and started an art gallery.

It was different from the beginning – high quality, meticulously collected artwork without the intimidating high-mindedness galleries can foster. Individual pieces still start at less than $100 (though they range to almost $1million).

The movement toward conceptual art, says gallery director Morris Shapiro, has nudged visual art out of our everyday experience. Park West tries to bring it back The gallery's collections include works by Rembrandt and Picasso, pioneering kinetic artist Yaacov Agam, and Bugs Bunny creator Chuck Jones.

"People go to a museum and they're confronted with a pile of bricks, a dirty ashtray, a shark in formaldehyde," said Shapiro. "And they feel let down because nothing's enriching to them. We're trying to pull the pendulum back and reintroduce art into people's lives. One of the most basic needs of human beings is to find meaning in marks on paper."

Scaglione opened his first gallery in 1970 in a 20x60 storefront on Nine Mile Rd. He advertised his weekly auctions with a big sign on a trailer parked out front, and took the auctions on the road, too - first to Toledo and Flint, and eventually as far as Florida and Texas.

He absorbed everything he could about art history and cultivated relationships with artists who impressed him, then used everything he knew to make his auctions informative and fun. People not only bought art, they came back – sometimes they'd apologize for missing a week.

Park West's auctions haven't changed much in that regard, though now the gallery has about 300 intensively trained salespeople and auctioneers who continue the legacy. Scaglione cultivates an atmosphere of unwavering customer service. Salespeople typically spend 5-6 months in training and before they're allowed to actually sell anything. Scaglione brings artists and customers together whenever he can to give his customers the best possible buying experience.

"One of the things we like to do is slow down the selling process," Scaglione said. "I really like the cruises because they give people 7-10 days or even 3-4 days. That's plenty of time to make a better and more informed decision."

Park West won't reveal specific sales numbers, but Shapiro says the gallery grossed nine digits last year and sold hundreds of thousands of pieces of art.

"With 1.2 million customers can you satisfy everyone?" Scaglione asks. "We're going to try."

Staying put

The Scagliones travel extensively and have family around the country, but they live a mile from the gallery. Despite the logistical temptation to run the whole operation from Florida, they're committed to staying in Michigan.

Behind the gallery's crisp white walls work more than 150 of their reasons for staying. Park West employees catalog artwork, take customer service calls, work with artists, train new staff. Many have been with the gallery 20 years or more.

"If you're looking at it as all numbers you could probably say there are a lot of reasons to leave, but it isn't all numbers," Scaglione said. "The company is nothing but people. If you move the company you've got to move all the people, and they wouldn't all go."

Scaglione also doesn't buy bleak southeast Michigan economic outlook a lot of people sell. He points to an infrastructure built to support a bigger population, and to the concentration of universities, and the diverse and educated group of people they attract.

"The city has its issues, but there's a great spirit here," he said. "I think the work ethic in this city is as good as it gets."

Every month Scaglione hosts artists and buyers from all over the world and shows them the best of metro Detroit while they're in town. They stay at the Townsend Hotel in Birmingham, visit the Detroit Zoo, cruise the Detroit River on Detroit Princess Riverboat and dine in the best downtown restaurants.

"Have we been tempted? Sure," Scaglione said. "But we have great friends here; we have a great community. If you've been successful, it's a good place to stay and give something back."

Amy Whitesall is a Chelsea-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in the Ann Arbor News, the Detroit News and Seattle Times. Her previous article for metromode was Among Us: Arab American National Museum.


Park West Gallery

Albert Scaglione

Peggy Burkhardt

Albert Scaglione

Morris Shapiro

Albert Scaglione

Photographs by Marvin Shaouni
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